Last year’s inaugural Electric Zoo, a two-day electronic-focused music festival held in New York City’s Randall’s Island Park on Sept. 4 and 5, certainly impressed attendees, but this year’s follow-up wowed an even more massive group. It sold out at 25,000 capacity both days, in contrast to 2009’s respective crowds of 15,000 and 11,000 over Saturday and Sunday. Given the times, that's quite an impressive feat. Filling a much-needed festival niche, attracting big-name talent (headliners like The Chemical Brothers and Armin van Buuren) and providing all the essentials to an amazing day out appears to have given Electric Zoo staying power. Here's a look at each of the elements.
Electric Zoo does a nice job of reflecting current electronic trends across many sub-genres: dubstep, electro, disco, trance, tech-house, and so forth. This year’s lineup seemed to go after slightly higher-tier artists, ranging from crowd-pleasing legends to blog-darling upstarts. As with last year, most sets were straight DJ’ing, yet there were a few full live sets and lots of added visual appeal, particularly on the main stage.
Saturday’s featured performers included Richie Hawtin, Pretty Lights, Claude VonStroke, Benny Benassi, Pete Tong, Flying Lotus, Paul Kalkbrenner, Afrojack, and main-stage headliners The Chemical Brothers. I got into the grounds just as the U.K.’s electro-wizard Erol Alkan took the decks. As always, E.R.O.L. Keeps Kids Dancing (surely you’ve seen the shirts by now?) with his careful building of full-on frenzies and expert banger-blending. Fake Blood followed with more awesomely heavy electro beats, leading into total hysteria when dubstep’s It Boy Rusko began. Even if you aren’t a dubstep aficionado, just watching the sheer euphoria of the crowd is a sight to behold, as is Rusko’s boyish gusto as he gets the fans going. Over on the main stage, Major Lazer’s hypeman/hypewoman Skerrit Bwoy and Mimi wowed the masses with their typically high-energy, drama-and-sex-charged stage show set to Diplo’s gritty beats. (No Switch, sadly, as has been the case with the majority of U.S. dates). The Chemical Brothers set the bar sky-high with their ultra-rare U.S. appearance, providing a breathtaking visual backdrop to stunning live renditions of new songs (“Swoon,” “Horse Power”) and slightly updated neo-classics (“Out of Control,” “Hey Boy, Hey Girl,” and “Star Guitar”). It was the perfect finale to a near-perfect day.
Sunday highlights included the likes of Laidback Luke, Above & Beyond, The Glitch Mob, Wolfgang Gartner, John Digweed, Bassnectar, Steve Aoki, Moby, Fedde Le Grand, and main-stage heavyweight Armin van Buuren. I started off the afternoon by checking out Grum’s ‘80s-tinged electro set on the main stage, which was enthusiastically received by the crowds who managed to get in early. Dusty Kid’s beautiful, blissed-out Sunday School Grove set was the perfect mid-afternoon prescription. Elsewhere, DJ Mehdi made a return visit to Electric Zoo, this time without his partner-in-crime Busy P, revving up the electro lovers with a tight and diverse set that actually started earlier and ended later than his scheduled set times, throwing in everything from “Gare du Nord” (his Carte Blanche collaboration with Riton) and his own “Pocket Piano” to tracks by L-Vis 1990 and Tiga, taking breaks here and there to get his own groove on. Aeroplane’s now-solo Vito DeLuca arrived a few minutes late but had no trouble re-amping up dancers with some requisite disco enchantment, including everything from Aeroplane mixes of George Michael’s “Faith” and Sebastien Tellier’s “Kilometer,” to brand-new single “Superstar,” to a sing-a-long version of Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.”
On the main stage, Boys Noize (a.k.a. Alex Ridha) slaughtered willing ears festival-wide with heavy electro madness that incorporated his own music, remixes, and collaborations (best moments: “Kontakt Me,” “& Down,” “Lemonade,” and “My Moon My Man”). Both Diplo (pulling double-duty after his Saturday Major Lazer set) and A-Trak’s back-to-back sets showed off their skills at mixing genres and knowing what the crowd wants, and that crowd returned the love. Though I left during Armin’s set (and trance is really not my bag), I can say that a huge portion of the Sunday crowd was there for him -- made pretty transparent by all the shirts emblazoned with his name.
The bottom line: Electric Zoo 2010 = total rager.
