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Ultra 2011

The aftermath

You may have followed the gonzo tweeting from our roving US reporter, Drew 'Drewzilla' Millard, on the ground at Ultra Festival, Miami, for 2011’s huge three day event.

Here we unearth his in-depth critique, retrieved from the kind of swamped inbox you only get when attempting to do a week’s work from Ocean Drive…

Ultra Day One

Day One of the Ultra Music Festival 2011 is behind us. We laughed, we cried, we people watched, we tried and failed to blend in…

Perhaps in order to explain why my Ultra 2011 coverage is going the way that it’s going, I should properly introduce myself. My name is Drew Millard. I like pizza. I am an American. If I could have lunch with any three people, living or dead, they would be David Foster Wallace, Diplo and The Notorious B.I.G. I am from a town called Columbus, North Carolina, which is in America. Nobody in my town has ever heard of house music. I hadn’t heard a bleep or a bloop of it either, until I spent six weeks last summer interning for DJ Magazine in London, where I received a crash course in electronic music from Avicii to Zomby. Now, I can’t get enough of the stuff. I occasionally still write stories for DJmag and they were kind enough to let me go down to Miami to cover Ultra for them. I’ve got control of their Twitter account (@DJmag) and I’ve been tweeting up a storm for them. So far, it’s been an absolutely gonzo time…

My Ultra adventure began at lunchtime when a friend of mine mentioned that water was not to be allowed in the festival and that it would cost festival goers $5 per bottle. Being the civic-minded young fellow that I am, I took to DJmag’s Twitter to announce the news and inadvertently sparked a debate over whether or not providing water for Ultra attendees was a human rights issue. Verdict amongst my friends and I: it’s not, but charging $5 for twelve ounces of water can severely kill the good vibes at a festival.

Internet mini-controversy solved, it was time to make our way to the festival grounds. The thing about Ultra is that it’s held smack dab in the middle of Miami which means you have to drive to the grounds each day, affording you a beautiful tour of the city. Miami is somewhat of an amazing city. As an American, I feel like I have to explain it. It is not like the rest of our humble nation. Miami is sort of like what would happen if a bit of Ibiza broke off, drifted towards Florida and then coated in a healthy layer of grime. Parts of it are impossibly beautiful and everyone in those parts dresses like they are either the hero or the villain of one of those mid-eighties police shows where someone drives around in a convertible solving very glamorous crimes involving cocaine trafficking and/or the murders of the practitioners of said cocaine trafficking. And then there is the rest of Miami which sort of looks like it’s been spat out of an episode of ‘The Wire’ by way of Mordor, with a couple of palm trees scattered about. The cheese stands alone, it’s strictly business, Bodie you should watch out for errant coconuts, etc.

Ultra is sort of an alien land within this bizarro version of America - while South Beach is full of linen-clad glammazoids, if you hop a bridge you get to Bicentennial Park, which is full of sweaty, dirty dancers.

And make no mistake about it. This year, there were more sweaty, dirty dancers than ever before, with roughly 150,000 people in attendance. And upon my arrival to the grounds at around 5:45 PM Eastern Standard Time, it seemed like there were 10,000 of them in a line at the gates. It seems that this is the year that Ultra has blown up and become not just a big name on the dance music scene but the music scene in general.

As a rule, we Americans tend not to like music you can dance to, unless it is brought to us with someone giving very specific instructions to the listener (i.e. Soulja Boy’s ‘Crank Dat’, ‘The Electric Slide’, etc.). Which makes it so astounding that in this day and age dance music, which very rarely features lyrical instructions and often has hardly any lyrics at all, is becoming huge in America. And nothing is more emblematic of this than 50,000 kids crammed in a park dancing their asses off to Fedde Le Grand, which is the sight that hit me when I entered the festival grounds.

After Fedde quit the stage to let it smoulder for a few minutes, it was time for me to conduct the two interviews that I had scheduled for that day, including one with Skream and Benga. Except when I hit the media tent, I faced a desolate land, one with absolutely zero dubstep heroes to be found.

Following a few desperate phone calls (several to wrong numbers), I was informed that both of my interviews were actually scheduled for Saturday. This was all good and well, except that I had already scheduled something like five interviews for that Saturday, meaning by the time you read this I will have either mastered the art of splitting myself into two wholly functioning halves or I’ll have found some help.

After my schedule had made itself surprisingly clear, it was time to check out as many acts as I could. First up was a few minutes of Benny Benassi, who followed up Fedde with a surprisingly dub-heavy set. Though I sometimes find him questionable, I’ll be the first to admit that he knows how to work a crowd. That is, until he dropped James Blake’s ‘Limit To Your Love’, it’s thirty seconds of plaintive coos raising an army’s worth of eyebrows. But since this is Benny Benassi we’re talking about, the one moment of clarity soon turned into a maelstrom of sub-bass and the crowd was back in business.

