The Road to Miami: Ultra Music Festival 2012


Thanks for taking a peek. This is going to be my attempt at live-blogging the events that take place on the way to, as well as at, ULtra Music Festival 2012 in Miami. Winter Music Conference and Miami Music Week are winding down as the anticipation for one of the world’s largest electronic music events is starting to build. Ultra Music Festival sold out in record time, with an estimated 165,000 attendees on the ground each of the 3 days at Bayfront Park. This blog entry will likely continue to evolve over the course of the weekend as Jonathan Keith (my old Planet X partner-in-crime) and I compile photos and video footage to sprinkle throughout the piece.

Remember, Ultra Music Festival has partnered with Google to offer a live stream of the event. Highly recommended. Watch it all unfold at www.youtube.com/umftv

Day 1: Transit, Arrival, Ultra Day 1

Thanks to a last-minute solid from a good friend, I got a ride to the airport well before my 6am departure time. When I say “well before”, we’re talking 2am. I didn’t know what to expect, but I think I was the only non-employee in the entirety of the airport that was awake. I also discovered that TSA doesn’t open the concourses for security check and terminal access until 4:15am. So, I found a nice, quiet corner and “went native” by taking a quick disco nap.

Soon enough, I was boarding in Indianapolis and departing for Chicago. A lovely 3-hour layover at O’Hare is enough to do your head in, and by the time they announced boarding for the flight to Miami, I was past ready to get it overwith. With the flight overbooked, the thought of getting stranded for another second was almost more than I could bear. Luckily, the travel gods favored me and I was awarded the very last seat on the early flight. So far so good. Three hours to touchdown in Miami.

The inbound flight was uneventful, and even arrived ahead of schedule. After airport pickup and installment at “BaseCamp”, I looked for word on Jonathan’s flight in. Where I was lucky, he got boned, and was bumped to a later flight. This gave me an opportunity to settle in, confirm interviews with Richard Dinsdale and Carl Cox, and game-plan some after-festival parties and the like. Jonathan finally made it, and after a short catch-up and strategy session, we crashed so that Ultra Music Festival Day #1 would get the attention it deserved. Performances by New Order, Kraftwerk, Skrillex, Woldgang Gartner, Groove Armada, Stanton Warriors, Krafty Kuts and Pretty Lights were all very high on the agenda.

Something to consider when attending Winter Music Conference and Ultra Music Festival is transit from your lodgings to South Beach and Ultra iself (in this case, Bayfront Park). Renting a car is convenient (you get to set your own schedule) but parking in both places can be (1) dicey and/or (2) wickedly expensive. Fortunately, Miami/Dade County Metro Transit is both cheap and convenient. We were lucky enough to be within 5-minute walk of a Metro-Rail station, and decided that day passes on the Metro would be the best way to get back and forth. Purchasing a card and day passes for 3 days of transit came to $17 per person, which equates to the split of one one-way cab ride around South Beach.

Our first tactical error of the week started innocently enough. Walking back from lunch, we passed said Metro station and chose NOT to buy our Metro passes then, thinking that we wouldn’t have problems at 4pm. WRONG on so many levels. At 4pm, there were 4 lines with at least 30 people queued in each line. At this point , we’re looking at timetables and realizing we may miss part of New Order’s set. Not amusing.

An aside: New Order is a really important band for me. Their emergence from the tragic history of Ian Curtis and Joy Division, Bernard Sumner reluctantly thrust into the “front man” role, and their subsequent success was always been a compelling story. They were one of my first exposures to electronic music, and an introduction to the history of modern dance music. Factory Records and Manchester’s Hacieda nightclub are arguably the birth of rave culture, and to see a band that carries so much gravitas playing at a celebration of this culture that has its roots in those primordial days of DJ culture was a primary reason for attending Ultra this year.

Looking around at the crowd gathered to catch the train, I was struck at how many young people were attending Ultra. Best guess – the average age of the group gathered to take the train from this particular station was near 17. I’ve had many discussions with other DJs, artists, and promoters about what we can do in the Indianapolis scene to get younger kids interested in electronic music and events and develop new fans at a younger age. Perhaps it’s the rave scene in larger cities or quality all-ages shows that are giving the under-21 crowd a chance to immerse themselve in electrominc music culture. Whatever the reason, it was heartening to see so many faces eager to experence everything that, arguably, the best electronic music festival in the world has to offer.

