“I love you. I love you so much, I’ve brought you a gift. Although, you see, I can’t really give it to you.” DJ Mag watches in quiet amazement as a Bulgarian man — one of a pair of identical twins — presents Hardwell with his forearm, complete with a 10-inch Hardwell tattoo. Hardwell, natural showman on and off the stage, manages a “Well hey! That’s great buddy!”
In other situations, this set-up may feel extreme. But in Sofia, land of tower blocks and gold-topped palaces, of gigantic men in gigantic cars and disarmingly friendly demeanours, nothing seems out of place.
We’re in a press area, where some 30 or so local media, camera crew and a handful of super-dedicated fans now crush around Hardwell, resting-scowls immediately replaced by dizzying awe as the man himself patiently poses for selfies, hugs, smiles to cameras, opens schools, kisses babies, and so forth. Every single one makes adamant song requests.
“Wow. You guys have basically planned my whole set!” he laughs, before his entourage efficiently whip him out of a side door and down the concrete corridor complex underneath the city’s sports hall. Already above us the booming thud of several thousand Bulgarians bouncing to Dutch upstarts Ryan Marciano & Sunnery James can be heard.
“It’s awesome. But it’s not a surprise. I played here way back, years ago before I was known. One of the best gigs I’ve ever done. It was to just 400 people, in a venue in town, but the atmosphere was totally electric. Bulgarians, they go for it,” Hardwell explains, now in his dressing room.
Upstairs, back out on the main arena floor, and you can feel the electricity Hardwell hints at. The room’s hot, rammed from the barriers to the back with a crowd of some 8,000 Bulgarians, ranging from maybe high school leavers all the way up to early 30 somethings.
Ryan Marciano & Sunnery James are sweating under a hot spotlight on the decks, receiving numerous Bulgarian flags delivered to them by the crowd, laying down an interesting byline in early-noughties reworks, The Wamdue Project’s 'King of My Castle' and OnePhatDiva’s 'In & Out Of My Life' reverberating around the walls of the converted sports hall.
It’s chronologically fitting then, that up next is mid-noughties mastermind Fedde Le Grand. Fresh from his new live act, a touring ballet (“Dude....only you Brits call it a ballet,” he laughs backstage), there’s nothing Dying Swan about Fedde as soon as he’s on the decks — biceps jamming furiously to a set at turns expansive and tightly mixed, dropping in bits of Daft Punk, of Clean Bandit, weaving his way between mainstream hits and thrumming progressive, as he’s always done.
There’s a brief interlude. There’s an explosion first of sparks, then of confetti, then finally, of fire. Hardwell cruises past us on the stairs to the stage, crouches down, has a Jager shot and a ‘good luck!’ exchange with Fedde, then he’s off. Grabbing the mic and addressing a sea of smartphones, Hardwell’s address lasts no more than four seconds as the decade-in-the-making DJ is itching to get down to business.
Opening with a no-holds-barred EDM drop and continuing on a remorseless, gapless, driving progressive theme for the next two hours, the crowd heaves, pouring now over barriers and upstairs VIP balconies as guards oscillate between trying to maintain control and fist-pumping themselves. Hardwell now on the mixer, on the decks, headphones on, headphones off, navigating expertly, almost cautiously, a set path through the crowd. An Alesso banger drops, and a several-thousand strong acapella of Bulgarian-accented “If I lose myself tonight” ensues. There’s little time for introspection though — 2015’s Hardwell has stayed true to his promise of a renewed focus on club-tailored tracks.
Vocals have been swapped out for risers, big builds replaced by rolling, proggy drops. The dynamic of crowd and performer looks to have swapped: bodies on the floor rolling relaxed, shoulders back, eyes closed, bathed in the sound, whilst up in the cockpit Hardwell’s bouncing around like a man possessed. All the while the air is punctuated with the smell of scorched oxygen as fire cannons blow out at five minute intervals in this tiny hot pocket of this tiny hot country.
In the dying 15 minutes he grabs the mic again: “I love you guys!”. A girl in the front row bursts into tears. Another volley of sparks, of smoke, of confetti. Down on the floor sweat glistens on Bulgarians. This is their escape. Big room. EDM. The ultimate aspiration. And up there, silhouetted by powerful downlights, Hardwell in a place no-one can quite touch him, though plenty will continue to try.