A Musical Safari at Ultra

“Ultra is like going on safari.”

An interesting and accurate observation from will.i.am, who I got to chat with after his Friday night performance at the two day music festival in downtown Miami.

As will.i.am explained to me, on a safari you’re not sure where you’re going or what kind of animals you’re going to see.  It’s similar to Ultra Music Festival, where you’re not exactly sure what you’re going to hear or where the music is going to take you.  The DJs are in charge, controlling and channeling the emotions and energy of the crowd.

It’s something unique to electronic music.  As will.i.am put it, this doesn’t happen in pop music or in rap music because people go to those concerts to hear songs they know.  But with electronic music people come with an open mind and let the DJs be their tour guides.

will.i.am’s thoughtful analogy got me thinking.  While the DJs may be the tour guides on the safari, it’s the crowds of people that can be fun to watch.  Electronic music brings together people from all over the world, with different cultures, incomes, ages and styles of dress.  At Ultra I saw clothes ranging from polo shirts and baseball hats to goth garb and rave gear.  It’s an eclectic group that’s welcoming to everyone.  No one is there to judge — they’re just there to listen to DJs, dance and have a great time.

Certainly it’s this electricity of the crowds that made will.i.am want to return to Ultra after last year’s performance with the Black Eyed Peas.  And this year’s crowd was bigger than ever.  For the first time ever both Friday and Saturday were sold out, with about 100,000 people attending over the two days.

From the pumping bass that leaves your ears ringing, to the bright lights that flash and change colors, Ultra is sensory overload.  This year there were more than 200 DJs performing on 16 stages, which made for some tough decisions.  Too often I wanted to see two or more different artists who happened to be scheduled at the same time on different stages.

I knew I couldn’t miss Kaskade, whose song “I Remember” I love for its light and bouncy, almost ethereal sound (he included it in his high energy set).  From there I ran to the Main Stage to catch David Guetta, then The Crystal Method at the Bayfront Live Stage, then Carl Cox at the Carl Cox & Friends Arena, finally capping off the aural smorgasbord back at the Main Stage with Tiësto, who demonstrated why he’s one of the top DJs in the world.

On Saturday I really enjoyed longtime favorites Sasha & John Digweed, as well as Armin van Buuren who seemed to have a big smile on his face the entire set.  I also spent a lot of time in the UMF Brazil Arena which took over the space of last year’s Drum and Bass tent.  Their Saturday night lineup was hard to beat: Above & Beyond, then ATB, then Paul Oakenfold.

Because I was dancing all day and night I didn’t feel so bad about indulging on several not so healthy foods at the international food pavilion.  From fish and chips to burgers, pizza to arepas, gyros to shish kabobs, there was an impressive selection.  I went for the turkey legs, which were the biggest ones I’ve ever seen (and quite tasty too).

Of course I was most excited for Saturday night’s headliner, deadmau5.  It’s been neat to watch the Canadian DJ and producer’s popularity grow over the last few years.  I remember watching him at Ultra 2008 and wondering how his name was pronounced (it’s dead mouse).  Back then he performed on a small side stage, with a much more simple mouse head.  Last year his set was one of my favorite performances from Ultra 2009.  Since then it seems like all the songs he’s produced have been huge hits.  They’ve certainly been in heavy rotation on my iPod, especially “Ghosts n Stuff.”

deadmau5 got the audience revved up right away, with many fans waving their own mouse heads.  He premiered a few new songs during his set.  For one as of yet unnamed song he was joined by Tommy Lee.  I had suspected the Mötley Crüe drummer might make a surprise appearance when I saw the two hanging out a day earlier at the Belvedere Vodka Music Lounge.

The crowd went crazy when deadmau5 played the first few notes of “Ghosts N Stuff.”  It was a definite fan favorite, and I joined the tens of thousands in cheering.  deadmau5 worked the energy of the crowd all the way until the end of his set, when he (appropriately enough) played the death sound effect from “Super Mario Brothers.”

Game on for Ultra 2011.

Click here to see more photos from Ultra Music Festival 2010