The Ultra Music Festival, which started as an afterthought at the Winter Music Conference a decade ago but has now become its biggest event, more than lived up to expectations this weekend at downtown Miami's Bicentennial Park.
British act Underworld's thrilling 90-minute set Saturday night was the highlight of the festival, capping two days of energetic performances by the world's best DJs and electronic dance-music artists.
The duo -- consisting of charismatic front man Karl Hyde and programmer/producer Rick Smith -- weathered some technical glitches at the beginning of their performance. The stage remained dark until two minutes into Underworld's first song, Crocodile, the silky opening track from the critically acclaimed new album Oblivion With Bells. The song was a bit low-key, but Hyde's voice was smooth, clear and strong and the crowd was grooving.
More technical problems delayed the transition into the Underworld standard Rez/Cowgirl, but Hyde's manic rave dancing kept everyone alert while the lengthy intro developed.
From that point on, however, the group was dead-on. Spoonman, from Underworld's groundbreaking 1994 album dubnobasswithmyheadman, transfixed with an extended chant of the chorus ''Into the blood'' with shape-shifting vocal harmonies overtop frenetic synths that sounded like the old-school video game Space Invaders at panic-time. Appropriately, during the chilling next song Beautiful Burnout, the video screens featured sped-up snatches of Space Invaders.
On King of Snake, which features a synth riff that cops Donna Summer's disco classic I Feel Love, Hyde turned music into performance art by using a microphone that filmed his face up close while he sang, then waved it around to create abstract, streaky neon images.
But the predictable high point of the show was when an extended tribal drum jam led into the endorphin-dipped opening synth chords to Underworld's signature song Born Slippy, spurring fans to pump their fists in unison for its 15-minute entirety.
Earlier Saturday, Moby played favorites including Basement Jaxx's bouncy Where's Your Head At? and his own hit Go, while British legend Pete Tong warmed up the crowd for Underworld with house anthems including a clever mix of The Who's Baba O'Riley.
Friday at Ultra was mostly about the DJs, with Eric Prydz rocking the crowd with mixes of New Order's Blue Monday, the White Stripes' Seven Nation Army and the Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This); James Zabiela spinning futuristic bass jams and funky progressive house; Robbie Rivera playing geek techno overtop tribal beats; and Steve Lawler, Danny Tenaglia, Tiesto and Justice mixing banging house, trance and electro rhythms.
But BT showed his multiple talents by playing bass during his trance-pop song Dreaming, singing his Top 40 hit Simply Being Loved and playing keys on his lush, orchestral anthem Flaming June. And Tampa act Rabbit in the Moon, with flamboyant 6'6'' front man Bunny wearing a bright blue suit and throwing handfuls of yellow glow sticks into the crowd, stimulated fans with its angelic and aptly named track Out of Body Experience.
Over its two days, Ultra Fest's atmosphere was a fantastic freak show, like a gypsy village with a pulsating soundtrack populated with colorfully burlesque characters (including a woman on four-foot stilts wearing an iridescent silver and neon full body suit). The percussive cacophony ricocheted off the nearby AmericanAirlines Arena and looming new condos, yet somehow it all sounded harmonious.
For Ultra founders Alex Omes and Russell Faibisch, having only three hours of sleep per night in the weeks leading up to the festival was well worth it.
''It's an amazing feeling bringing people together to enjoy amazing music,'' says Omes. ``The energy is just in the air.''
Adds Faibisch: ``The ultimate reward for us is being onstage at the right time watching the sea of people when the headliners are on. That's what keeps us going and motivated to work all year, those little moments.''
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