Randall’s Island Park has its pluses and minuses. On a positive note, dance music fans in the Northeast didn’t have to travel too far for a large-scale music festival (pre-Electric Zoo, Miami and Detroit were the nearest alternatives). Being in greater New York City also provides easy access to afterparties (Electric Zoo hosted one of these each night at Pacha, featuring the likes of Moby, Guy Gerber, and Robbie Rivera), airports, bus/train stations, and pretty much anything else you could possibly need. The park grounds are also a mix of greenery (nice job this year on the Sunday School Grove, which had actual trees growing mid-tent and a prettily lit jungle-esque DJ both) and cityscape backdrops.
On the downside, because downtown New York City doesn’t really provide an ideal locale for a festival of this size, the event is held a little further afield and is only accessible via car, ferry, or “special event bus.” In the interest of saving a few bucks and some time (and because I had already tried the ferry option last year), I went the subway/bus route, only to discover upon arriving at the bus queue that maybe 90% of my fellow festivalgoers had the same idea. After waiting in a line that wrapped around several city blocks for about an hour, a short bus ride took us to the grounds. On Day 2, I was tempted to find another method of transportation but decided to risk it and use the same -- only to find I could walk right on a bus. Not sure whether this was a happy accident, attendees were sleeping in post-afterparty, or organizers beefed up the buses, but it made for a much smoother start.
Four stages (three of which were in the form of tents) spread throughout the grounds made for easy navigation. The size of the grounds made for quick and easy jumping between sets -- the distance between two stages was never more than a 5- to 10-minute walk, and sound-bleed was rarely an issue. Never did a tent feel dangerously overstuffed, which shows careful planning on the part of organizers, who clearly had a firm grasp of audience draw for each artist. Security was vigilant yet generally amiable, intervening only when safety was called into question.
My only real gripe would be the chaos met upon Day 1 entrance to the grounds. After the long waits to be bused over, I was not exactly stoked to be met with a clusterf**k of hundreds (thousands?) of ticketholders clamoring to pass through the bag-check “line” (see the photo gallery for a proper visual). Riots were averted, but some better organization might have led to quicker entry. Thankfully the second day was a vastly different, way more efficient experience.
Though the Labor Day weekend weather in the Northeast can vary from disgustingly sweaty to hurricane-force winds and rain, Electric Zoo couldn’t have fallen on a more pleasant weekend. Bask-worthy (not burn-inducing) sun, balmy breezes, and deep blue skies dotted with perfect white fluffy clouds all helped make the experience more enjoyable for festivalgoers, especially considering they’d chosen to spend the holiday weekend listening to music in lieu of beach time. The nights were cooler, but after all that frenzied freaking out on the dance floor, who could complain?
Plentiful Porta-Potties, fairly priced food options (ranging from vegan meals to pan-Asian choices to standard American favorites), and conveniently scattered bars helped keep things easy for attendees. A newly added section for mobile food vendors was a nice touch, with the likes of organic ice cream, iced coffee, baked goodies, grass-fed beef, Indian, Mexican, barbecue, and more available for sale. I’m not absolutely certain, but I think the drink prices may have gone down from the previous year.
Other Diversions: B
If you don’t feel like eating, drinking, or dancing, there’s really not a lot for you to do at Electric Zoo. (Though if you weren’t there to dance, I'm not really sure why you bothered to show up.) People-watching here was the main sideshow event (clearly a few people had managed to sneak their illicit substances inside), but you could also get a post-dance-workout massage, engage in face/body painting, buy some souvenirs, or have your T-shirt “remixed.” Selected artists were available for autographs throughout both days. You could also spend some time admiring large-scale art like the graffiti’d school buses and “Living Objects” installation of LED-lit human forms.
Not unlike Miami’s Ultra Music Festival, the crowd seemed composed of roughly 50 percent potential Jersey Shore cast members, about 25 percent crazy hippie-raver kids, and 25 percent “everyone else” -- a wide-ranging demographic of electronic music heads who actually wore shirts and danced sans props. While I became increasingly annoyed by the occasions where hair extensions were flipped in my face or the time some dude hit me with his hula hoop (I guess an apology would have broken his attempts at getting back into the hooping “flow”), there were those brief moments when I felt a little PLUR-esque joy at being amongst throngs of fellow dance-music lovers, something we rarely get to experience in the U.S. on such a grand scale.
Yes, the use of props is starting to become ridiculously played out. Is it really necessary to lug around a stuffed cow at a music festival? Is showing off your badass devil-sticks skills more important than listening to some of the world’s finest electronic artists? Yes, fighting your way through packs of heavily muscled, gold-chain-wearing fist-pumpers and implant-a-plenty J-Woww lookalikes is no enviable task. Still, at least nearly everyone in attendance was dancing. Hallelujah.