This is the point where the Metro ticket tactical error started to rear it’s head. The extra time spent getting ticketed added to the travel time and check-in at the venue meant that there was the distinct possibility that I would miss New Order’s set. My anxiety continued to build as the press line stalled, and the steady flow of SUVs to the artist entrance unloaded Miike Snow and his band, Groove Armada, and Skrillex and his entourage. After what seemed like an eternity, access to the grounds was granted and it was a full sprint to the Live Stage. We caught New Order roughly 10 minutes into their set. They were playing “Ceremony”, a Joy Division tune that was recorded as a proper New Order single in the transition period for the band. The full weight of this moment I’d been waiting half a lifetime for came crashing down right then, and it was a bit overwhelming. Smart visuals and a set that featured many classic tunes (“True Faith”, “Blue Monday”, “Bizarre Love Triangle”) built the energy up so that by the time they broke into “Temptation” as their last song of the set, it became a full sing-along with Bernard as conductor.

And this was jus the beginning of the day.

Press assignments at 8 (Carl Cox) and 9 (Richard Dinsdale) meant a quick check-in at the press tent to scope the layout and amenities available to the press corps. Set up right alond the bayfront, there were plenty of power outlets to recharge phones and other devices, as well as WiFi to stay connected as the cell networks downtown caved under the weight of the added traffic from 165,000 festival patrons. I sat back-to-back with Andy Cato of Groove Armada as they did na interview with a Brazilian music magazine, and chatted with their manager to see if we could get some comments either on-site or after their set at the OM party on Saturday. With a new interview possibliity in hand, we set out into the festival chaos to catch a piece of Miike Snow’s set. Jonathan managed to catch a major piece of “Silvia” near the steady-cam rig that was shooting for UMF TV’s youtube live-stream.

Things happen quickly when you’re on the ground, and not all of them work in your favor. I receiving a text that Carl Cox’s press time had been canceled and moved to Saturday, the first full day of the festival. This brings a harsh reality to attending festivals of this magnitude, whether as press or pure fan. You’re going to miss things you want to see. There are 7 stages running concurrently throughout the day, and you cannot hope to make it from one end of the venue to the other in a timely fashion, nor can you be in two places simultaneously. You just have to hope that with some decent planning and a lot of luck, you can be in the right place at the right time to experience the moments everyone will talk about for the rest of the weekend. Around this time, it became apparent that Richard Dinsdale’s interview wasn’t likely to happen, as his on-site contacts had international cell phones that bounced every text I tried to send them. For those keeping the box score, that’s 0-for-2 in the interview department for day one. Such is life at Ultra.

With Richard Dinsdale missing in action and Carl’s interview moved to Saturday, we decided to try and make our way to the main stage so Jonathan could catch the Skrillex set and “see what all the fuss is about”. Again, plans are never set in stone once you’re on the ground, and as we were making our way past the Live Stage, electro pioneers Kraftwerk were running through their set. Armed with motion-capture suits, projected robot images on the LED screens behinds them mimicked every maneuver. Visuals that paid homage to the album art of past Kraftwerk releases worked extremely well as the band ran through a set that included “Computer Love”, Trans Europe Express”, and “Radioactivity”. One moment that sticks in my mind was the crowd reaction to the rhythmic breathing from the first bars of “Tour de France”. There was a collective “holy shit” gasp that bubbled through the crowd as the hoopers, breakers, and liquid dancers fed from the energy of this electro classic.

Now it was on to the Main Stage for Skrillex, or so we thought. We were making our way through the crush of people near the main gates when we saw it. You couldn’t help but be drawn to it. Multiple levels. Lasers and fog. Some shit I’d never seen before. This was Carl Cox Arena, and the maestro himself was delivering the goods.

Carl Cox and Friends has always been a destination for me when attending Ultra. The roster for the arena is always on point, and this year’s was no exception: Jon Rundell, Dubfire, Loco Dice, Richie Hawtin and the closing set by Carl Cox. You will see the pictures and videos, and they will give you an idea of content and context, but there’s no way to capture the scope of what the set designers and visual artists did to create Carl Cox Arena. In a few words, it is the most immersive and well-crafted club experience I have ever seen. In past years, the visuals and elaborate designs were confined to the stage area. This year, these elements were extended the length of the arena, with a large main dance floor and VIP sections raised a good 25 feet on each side and in the rear. Gogos, flying spark-shooting robots on stilts, and acrobats all became part of the presentation, and just when you thought it couldn’t get any crazier, the production team would unleash the nitrogen showers as a peak-time record would release and push the energy to ludicrous levels. The sound system was loud and full, but not uncomfortable. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

In order to avoid the mad rush out of Bayfront Park, we decided to bail a little early and make our way to the Windish Agency party at Grand Central, a cozy and swank club that (thankfully) is walking-distance from the park. We arrived as Jackmaster was putting folks through the paces, and I finally got to catch a full Nadastrom DJ set. Not what I expected: Dave Nada and Matt Nordstrom started with some BANGIN’ house tunes before delivering the goods with some filthy moombahton rollers at the end of their set. Open bar was prvided by Remy Martin, so you know the crowd was having it. By the time Drop The Lime took charge and blasted the room with his “N*ggas In Paris” bootleg, the place was ready to come unglued.

