Every year during Winter Music Conference week since 1999, the Ultra Music Festival has been one of the biggest draws for electronica fans, attracting superstar DJs such as Tiesto, Carl Cox and David Guetta. And every year, the festival changes.
This time around, Ultra — which has ballooned into the biggest dance-music festival in the world — moves from Bicentennial Park in downtown Miami, the future site of the new Miami Art Museum, back to nearby Bayfront Park from Friday, March 23 to Sunday, March 25, where it reigned from 2001-05. But the spirit of UMF hasn’t changed: It’s only grown stronger.
The Woodstock of the dance-music generation drew 150,000 fans last year, which was the first time the festival was expanded to three days. This year, more than 165,000 people are expected to attend Ultra, which sold out within 20 minutes of when tickets became available. Obviously, the move back to Bayfront Park isn’t a cause for concern for its organizers.
“We’re actually very excited about it,” says UMF co-founder Russell Faibisch. “It’s larger than Bicentennial as far as usable space goes, and we’re customizing and reconstructing some of the park to accommodate the show.”
And it’s a much more pleasing venue.
“The greatest thing about Bayfront Park is it’s all grass and it’s a much prettier landscape with waterfront views,” adds UMF co-founder Adam Russakoff. “And it’s not in a construction zone and all pavement like Bicentennial was.”
Of course, aesthetics aside, the reason people flock to Ultra is the music, and this year’s lineup is nothing short of amazing.
“It’s the best yet,” Faibisch says. “For me personally, Justice live is something that I can’t wait to see. I believe it’s the first time they’re playing live in South Florida. And Kraftwerk is gonna be tremendous — it’s been so long since they’ve been here. There are so many great, new, fresh things for Ultra. Like New Order has never played, Miike Snow has never played, and it’s the first time Sven Vath has ever played Ultra — he’s doing the Carl Cox and Friends arena on Saturday. And Chase & Status are coming here from the U.K., where they’re just massive headliners.”
In fact, Chase & Status — whose drum-’n’-bass and dubstep beats take over the stage Sunday night — are so massive that they were the biggest-selling British act of 2011. The duo brings its stunning live show to Miami for the first time.
“We have great visuals and a really exciting light show, so that brings a great visual element to our live show,” says member Saul Milton. “We’ll also have a few special guests performing onstage with us. The live show always tends to cause carnage, and we don’t expect anything less from the Miami audience.”
Another act not to be missed is veteran British DJ Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Cook, whose big-beat sound is world-renowned, and who’s best known for his classic tracks Praise You, The Rockafeller Skank, Weapon of Choice and Right Here Right Now. He headlines Saturday night at Ultra, and has trouble recalling just how many years he’s attended the conference.
“Due to the nature of the wild times involved, I really couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been to WMC,” he says. “The memories are happy but very blurred. It is traditionally the annual get-together and hang for the dance music fraternity, so I look forward to catching up with many old friends. Apparently, some kind of business is also done at WMC, but I’ve never actually witnessed any realistic working going on.”
Fatboy Slim’s fans are in for a treat, as he’s planning on giving out 25,000 pairs of special glasses.
“So much for our surprise gift!” he said. “Palookavision spectacles give everyone a Norm’s-eye view of the world, and it’s a beautiful place. They also make everyone look like a ’60s sci-fi movie audience.”
Also headlining Saturday night is young Swedish DJ/producer Avicii (he’s only 22), whose bouncy, radio-friendly house sound graces the tracks Levels, My Feelings For You, Seek Bromance and Collide (with Leona Lewis) and Sunshine (with David Guetta). It’s his second time at the festival, but first as a headliner.
“It’s an amazing experience,” he says. “It’s one of the biggest if not the biggest electronic festivals for premiering tracks — it’s such a good way to get stuff out there. It kind of sets the bar as a showcase for 2012.”
Grammy-winning Dutch DJ Afrojack, one of Friday night’s biggest acts, says his fans can expect a lot of new music during his set.
“I just finished four weeks of recording new material in L.A.,” he says. “So I hope to have some very nice surprises for Ultra.”
He’s performing a solo set Saturday night at Mansion, but says he’ll always have a soft spot for UMF.
“Ultra is always special to me,” he says. “I love the crowd there, and it was one of the first major festivals in the States that gave me the chance to play for such a huge crowd.”
As enthusiastic as these young DJs might be, perhaps it’s the 48-year-old Fatboy Slim whose attitude best sums up the essence of Ultra, and WMC as well:
“I still get a complete buzz out of playing my favorite tunes to people and turning them on. What’s not to love? Every time I hear a new tune that rocks my world, I can’t wait to get out there and share it. I think I may have discovered the secret of eternal youth by feeding off the energy of rave.”
Photo: Tomas Loewy