For Miami music lovers, March Madness has nothing to do with basketball.
Instead, it’s that blissfully frenzied time of year when the Winter Music Conference sweeps into town, drawing hundreds of DJs and electronic dance-music (EDM) acts to the Magic City.
And unquestionably one of the conference’s biggest highlights is the Ultra Music Festival, which rocks Bayfront Park from Friday, March 28 - Sunday, March 30.
Almost every EDM artist worth a mention is on the Ultra bill, with each day’s lineup more jaw-dropping than the next. Friday brings Tiesto, Kaskade, Eric Prydz, Diplo, Zedd and the Carl Cox & Friends arena; Saturday boasts Avicii, Above & Beyond, Alesso, Armin van Buuren, Nicky Romero, Pete Tong and Carl Cox’s second and final evening; and Sunday wraps up the insanity with Paul van Dyk, Hardwell, David Guetta, Steve Angello (of Swedish House Mafia fame), Afrojack and Sander van Doorn.
And that’s just the main stages – there are dozens more tents and arenas catering to your every sonic desire, from underground electro and techno, to dubstep and trap, to blissful, Ibiza-style house and trance, plus live acts and bands including MGMT, M.I.A., Cut Copy, Dizzee Rascal, Infected Mushroom and Basement Jaxx. You name it, and you can find it at Ultra.
“It’s all just really stacked everywhere you look,” says Russell Faibisch, co-founder, president and CEO of Ultra Music Festival. “Where do you begin? There’s so many things, the lineup is incredible, and everything’s exciting.”
“We’ve definitely just upped the ante, upped the level of production, upped the crowd flow, and we’re really giving back a lot to the fans,” says Adam Russakoff, Ultra’s executive producer and director of business affairs. “When you put all those elements together, in the most beautiful city in the world, you have something magical called Ultra.”
There are even acts that no one has ever seen perform live before. This year’s festival marks the debut of superstar tag team Jack U, featuring Skrillex and Diplo, innovators in dubstep, moombahton and electro-house who routinely sell out mega-clubs around the world as solo artists.
“We’re going into different territories we haven’t even done on personal levels,” says Skrillex, real name Sonny Moore, who first gained fame as lead singer of the post-hardcore band From First to Last.
“The whole purpose [of Jack U] is to combine our sounds, which in essence I feel are very similar – maybe sonically they’re different, but we like collaborating with other people and doing stuff that’s unexpected, and continuously pushing sound. I think when we come together, our sounds really lend to each other well. And as far as the live experience, when you see the set, it’s definitely so unique – we’re playing some really good new music.”
Another must-see at Ultra is British techno wizard Carl Cox, who is celebrating 10 years of his Carl Cox & Friends tent , which has become its own draw as a mini-festival within the festival, an area that allows DJs more time to build and develop their sets. This year’s lineup features Luciano, Marco Carola and Maceo Plex on Friday and Loco Dice, Nic Fanciulli and Pete Tong on Saturday, plus many more.
“It’s quite difficult to raise the bar on what we did there last year,” Cox recalls fondly. “Basically, the production in that room was by far the very best that I’ve ever worked in. So can you imagine something special over what we did last year? The only thing I can do is to make sure the DJ lineup is 110 percent great, and that I am able to play the best music at the best of my ability.”
On Sunday, German electronic-music godfather Paul van Dyk, who has been creating melodic, trance-kissed, dance-floor anthems for two decades, helps transform the tent into the A State of Trance arena, along with Gaia, New World Punx, Cosmic Gate and many other acts.
“I constantly get tweets and Facebook messages: Please play this, please play that,” says Van Dyk about what fans can expect from his set. “So I’m gonna play some of my classics like “For An Angel” and “Home” and “Time of Our Lives” and things like that. Of course there’s gonna be new music, but it’s also about everyone having a good time at the festival.”
Swedish superstar DJ Avicii, whose crossover hits “Hey Brother” and “Wake Me Up!” have cracked Top 40 radio, headlines the Ultra Mainstage on Saturday night, two years after stunning the crowd by having Madonna join him onstage to premiere the track “Girl Gone Wild.” Might there be another shocker in store?
“You never know!” says Avicii, real name Tim Bergling. “I always love to do something exciting and special for big festivals like Ultra. But nothing I can talk about just yet - you’ll have to wait and see.”
Whatever his set may bring, Avicii is thrilled to be back at Ultra.
“The overall vibe is insane,” he says. “The crowd brings a completely different level of energy, which makes playing there that much more enjoyable.”
“It’s pretty insane,” agrees Dan Whitford, singer of the Australian electronic band Cut Copy, which makes its second Ultra appearance Sunday in support of “Free Your Mind,” its fourth studio album. “It’s sort of another world, the way people get dressed up for the festival and just lose their minds.”
In 2013, the Ultra organizers expanded the festival to two weekends, spanning six total days, to help celebrate its 15-year anniversary, a decision that co-founder Faibisch says “worked out beautifully.” This year, it’s back to one weekend over three days, and the reviews are mixed on whether two was too much.
“In the sense of people who wanted to be there for both weekends, it was quite a spectacle,” says Carl Cox. “But I believe less is more. You give them one weekend full-on, I think that’s more than enough to take home with you as a lasting memory of a good time.”
Canadian dubstep producer Datsik, real name Troy Beetles, who performs Friday on the Ultra Worldwide stage, agrees.
“One hundred percent. I think having it be just one weekend puts a lot more hype around that weekend,” he says. “It’s gonna be really cool this time, because it’ll put the focus back on Ultra and it’ll be one big party. It’s kind of like having two New Year’s Eves – it kind of takes away from how special one New Year’s Eve could be.”
But Avicii’s take might most accurately reflect fans’ view: “In my opinion, there’s never too much Ultra.”
Photo: Tomas Loewy