With a long day approaching on Saturday, it was time to catch the train and head back to BaseCamp. The tl;dr version: New Order still got it, Miike Snow is dope, Kraftwerk (!!!) still making future music, and Carl Cox is an evil genius in the best possible way. Not a bad start. Back tomorrow with the Day 2 recap and updated content for Day 1. You can follow it in near-real-rime on Twitter and Facebook if you’re so inclined.

Day 2: Pursuing Carl Cox, Madge Shows Up, Questionable Decisions

The second day started with a practical demonstration in the hazards of improper diet and hydration. A pretty restful sleep was interrupted with the sensation akin to an alligator trying to tear my right leg off. A case of (quite literally) crippling leg cramps had set in due wo lack of water, sodium and potassium in the previous day’s diet. After a good 20 minutes of swearing and nearly falling into the pool, the cramp subsided and I was able to resume normal human motion. Two full 20-oz. bottles of water and a full breakfast later, and I was ready to enter the fray for Ultra day 2. Highlights included Justice live, M83, 2manydjs (aka Soulwax), Avicii, and a reset on the interview with Carl Cox. Big day ahead.

We arrived at the train station for our ride in and proceeded to load into the train. As we walked into press check-in, the sweetheart taking care of press accommodations whispered, “Make sure you’re at the main stage for Avicii later. Big surprise planned.” Intrigued, the new game plan became: catch Little Dragon at the Live Stage, then make our way to Carl Cox Arena to meet up with his people for the interview, then hustle back to Live Stage for M83, sneak by hook or crook over to the Main Stage for Justice and Avicii. Lots of running around, but definitely do-able.

After catching the tail end of Little Dragon’s set, we were on a sprint over to Carl Cox Arena. Even after seeing the arena under full peaktime power, the structure was impressive in the fading daylight as Magda was tearing through some seriously funky techno jams. Word came through via email that Carl was in transit from another part of the grounds, and that the interview chances would be slim. The music was great and we were posted up in a pretty good area, we decided to hang out for the remainder of Magda’s set and take a chance on getting a few words from Carl backstage, if we could get the attention of his PR people. That meant missing Metronomy and M83, but talking to Carl Cox about his set, in this setting, was worth the sacrifice. Carl and his people whipped past and I couldn’t get anyone’s attention before Carl made his way backstage. It was looking like I was screwed.

Carl started his set and an opportunity presented itself. Security was looking the other way, and Jonathan gave the head-nod and BOOM! – quick sprint and the next thing we know, we’re backstage in restricted space, trying to look inconspicuous. There would be a slim chance to catch Carl in transit from stage to his trailer, and we were in prime position to catch him, as a parade of acrobats, gogo dancers, stagehands and various guests milled about. Carl’s set finished, Sven Vath took control, and my luck turned to shit as Carl’s personal security guys took control and expertly escorted him to his trailer. So, for those keeping score, it was an 0-for-festival box score on the interview front.

Dejected, we took a short detour to the OM party at Villa 221, about 15 blocks from the festival venue. Villa 221 wasn’t much more than a beatiful open-air courtyard, with a deck, two bars, and small stage where DJ Sneak was playing funky as hell. After making contact with the Pioneer reps present, I was introduced to Marques Wyatt, OM artist and deep house DJ/producer currently from LA. A genuine and sweet man, Marques and I exchanged information and small-talked about the conference for a bit before we were due to roll back to the festival.

it was time for Jonathan and I to make our way back to Bayfront Park. The short list: hit the press tent to perhaps sneak a beer, recharge phones and cameras, and figure out what the hell we were going to do for Justice and Avicii at the main stage. As I was unloading the various bags I was carrying, a friendly Brit asked “who are you with?” I gave the standard IndyMojo/X103/Hit The Decks intro, and before long was doing a rather impromptu interview with RAM Recordings Andy C, who had just finished laying waste to the UMF Brasil stage. Animated, friendly, and with that biting British wit, the interview went swimmingly and we began to talk about all things Miami. Then the bombshell dropped.