The next act I caught was DJ Icey, who despite his age (Perhaps forty? It’s so hard to tell with DJs) was catering to the young’uns, blasting edits of Kid Cudi and other songs that I am probably too old to recognize. Either way, his bass was so loud that I swear to some indescribable deity that I could not feel my throat when I was in the front row.

I caught a particularly tooth-rattling set by Royksopp and then jetted over to see Avicii along with approximately ten million of my closest friends. They had him squeezed inside one of the smaller tents for some reason, which made the crowd bunch in and create a situation that was supremely uncomfortable. There was barely enough room to think, let alone dance, and so it was back to the main stage to check out Tinie Tempah, who had a whole twenty minutes to himself.

You have to hand it to him, though. To only have one song – ‘Pass Out’ – that Americans are familiar with, he still rocked the stage and managed to keep the crowd entertained through a string of non-hits and snatches of him rapping over other people’s songs.

Tinie was done in two blinks of an eye, with Pendulum immediately taking the stage afterward. I have a confession to make: I have no idea who in the world Pendulum are. They seem to be some sort of live band who make drum and bass, and also rock music. I looked them up on Wikipedia, and apparently they are from Australia. Weird.

After Pendulum went off, it was time for the big headliner, the man who to some makes the sun rise and set, Tiësto. I’m not a particularly big fan of trance, and I can’t say I have an opinion either way on Tiësto himself other than some reservations regarding the placement of that umlaut over the ‘e’ in his name. But to watch the way he took control of the crowd and had them completely enraptured was to witness something special. I can’t say I’ve been won over to the T-man, but at least now I sort of get what the fuss is all about.

Ultra Day Two

The official motto of Ultrafest should be, ‘Just go with it.’ With so much crazy shit going on each day, if you spent even a minute trying to comprehend it all your brain might start steaming. So if you have to pay $5 for a bottle of water, just go with it. Boys Noize gets replaced by bluegrass? Just go with it. If a stranger comes up to you, winks at you, hands you a lollipop and then leaves, just go with it. Well, probably don’t do that last one. Don’t take candy from strangers.

Ultra Day Two started out for me not with a bang, but a whimper. I awoke feeling as if Friday had drained the life out of me, which considering I danced for twelve hours straight and then stayed up wrangling a Felix Cartal interview outside of the Cameo nightclub on South Beach where lots of people were standing around waiting to go inside and do things that they would profusely deny the next day.

Speaking of profusely denying things the next day, was I the only one who kept seeing pairs of fraternity brothers kissing each other on the mouth? Just an observation. Moving on.

Thanks to the power of 5-Hour Energy Drinks, I managed to pull it together and drag myself to the festival grounds just in time to catch a set by Steve Aoki, who did his whole L.A. electro thing and had the crowd, mostly American university types, going absolutely bananas. When he dropped his edit of Kid Cudi’s ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ I thought someone was going to upend the stage with excitement. It wasn’t all sunshine and daisies, however, as Aoki was plagued by sound issues and his facial hair looked like it could have done with some trimming. Still, a solid set from a man with solid facial hair.

Following Aoki was an intimate set by Adrian Lux in the Heineken Tent, after which I had to begin my first of approximately nine million interviews that I had scheduled that day. I had a quick chat with Mowgli and then went back to the Heineken Tent where my friend Dylan had started chatting with Lux after his set and arranged a quick interview between the two of us. Lux and I talked about music some, but mainly we talked about chicken and living on desert islands. Great DJ, great guy to talk to. Then, I jetted to the Artist Check-In tent to talk to Mad Decent’s Blaqstarr about spirituality and M.I.A. His Mohawk is killer.

Since I had conducted three interviews in rapid succession, I decided to reward myself with a bit more music-watching at the Live Stage where I caught Skrillex doing his thing, playing songs with bass that goes ‘WOWOWOWOWOWOW’. All in all, his set was altogether populist, if a bit on the sloppy side and honestly I liked him better when he was in From First To Last. Still, at only 23 Skrillex has unlimited potential at this point and could very well be the one who successfully brings dubstep to the American mainstream.

My compatriots and I then headed to the Main Stage to watch Afrojack perform a stellar set to what would turn out to be an absolutely MASSIVE crowd. There was a skywriter writing things about Lady Gaga as well and we all started freaking out because we thought Dame Gags herself might make a special guest appearance, but it turned out to be a complete red herring.

