Photos by Danilo Lewis for THUMP.
The third day of Ultra's flagship festival in Miami started with a mixed bag of vibes. While some were still raging, others were raved out. Regardless of the energy level on the field, March 29, 2015 was the day that Ultra Music Festival crossed into the upper echelon of pop culture consciousness as a true global force of a festival to be reckoned with. At one point in the evening, the live stream had over 100,000 viewers, helping "#ultralive" become a global trending topic on Twitter.
A big part of that internet success can be credited to an unlikely source. After his legion of fans had been waiting patiently all day amid teasings and hints, Justin Bieber, the most maligned singer in the pop world, took to Ultra's Main Stage with Skrillex, the highest profile name in dance music. CL, ready to make her English-language crossover this year, joined Skrillex and Diplo for their track "Dirty Vibe." Hours earlier, human cupcake Ariana Grande made her Ultra debut alongside long haired future beat purveyor Cashmere Cat, only a day after Usher had joined Martin Garrix for a croon-collab during his set.
Ultra's global respect and dance music cred has lent itself to these kind of high-intensity cultural moments that can still feel raw or fresh even when they're meticulously planned. In 2012 it was Madonna's infamous appearance with Avicii in which she goaded the crowd about a girl named "Molly." In 2013, Swedish House Mafia's goodbye performances were the show stealer. In 2014, everyone was talking about Deadmau5's "trolling" of Martin Garrix with a play on "Animals" and "Old MacDonald." But Deadmau5 wasn't at Ultra this year (though he tried to insert himself into the conversation by attacking Krewella on Twitter) and Garrix was.
It was Garrix's management team, Scooter Braun Projects, who harnessed the power of the Ultra audience and the platform of its live stream like no one has before to showcase nearly its entire roster. Bieber, Usher, CL, and Grande (Braun clients all, along with Steve Angello who also played the Main Stage on Sunday) integrated seamlessly into the Ultra landscape and by extension the hand-held screens of kids around the world in a way that must have made Madonna envious.
Having a good host for these appearances is key, and none was as welcoming as Skrillex. Headlining Ultra for the second time (sans his spaceship), Sonny Moore's set made sure to deplete any energy the closing crowd had leftover from the weekend, with a nonstop set of skull-splitting sounds, including his older wobbly originals to a palette of trap, electro, Miami Bounce and a shit ton of other loudness. Still, the real event of Skrillex's set was the surprise guests: His Jack Ü cohort, Diplo, Kiesza, Kai, Diddy, and the aforementioned Bieber and CL. You don't see this shit anywhere else.
By comparison, Cashmere Cat being unexpectedly joined behind the decks by only one person, Ariana Grande, seemed like less of an event. Still, the singer competently delivered on two tracks produced with the artist, "Be My Baby" from her album and "Adore" from his. Grande even thematically sported her trademark cat ears which she gently placed upon the DJ's flowing golden locks at the set's closure. Even those who aren't Ariana Grande fans had to admit the way her appearance went down was pretty endearing.
The day's early hours were marked by slightly thinner attendance than days previous. That didn't stop the famously obsessive trance fam from showing up strong at one of Ultra's most timeless platforms, Armin van Buuren's famed globetrotting A State of Trance stage, which he hosts and broadcasts live from backstage. Later in the evening, Eric Prydz's appearance there created near chaos. It's not totally clear why he played in the ASOT stage in the first place (he doesn't play trance at all), but he drew such a large crowd, festival security had to close off entry points to the tent. The Swede's set was an airtight hour of his carefully blended smoothie of progressive house and stinging techno. Production in the tent was also awe-inspiring, with massive LED screens lowering only mere feet above the crowd. Even two police officers taking videos on their phone from a nearby ledge above seemed to be in disbelief.
Pete Tong turned up the energy at an otherwise sleepy early Resistance stage with a set that had the entire hill swaying in afternoon bliss. Guy Gerber kicked off the trippy tech house-leaning theme of the rest of the day's programming (Space Ibiza appropriately presented the day's lineup). Unfortunately for him and Apollonia who played directly after, it's a sound that doesn't quite feel right when the sun is still out.
With the exception of a few sets here and there, the UMF Worldwide tent was a bit inconsistent, but with some eyebrow-raising highlights. Those who haven't latched on to tropical house—the year's most "in" sound—could get down with Thomas Jack, probably because most tracks he dropped weren't actually tropical house. Even a house remix of "Oye Como Va" and a rinsing of Mylo's "Drop The Pressure" has its appeal.
One thing Ultra really thrives on is the fact so many artists choose to debut new projects and new records on its stages. If they haven't released it or teased it in the past month, the savviest of producers will premiere it during their Ultra set. Case in point, Claptone, who introduced his new "Immortal" set, playing alongside another anonymous dude from behind two LED-adorned monoliths. The set seemed to have been scheduled a bit early for the Sunday crowd, with slightly low attendance that limited its potential. Those who were there got a golden face mask, free of charge.
Another debut came from Krewella, who premiered their live show with a full band that included a drummer and grungy guitarist on the Live Stage. The Yousaf sisters let loose their obvious hits and randomly fumbled through such covers as "FourFiveSeconds." Attempting to mix an ambitious amount of genres ranging from screechy dubstep, to electro, hardcore and even some nostalgic 90s-style beats, it came off a bit jumbled. Deadmau5 even helped circulate rumors their CDJs weren't plugged in (they were).
Porter Robinson also brought his live show to Miami for the first time, artistically performing a somehow workable mix of everything from his early electro, to the computer-pop bliss of his 2014 album. In front of a packed crowd, Robinson brazenly performed his own vocals, cementing his place as a leader of his generation of DJs and producers.
Paul Oakenfold was given closing duties over at ASOT, but nobody could deny the force that came before him in the form of Armin van Buuren. While he still carries the banner for trance, his own personal has shed any sense of it's trance-purist roots for something far more party-ready and appealing to an audience beyond the #trancefamily. It's probably wise to evolve with the times, but in many ways, true trance is kinda dead.
Like any festival that costs around $450 for a three-day pass, not every set at Ultra was top notch. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better showcase of the world's most high profile, on-trend, and diverse, spread of electronic music. While the (mostly) beautiful weather and unparalleled setting are certainly assets, the creative programming of all three days was impressive. Ultra is designed in such a way that many stages can flip a genre-switch in a way that not only creates a sonic balance but can foster discovery for new music.
Still, many of Ultra's younger fans aren't only in need of a musical education but a rave schooling as well. Too many kids could be seen throughout the weekend, passed out on the grass, with friends without a clue of what to do (there's no shame in asking for help, people). It's not only everyone's responsibility to take advantage of Ultra's nonstop flow of music, but to also watch out for the people who are there to enjoy it with you.
As successful as Scooter's kids were in their takeover of the Main Stage, the Ultra stage belongs to the fans. There will always be big name DJs (and perhaps even bigger celebrity guests) to be one of its many moving gears, but it's the fans below who keep the engine running. It might still have a few glitches (this year's new clear backpack rule didn't stop anyone from doing anything they were already planning to do), but fueled by the rave generation, Ultra is only getting bigger, faster, and more powerful.
David's legs feel like Jell-O, but he wouldn't have it any other way. @DLGarber