“Yeah, we’ve got some off-site things to do tonight,” said Andy, “but we need to make out way over to Avicii and Madonna.”

BWHAAAA!?!?!?

At this point, that information was strictly under wraps. My immediate though was to hit Twitter with the information, but wanted at least one other confirmation before going with the story. One of the biggest names in the music industry was making an appearance at Ultra, making concrete what many of us have felt for the past year or so: electronic music is mainstream now. I’ve been doing this a LONG time, and electronic music has had moments where it’s bubbled up through the corporate machine to pop music status, but watching 70,000 people crowd the main stage for Tiesto one night prior, and singing along in full voice to every big record, validated the struggle I’ve been fighting for this music that’s meant so much to me for such a long time. We had finally arrived, and Madonna herself was on-hand for the occasion.

The Madonna news item was officially confirmed by Ultra, and anticipation started to build as Justice was taking the stage. Flanked by what looked like a mountain of Marshall speaker cabinets and perched atop a booth crafted from what appeared to be an assortment of audio equipment, Gaspard and Xavier launched into a controller-based set with “Genesis”, and the capacity crowd began to rock. Personally, I was slightly disappointed that Justice had not adapted the material for a live band, but the further away I get from the performance, the more I enjoyed it. Playing more as a mash-up set consisting solely of Justice material and remixes, the tunes were simultaneously familiar yet fresh. Fist-pumping and chanting accompanied “Civilization”, and a crazy section of the performance saw the guys weave between the original and remixes of “Phantoms” (the Soulwax version causing burst of cheers), “Waters of Nazareth”, “On & On”, and “We Are Your Friends”. By the time the band was swiftly shifting through the myriad remixes of “D.A.N.C.E.”, I was fully won over. Wicked performance.

A quick refueling at press, then back into the chaos that was Avicii on the Main Stage. Madonna introduced the 22 year old prodigy and an over-capacity crowd at the main stage let loose as the set started with Avicii’s remix of the Madonna single “Girl Gone Wild”. Set highlights included “Seek Bromance” and “Fade Into Darkness”, which turned into as 70,000-strong sing-along with a fervor and energy that reminded me of the connection young people had with the foundation artists of hip hop. As his set closed with “Levels”, stage pyro and a huge fireworks display lit up the harbor behind the main stage. Fitting climax to an outstanding day 2 of entertainment.

However, this night was just getting started.

Jonathan nudges me and says, “We’ve been invited to a boat party.” Well, shit! Let’s go do that!

Jonathan got a text from his friend Summer, film producer and old friend, with details on a smallish party on a yacht that was moored in the harbor adjacent to Bayfront Park. After finding the boat, introductions are made all around. I meet Bear, the man responsible for the boat, and it turns out he’s from Indianapolis and used to run a record store in Broad Ripple. Small world. Then there’s Gregory, another hilarious free spirit currently in NYC, but very well-traveled. I met TJ from iamtechno.nl, a youngish event promoter from Amsterdam who was a laugh a minute. Sitting in this crew of people and listening to them talk about their favorite places to eat in Amsterdam, catching cabs in Paris, and how different Europe is from both the east and west coasts really made me feel a bit like the “ugly American”. Several items were added to my bucket list, and I was told that if I ever find myself in Amsterdam, TJ and Gregory would have the hook-up on all the cool spots. I’ll definitely be tucking that card away for future use.

Long about 2:30 am, the party starts to break up but we’re nowhere near done with this evening. Jonathan and I have already missed the last train, so we’re in for the long haul. Summer, Gregory and TJ hop a cab and say “meet us at the Shelbourne”. Bear, Jonathan and I hop another cab and we make what would be our only trip into South Beach proper.

After offloading at the Shelbourne Hotel, we find out that Summer and crew had already been there and turned away due to TJ’s footewear (apparently, flip flops aren’t approved attire for Shine, the 400-or-so capacity nightclub inside the hotel). They are on a mission to retrieve acceptable shoes for TJ, and we’re to try to get in the club and wait for them on the inside.

Now, I have a little history at the Shelbourne. The Shelbourne pool parties have become legendary, and this is the venue where Paris Hilton’s security crew got the flat crap kicked out of them by Steve Angello’s security force, prompting Angello to don an “I Heart Paris” t-shirt the following day at Nikki Beach Club. That very same year, I contacted the events promoter for the venue, a kind soul named Dennis who comp’ed the Hit The Decks crew (5-deep that year) for everything going on at the Shelbourne pool parties as well as the nightclub events. It crossed my mind to reach out to Dennis and the Shelbourne to see what could be arranged for this year, but figured that after three years without any contact, it would be a lost cause. This decision will be revisited very soon.

