Having been to what feels like 184 different U.S. music festivals, I feel pretty confident in saying this: Electric Zoo has easily become one of the best (dare I say the best, in a number of categories at least) festival we’ve got going. In its third year, the electronic music behemoth not only expanded to three days, but it became a supremely well-oiled machine, with nary a (non-user-generated) mishap to be found. Well done, Made Event — short of Coachella and Lollapalooza, I’ve never seen such a highly thought-out event.
Once again held in New York City’s Randall’s Island Park (Sept. 2-4, 2011), Electric Zoo hosted a total of 85,000 people this year (25K on Friday, 30K on both Saturday and Sunday) across four stages. Weather can sometimes make or break an outdoor event, but fortune was on Electric Zoo’s side, as the majority of the weekend called for sunshine and warm-not-sweltering temps, with just some cloud cover on Sunday — overall, about as close to perfect festival weather as you can get.
And of course, we all go to music festivals for the ... yes, music — something Made Event knows quite a bit about. Without further ado, here's a look at some of what went down at the Zoo this year.
Friday kicked things off with a definite air of excitement — energy’s always high at the start of a music festival, but add that to absolutely gorgeous weather and the start of a long holiday weekend and you’ve got an unbeatable combination. I arrived just in time for Tiga’s lengthy mainstage set — the globetrotting Canadian maestro launched straight into a no-bullshit, special-effects-free, seriously deep dance groove that served to educate the masses while making them move. A bit esoteric to start, things quickly got housier, with insertions of remixes of his own tracks like “Mind Dimension” and “Shoes” along the way. (I heard there was a mid-set technical difficulty, but didn't witness myself.)
I caught the beginning of Rusko’s by now standard, insanely high-energy set of frenzy-inducing dubstep, then headed out to an Ed Banger doubleheader. Record honcho Busy P stepped up first, unfortunately plagued by sound issues for the first 15 minutes or so of his set — the unflappable Frenchman took it all in stride, at one point walking off stage and directly into the crowd to check the audio (posing for an odd photo or two in the midst of the throng of fans), then later joking, “New York, you can’t pay for electricity? You’re fucking cheap!” Once things got resolved, the party continued with lots of crowd-pleasing disco, indie dance, electro, and old-school dance anthems in typical Ed Banger fashion.
Friday's highlight (for me) was SebastiAn's long-awaited live set — though the Ed Banger artist has been around for years and DJs frequently, this stop on his "Primary Tour" was one of the first times he's performed live. In a word: WOW. In what was hands down my favorite production of the festival (and tied for first-place favorite all-around set), the Parisian set forth on what was essentially an anarchic, post-apocalyptic dance party camouflaged as a bizarre political campaign. Remaining completely stoic the length of his performance (an act that belies his real-life penchant for humor), SebastiAn chainsmoked and beer-drank his way through his distinctly anthemic and subtly esoteric electro tunes, pausing only to raise an arm or two in the air in the exaggerated style of a dictator. "Vote SebastiAn for President" blinked repeatedly on larger screens amidst smoke, flashing lights, scenes of world devastation, and not-so-subliminal messages like "Deprivation," "Religion," "Lies," "Torture," "Unemployment," and "Betrayal." Simultaneously controversial, inspirational, and wildly entertaining, you'd be wise to follow this campaign trail when SebastiAn returns to the U.S.
Late word broke that Richie Hawtin’s much-anticipated Plastikman Live set was canceled due to residual set damage from Hurricane Irene. Huge bummer, though a replacement DJ set was offered in the same slot (in addition to Hawtin’s other scheduled Sunday DJ set). Tiesto capped off the main stage festivities for the night, playing to a rapt crowd of many thousands.
(Full disclosure: I was actually unable to attend Saturday’s event, but did hear lots of excited post-show chatter about the likes of Bloody Beetroots Death Crew 77, Skrillex, David Guetta, Carl Craig, James Holden, and Dirty South.)