After mounds of disappointment, I went to do some more interviews. I ended up talking with Oliver from Detroit Grand Pubahs for nearly half an hour. Our interview began with him insisting that he was a medium for a small paper cup and only got better from there. He then insisted that I interview his manager, who had some great things to say in terms of giving advice to children as well as dropping the bomb that Dr. Dre has a financial stake in Burning Man.

My interview hour finished, it was time to catch some more tunes. First up was Skream and Benga, who are truly a joy to watch live, egging each other on and whipping the crowd up into a complete frenzy. Then we caught about the first half of Rusko. I know that he can generate a bit of controversy but trust me – Rusko was exactly what this festival needed. The consummate entertainer, he kept the crowd moving, did his own MCing, and also danced like I have never seen another humanoid life form dance. Absolutely electrifying.

Since even watching Rusko was making us tired, we decided to cap off our night by watching Cut Copy rip up the live stage. It’s an odd thing, watching a band play after you’ve been conditioned to watching DJs for an entire weekend and a unique challenge from a band’s perspective. But the band performed valiantly, and had the crowd singing along and dancing like there was no tomorrow. Unfortunately for those in the crowd, it turned out there was in fact a tomorrow…

Ultra Day Three

The final day of any music festival, especially a dance festival where you’re supposed to be moving for hours on end, is less about having fun and more about seeing if you can possibly make it to the end without losing it due to three days of sensory overload. You’re literally tired of having fun and yet you go have more fun anyway because you’ve already paid to be there so you might as well, y’know?

Anyway, my final day of Ultra 2011 got started late due to an emergency morning pool relaxation session with my fellow Ultra Warriors. However, we got to the festival grounds as quickly as possible, just in time to take in a killer set by Laidback Luke. There was a moment that rubbed me oddly, though – in the middle of some pulsing house, Luke dropped everything and put on an edit of Cee-Lo’s ‘Fuck You’. The crowd went ecstatic, but to be honest I was caught completely off-guard. Still, he touched upon everything and threw a couple classics in there so it was good enough for me.

After Laidback Luke came something of an oddity given the Ultra setting – a DJ set from none other than the mastermind of the Black Eyed Peas, Will.I.Am. Now, let me start by saying that Will.I.Am has had one of the craziest careers in the history of the music industry. He came up signed to Eazy-E’s label, got conscious and formed the Black Eyed Peas, added Fergie to the group and made them a commercial juggernaut, and now he and the rest of the Peas have gone completely off the commercial deep end. Still, Will.I.Am is capable of quality stuff – his production work for other artists can often be innovative and fresh and I’ve seen footage of him more than holding his own in a DJ battle with Cut Chemist that dates circa 2008. But when he took to the DJ booth dressed like a robot and talking through a vocoder, all of that evaporated from my mind and all I could do was stare in horror. The crowd didn’t seem to be too thrilled either, as the masses who had assembled to see Laidback Luke quickly dissipated and by the time Will.I.Am was doing his Black Eyed Peas songs, he had lost all but about one fourth of his crowd.

From there it was time to catch a second set from Steve Aoki at the Live Stage, one that was entirely more put together than his set from day two and much more sublimely ridiculous – Aoki used the stripped-down set-up of the Live Stage to interact with his audience, crowd-surfing, wading through the masses and even spraying them with champagne. It seems that 2011 was a very good festival indeed for Steve Aoki, as I found one of the most popular tracks of the weekend to be his edit of Kid Cudi’s ‘Pursuit of Happiness’, along with the Sub Focus remix of ‘Hold On’ by Rusko.

After Aoki had screamed his last scream, we went back to the main stage to see some of hometown hero Erick Morillo’s set, which featured live vocals from a New York house diva whose name is completely escaping me right now. Either way, it was sublime. Then we hit the Heineken Dome for some heavy, heavy dubstep courtesy of Zed’s Dead that featured mass skanking and even a bit of moshing.

From there, it was time to see Crystal Castles back at the Live Stage, which to be honest was a bit of a disappointment. Though the L.A. group is known for raucous live performances featuring the heroically drunken antics of lead singer Alice Glass, here she was subdued, her vocals tuned down in favor of pounding drums.

After Crystal Castles, it was the moment everyone – well, some people – had all been waiting for; Guetta. The crowd was anxious for his 8:45 set time. When the hour hit, there was house music pulsing from the speakers, but zero Frenchmen onstage behind the decks. Many audience members were already dancing, perhaps out of boredom, perhaps out of oblivion. It wasn’t until 9:00 that David Guetta finally descended upon the stage and proceeded to play lots of pop hits – not just his own – and bring out the American rapper Flo Rida as a special unannounced guest MC. The whole thing was very Miami, very pop pomp and spectacle, and people loved it.

And that, at the end of the day, is what the Ultra Music Festival is all about: having a good time.