- All photos courtesy of Ultra Music Festival.
The day was March 26, the city Miami, the festival-- Ultra. While the world's best in DJ and live electronic talent having already stormed the city for the several days of showcases, pool parties and 24 hour club binges known as Miami Music Week AKA Winter Music Conference AKA Spring Break, that was mere prologue. The real behemoth that kicks off festival season started its three day stint at Bayfront Park for its seventeenth year. A vast, multinational crowd showed up 50,000 strong (give or take a few), feverishly ready to take on seven stages with sounds ranging from the deepest of house to the biggest of room, and everything else in between. Little did anyone know that the skies would soon open up.
As the swell early birds stormed the festival's gate at 4PM sharp, led by streams of their nation's flags, swirls of fuzzy boots, and some well-earned sunburns, many chose to start their Ultra with Dutch future house wizard, Oliver Heldens' Main Stage debut main. His twangy house sound not only cemented his future as a festival mainstay, but was an indicator of the shifting sands of what defines the main stage sound. Compared to last year's stage, the relatively low-key design of this year's mainstage structure could be seen as a testament to the diluted power of the big room EDM sound that used to drive ticket sales to this and other fests.
Across the grounds, one of the Ultra's most defining and credible figures, Carl Cox, helmed his annual Carl Cox & Friends tent, where the Leeds-house sensation Hot Since 82 deployed some upfront rhythms, slow-building drops and punchy IDs from his hotly tipped Knee Deep In Sound imprint.
While the festival's early hours were marked by humid sun-soaked promise and first-day jubilation, at around 6PM, clouds began covering the picturesque backdrop of downtown Miami. It wasn't long before the rave gods cursed the Day One crowd with a massive rain storm, along with some serious winds. Attendees flocked to the few sheltered areas, some finding solace in the Cox arena where Drumcode royalty, Ida Engberg and Adam Beyer were playing a b2b set. The scene inside was humorous as half the crowd was in it for the techno, while the other half was just trying not to get electrocuted at the Main Stage where Dash Berlin was playing official Sam Smith remixes and "Sandstorm." (Sorry, Dash but... pass.) Some ravers just didn't give a fuck and danced in the rain; some even partook in a little slip 'n' slide action in the soaking grassy fields.
Todd Terje's highly anticipated live set, replete with a full band, was sadly cancelled along with the majority of the live stage's scheduled performances including Odesza and Chromeo. While the festival had heavily promoted the advent of its Resistance stage, Ultra's new hub for underground sounds that they would prefer not to call underground, it was hard to locate. On-site staff wasn't able to help much in this effort despite that being their explicit purpose. As one person wearing an orange staff t-shirt that read "Mission Control" said, "this is my first year at Ultra and I know nothing."
Wandering through the intermittent rain in search of the mysterious Resistance stage, Afrojack could be heard performing his now-annual Main Stage set. After saying hello to the mammoth crowd and a seemingly endless sea of Snapchatting, the DJ promised some new music, opening his set with "Ten Feet Tall" and an explosion of confetti and CO2. Still, even the most ardent of Ultra attendees can only handle monotonous Dutch house, rabid fist-pumping, and tired bootlegs of "Harder Better Faster Stronger" for so long. Thus, it was pizza o'clock.
Perhaps deterred by the process of finding it, a shamefully scarce crowd stood before DJ demigod Sasha at Resistance. The swamp-like nature of the area wasn't winning anyone over, but regardless, the new underground hub was a trippy tucked away oasis from Afrojack's trite yammering, and featured a clear enclosed 360 degree octagon structure surrounded by cast iron fire breathing lanterns, from which the DJ spun engrossing tech rhythms and his classically long builds. The stage architecture seemed to be slightly modeled after Burning Man's famed Opulent Temple and attendance aside the set felt like a true heady rain dance. FYI—only Sasha can get away with wearing sunglasses In a rainstorm. Upon dancing at The Resistance stage, which was located directly behind the main stage, and was perhaps intentionally hard to find, the area's moniker made a bit more sense. Maybe what the organizers really are going after is creating a place that resists what they know to be the Main Stage's somewhat diminishing array of sounds. People who occupy this zone are repping a front for something of a bit more character, that's not as easy and obvious to consume on all fronts. Stop saying underground just to say it, but keep it up Ultra.
Once the later hours of the evening arrived, Mother Nature's treacherous force really began to take hold. At this point many of the festival's patrons were soaked head to toe, freezing, and losing interest. Even with Marco Carola, Alesso, and Dixon dropping tracks at various stages. most just looked for a place to stay dry and warm. An exception was Carl Cox's opening set at his stage, a storied moment for Ultra year after year. Coupled with the fact that the man remains one of the most skilled and brightest personalities in the entire industry, the shelter of the mega structure created a crowded scene of epic proportions. Oh yes? Oh no.
The main stage was at impressive capacity for such an environment when Avicii made his long awaited return to the after a period of mysterious absence amidst a slew of health concerns. While the golden haired Swede has been MIA for some time, he delivered a substantially on brand performance. Somehow even after all these years, people lose their shit to "Levels" and "I Can Be The One" and as disgustingly played out as those seminal EDM anthems are, for many who occupied the crowd, it was their entry point into a passion for dance music. Even at a mere 25 years old, Bergling is a father figure of sorts for a great deal of the type of consumers that were in attendance during his set that set the stage for Tiësto's annual closing hour. Sprinkling some older classics, the expected bangers, and a new collab with Martin Garrix in which the youngster joined his mentor on top the historic decks, Tijs did what Tijs does, using his historic presence to dry up the skies, put some tears in their eyes— and closed out one of the rainiest days in festival history in fine form.
All in all, Ultra Day 1 was to say the least, a bit of a mess, and even more than usual—a total shitshow. Still, somehow, the many tens of thousands of fans proved once again they are some of the most devoted populations in festival culture and while many seemed a bit sad, wet, and over it, others seemed to not let the torrential downpour put even the slightest of kinks in their shuffle. It certainly didn't have the ecstatic vibe of (dryer) opening days, but luckily for us all, there's still two more days to look Mother Nature square in the grill and say: "We're the people of Ultra—that the best you got?