So, to set the scene: Jonathan, Bear, and I are rolling up the queue to find out if we can get into the nightclub. We find out that Sasha is playing and that tickets are completely sold out. Dejected, we headed back to the lobby to wait on Summer, Gregory and TJ, hoping that Summer had some stroke with the venue so that we could get in, or at very least an alternate plan. That’s when we met Phelps.

Phelps was a piece of work. Drink in hand, trucker hat, colorful geometric t-shirt, blazer, board shorts, multi-color shell-toe Adidas. And Phelps was WASTED. As we were sitting out front, Phelps came staggering down the hallway, made some great realization, and turned around to go right whatever wrong he’d just remembered. Only problem was the rather attractive brunette in the cocktail dress standing right behind him at the time. The collision was monumental – half of Phelp’s drink went down this girl’s dress, and Phelps staggered back like he’d been tagged with a Tyson right hook. The brunette was most upset, and proceeded to berate Phelps at the top of her lungs in front of the whole bar. Phelps’ reaction: “Eh – I’ve still got half my drink so fuck you”. All of us were stifling chuckled, and Phelps took notice. He came over and struck up a conversation with Jonathan, and proceeded to tell us he was connected and would sell us some REALLY dodgy-looking passes into the event for $10 each. Eye contact was made by Johnathan, Bear, and I and we politely declined with the excuse that we were waiting on Summer to sort this whole thing out for us.

Phelps was having none of it. “Okay, okay, okay. Five bucks. Five bucks. Doing you a favor. Five bucks.” Another round of polite “no thank you”‘s. “Fine – free. Fuck it. Free. Come on – you guys are with me”. So, we take the bracelets and await Summer, Gregory, and TJ. A quick text shows that they’re en route, and Jonathan and Phelps head outside to smoke a cigarette (at Phelps’ insistance). A few minutes later, I hear Jonathan yell.

“RUDY! GET OVER HERE!”

“What?” I respond, pretty confused at this point.

“IT’S DENNIS!”

Sure enough, there’s Dennis, the event coordinator that had taken such good care of us three years earlier. Still here, still putting together some of the best parties of Winter Music Conference and Miami Music Week. What’s more, he remembered me, gave me a huge hug, and asked how the week was progressing. I gave him the quick run-down, and he asked what we needed. Next thing I know we’ve got six bracelets. “These should get you anywhere you need to go”, he says with a nod and a wink. Then, as quicly as he appeared, he’s off and back into the club.

Turns out Phelps was attached to Sasha’s entourage, and had called Dennis over to prove his creds. Dennis recognized Jonathan, asked about the rest of the crew and was really appreciative of the coverage we gave Shine and the Shelbourne the last time we were there, as well as the thank-you note I sent upon returning home. There’s such a sense of entitlement with many of the people that Dennis deals with regularly that something as simple as a thank you note made a memorable impression. That’s a lesson I need to remember more often.

We made our way into the club and Sasha was playing tech-ey yet soulful. The place was packed to the rafters, and there was nary an open space on the dance floor. Phelps lead Jonathan up towards the booth to get some photos while Bear, Gregory, TJ, Summer and I posted up by the dance floor bar. The music was fantastic, Sasha was technically on point with his mixing, and the crowd was definitely having it. It seemed like half an hour had passed, when all of the lights came on and we were being shuffled towards the exit by security. It was 5am, and cabs were hailed for the ride back towards Bayfront Park.

Now we are in a connundrum because neither Jonathan or I had any cash for a cab. “Dude, the trains stopped running at 2am. How are we gonna get back?” Then it dawns on me that we’ve powered right through the dead spot for trains and the next round (for Sunday morning) will start running by 6am. A short walk back to the train station, routine train ride, a stop at CVS for “breakfast” (chips and a soda), and we were ready to knock off for a few hours, cowboy up and do it all over again for day 3. The realization that in a few short hours we’d have to rally to catch Fedde le Grand, Steve Aoki, Knife Party, Magnetic Man, Chase and Status, and Bassnectar was a tough one to swallow, but the random craziness and results of day 2 made it all worth it. I’d do it again in a New York minute.

Rudy Kizer is the host and producer of “HIt The Decks“, Sundays at 10pm on X103, and can still feel the sun on his back and bass in his face.