In recent years, the Ultra Music Festival has evolved into a massive showcase for the more eclectic side of dance music during the Winter Music Conference.
While most hotel pool parties and nightclub events mainly feature the world's top DJs pumping out fresh and innovative electronic beats, Ultra's lineup offers the extra dimension of cutting-edge live acts. Previous years have featured bands such as The Cure, The Killers, Bloc Party and the Ting Tings, which inject a dance-friendly vibe into their alternative-rock origins. Last year brought us the Black Eyed Peas, a group that has swerved violently into the electronic music world, having immersed themselves into electro-funk (can you ever get I Gotta Feeling out of your head?).
This year's festival, which runs Friday, March 26 and Saturday, March 27 at downtown Miami's sprawling Bicentennial Park, brings a more old-school appeal, with acts known for enduring anthems such as Faithless (Insomnia), Groove Armada (I See You Baby) and Crystal Method (Busy Child) performing live sets.
And perhaps this year's biggest prize: On Saturday, British electronic-music pioneer Orbital makes its first U.S. appearance since reuniting last year. The group - consisting of brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll - has been creating beautiful, eerie, orchestral compositions since 1989, such as the epic, 28-minute piece The Box but took a five-year break in 2004 after the tour-album, tour-album grind became overwhelming.
At Ultra, Orbital fans can expect to hear tried-and-true tunes, albeit probably not performed exactly as they remember them.
“We've improvised with the structure of our songs,'' said Phil Hartnoll. “They can last a minute or an hour, and we've been doing all the old favorites. We haven't got any new stuff into the live set, so it'll be jam-packed with the Orbital best.”
Such a coup is nothing new for the Ultra festival, which is celebrating its 12th year. Organizers Russell Faibisch and Alex Omes have been booking top dance-music talent since its initial year, which featured German trance king Paul van Dyk. This year is no
exception, with Friday headliners including Tiesto, David Guetta, Josh Wink and Carl Cox. Saturday's lineup brings Deadmau5, Sasha & John Digweed, Paul Oakenfold and DJ Icey, among dozens of other acts.
“This year's lineup at Ultra is the deepest we've ever had,'' said Faibisch. “Every area, every stage at the festival, every genre that's being represented, is just amazing - from dubstep to house, trance and electro.”
In addition to the more familiar names, the duo strives to expose the crowd to hot new acts as well.
“We try to compile the best of the new artists with the best of the old artists,” said Omes.
Faibisch adds: “Every year we mix it up, with great alternative acts like The Killers and The Cure. It just depends on how things are flowing, who's touring, what's available. This year, one of the hottest indie-rock acts is Passion Pit, and we're really excited to have them. Another really cool addition is electropop singer Little Boots, who’s become really huge in the U.K. Really, in all areas, we're just hitting it really hard, from the alternative world of 8-Track and Major Lazer to electro artists Boyz Noise and Steve Aoki.”
Another act that offers more than a DJ standing behind his equipment is Las Vegas big-beat group the Crystal Method - consisting of Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland - which brings a rock 'n' roll attitude to the stage on Friday.
“We've got about an hour to go up and do a fun live set,” said Kirkland. “We haven’t had a chance to play at Ultra for awhile, and in that amount of time we’re gonna bang through the stuff that we think the crowd will be into. We've gone in and updated all our classic tracks - Busy Child, Keep Hope Alive - and just made them a little bit more current, but kept the vibe of the originals.”
A few years ago, rumors ran wild that the Winter Music Conference was moving to Vegas. Kirkland offers his perspective: “I heard those rumors, but I think it’s like an NFL team threatening to move to another city unless they get the stadium they want. It was being thrown around, and I’m not in on any of the WMC board meetings, but there was talk of them having a conference in Las Vegas. I do think a conference in Vegas would be a lot of fun, but Miami is the perfect place for WMC - there's no other place where it would work as well. It's the perfect fit.”
Ultra at night. Photo: Tomas Loewy