Sunday’s closeout went out with a bang, and fortunately the weather held up through the very end. One of the day's highpoints for me came in the form of Carte Blanche, a.k.a. DJ Mehdi and Riton. [At press time we discovered the news of the tragic death of DJ Mehdi. Our sincere condolences go out to his family, friends, and fellow fans.] Though the Ed Banger stablemates played to a smallish crowd (the huge size of the tent seemed to emphasize this detail), they clearly are still enjoying their electromance: Huge smiles plastered on their faces the entire time, they expertly maneuvered through the best of both Carte Blanche party tracks ("Gare du Nord,") and their solo bangers (like Mehdi's "Pocket Piano" and Riton's remix of Hercules and Love Affair's "You Belong to Me"). Meanwhile, model-gorgeous, super-talented female dancers flanked the enormous DJ booth, rollerskating and busting moves — at the very end, both Mehdi and Riton joined them for a kinda hilarious pseudo-danceoff. Immensely good times, though most of y'all missed out.
Brazil's Gui Boratto made a rare U.S. festival appearance late afternoon — he genuinely seemed very pleased to be there, in a slightly shy way, while the rapt crowd appeared absolutely enchanted by his blissed-out waves of techno (highlight for me = "No Turning Back"). Elsewhere, DJ Snoopadelic (Snoop Dogg, you’re so sneaky!) played a typically fun hip-hop set filled with classic everyone-knows-this-one jams like MJ's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," Juvenile's "Back That Ass Up," and his own "Drop It Like It's Hot."
Admittedly, I was a little late to the Nicolas Jaar party, having heard so many raves but not having listened to much of his music — still, I wanted to check out his set, and was enormously glad I did: One of EZ’s few actual live acts, Nico and his three bandmates put on an elegant, polished, smoky-groove-vibed show that made me (a) incredulously wonder how they are (or at least Nico is) only 21 years old and only recently playing live sets, (b) incredulously wonder how I hadn't seen them play earlier, and (c) greedily wonder how soon I might get another fix. Slightly incongruous among the Zoo's flashing strobelights and glowstick-waving, yet that fact made the intimate set all the more magical.
A quick food/restroom break forced me to miss Diplo's stripped-down set — and by "stripped-down" I mean shirtless. (Though he usually sports some pretty dapper gigwear, I doubt any ladies were complaining about the lack of skin coverage.)
I didn’t see the wildly popular superstar DJ Armin Van Buuren perform, but I did get to witness how nuts even a bunch of usually jaded music journalists and photographers got when he made a two-minute appearance at the press tent. Instead, I capped off the festival with the frenzy over at the Boys Noize set. Looking sweaty and pretty thrilled to be there, Alex Ridha powered through an intense, high-octane set that let him get a bit more deep and dirty than when he played the main stage the previous year (a set mostly made up of fan favorites). Crowd enthusiasm was at an all-time high — a pretty awesome way to finish out the Zoo.
Randall’s Island is probably the easiest-to-reach large-scale venue in city limits, making it a convenient spot for both New Yorkers and out-of-town visitors. Accessible by ferry, MTA bus, or “festival bus,” ambitious attendees could even have taken a subway to 125th Street and walked about 20 minutes across the bridge to the event — regardless of option chosen, none required ridiculous waits or out-of-control costs. (From what I could tell, the overall flow was much improved from previous years — perhaps additional buses were used — as I can distinctly remember waiting in lines that wrapped around several city blocks waiting to board.) Also of note: Prior years resulted in the majority of (or all?) attendees coughing or sneezing up some nasty black stuff, likely the result of some grounds treatment (bleeghh). (Previous years had so many festivalgoers sporting bandanas around their noses and mouths the event began to look like some colorful bandit convention.) Thanks to the organizers' proactivity -- increased use of flooring in tents/on roadways, relocation of main stage to use existing pavement, and lawn treatment measures like additional irrigation, aeration, and fertilization -- we were all able to leave EZ “gross black stuff”-free this year.
Although better laid out in its first two years than most festivals, EZ clearly made an effort to improve their formula for an optimal attendee experience. The most significant change involved lining up all tents/stages — this generally resolved any sound bleeds and also seemed to make it easier to both find and move to the stage of your choice. The opposite side of the grounds was used for a lengthy succession of food vendors and miscellaneous other stands, while port-a-potties and other booths dotted the rest of the landscape. An additional VIP area was added for convenience, so attendees springing for the perk could more easily lounge, buy cocktails, and use trailer-style bathrooms no matter what end of the park they happened to be near.
Entry into the event also seemed much more streamlined this year, possibly due to the implementation of special encoded wristbands that just needed to be scanned at the gates. (I did, however, hear that a good portion of attendees did not receive theirs in time, as well as the fact that some were not told that the multi-day wristbands could not be removed at home until the last day of the festival ended, erroneously removing them and having trouble getting back in the following day.)
While dancing is clearly the priority (probably followed by eating, drinking, and finding restrooms), it’s always nice to provide festivalgoers with some added diversions when their schedules allow for some downtime. EZ offered some nice places to relax in the Garden of EZ, as well as some pretty cool eye candy (personal favorites were the dozens of disco balls hanging from trees, as well as the awesome glowing tree art at night). You could also get your face painted (presumably a well-attended attraction from the looks of a good percentage of festivalgoers), “remix your T-shirt,” buy some merch, and get free German condoms (which, apparently, made great balloons to bounce around tents as well …)
In sharp contrast to most zoos’ “please don’t feed the animals” policy, Electric Zoo clearly thought long and hard about the food on offer (perhaps taking a cue from Lollapalooza’s famous-chef-curated menus). In addition to sticking with “no sale of factory-farmed animal products” mandate, this was no $8 shitty pretzel fare (yes, Jones Beach, I’m looking at you): From falafel to pad thai to crepes to empanadas to Belgian fries to iced coffee to NYC mobile vendor favorites like Asia Dog and Pizzamoto, EZ had all gastronomical bases covered. (Have to say, everything I sampled was pretty damn tasty, too.) VIP ticketholders also had the option of order personal pizzas from the famous Brooklyn spot Roberta's. Special shout out to Mimi & Coco: Who knew teriyaki balls would be so amazing?
One area that could use some improvement, however, was the beverage situation. While you could queue up to refill your water bottle for free, alcoholic drinks were damn pricey (I believe the cheapest option was beer starting at $8). Again, if you didn’t have VIP access, your choices were limited to beer, wine, and champagne. Although I am not advocating for bringing the prices down so low the field becomes littered with passed-out partiers (as, clearly, there were enough of those as it was), but with the amount of money the festival is bringing in, would be nice to see them make the prices a bit more reasonable next year.
For whatever reason (the festival’s proximity to NYC? the wide range of artists in different electronic subgenres?), the EZ audience was definitely more diverse than that found at most other dance-focused events. Teenaged dubsteppers, “Jersey Shore” wannabes, cyberhippies, old-school danceheads, electro lovers, the “Sunday School for Degenerates” techno set … all types of electronic music fans represented and co-existed (peaceably for the most part – the often wildly different music at the various stages probably compensated for any culture clashes – that and, you know, PLUR …).
Yeah, people were often annoying, and yeah, some were obnoxiously wasted on whatever, but for the most part the crowd was not too terrible to manage. And the people-watching opportunities … priceless, as always. Props to some creative use of … props (serious trend toward people holding up things on sticks — yes, you are troopers, but is waving some mélange of colorful tchotchkes in the air on a big stick for 12 hours a day really conducive to getting your dance on?), and also to the effort some put into their festivalwear (Mario Brothers costumes? Check. His-and-hers outfits made primarily out of candy? Check.) On the other hand, do all these chicks with the glitter, fuzzy boots, fishnets, neon bra tops, etc., not realize that this look is not only unattractive but no longer "unique"? If this is the American version of “nu rave” culture, hoping it dies by next summer … And “gentlemen” … does wearing T-shirts proclaiming “I Have a Boner” and “My Cock + Your Pussy = Good Times” actually help your cause? Think about it.
Best quote (overheard on bus leaving festival): “We're gonna be fistpumping for weeks after this!”