By Peter Palarchio
Photos: Fabijan Vuksic
“The biggest challenge in bringing Ultra Music Festival to Europe was to do it in a way that was completely unique and original. To enter a European market so rich in festival culture and history, with thousands of festivals happening every summer over the past 40 years, and still produce something never before done there.” — Russell Faibisch, ULTRA MUSIC FESTIVAL/Ultra Worldwide Founder, Executive Producer, CEO & President
103,000 attendees. 700,000 online viewers. Visitors from 75 countries. Three days. Two cities. One amazing time.
This was Ultra Europe 2013.
For the first time ever, the Ultra Music Festival found its way home to the roots of EDM on European soil. The Ultra festivals have escaped the grips of southern Florida (Although UMF Miami in March remains an event eminently worth checking out) and has expanded the brand to a worldwide audience, touching down in new continents all year round. Ultra Europe came fresh on the heels of an insanely successful Ultra Korea, so the expectations for this homecoming of sorts couldn’t have been higher. And UMF Croatia delivered.
For many, the festival actually started on the Thursday night before the official kick-off, as tens of thousands of visitors flooded the streets of Split, Croatia, the gorgeous coastal city that played host to the first two days of the event. The streets were alive with energy, as eager festival-goers hit up the local clubs and bars in anticipation of the next day’s extravaganza, which promised some of the biggest DJs in the world.
On a side note, this reviewer didn’t have the easiest of times getting to his hotel. Having flown into Dubrovnik and missed the last bus to Split, I was obliged to take up a Croatian man on his offer to charter a van and ferry myself and seven newfound friends up north, with a quick detour through Bosnia along the way. For some reason, thoughts of the feature film Hostel started racing through our minds, and things grew quiet for spell. Finally, after getting dropped off in Split — alive and untortured — and after a couple of “lost in translation” moments that led some memorably wrong turns — we made it to our hotel. We do travel to gain experience, after all. And I can now confidently affirm that getting lost in Eastern Europe is an experience.
Americans, Swedes, Finns, Brits and Canadians. Nope, this isn’t the Pool “A “ for Men’s Hockey at the upcoming Sochi Olympic games. This is just a partial rundown of the amazing 75 countries represented on my walk to Stadium Poljud. Normally, this facility is home to soccer or track and field. Today, it would be home to something quite different.
The location was carefully scouted and handpicked by Russell Faibisch, the founder, Executive Producer, CEO and President of ULTRA MUSIC FESTIVAL/Ultra Worldwide. In his words: “After visiting more than 15 countries, meeting with many promoters and visiting more than a hundred potential locations and venues, I ultimately chose Croatia. It is truly one of the most beautiful and special places in the world — in addition to being the newest and hottest European summer destination for party people and DJs.”
Even from hundreds of metres away, the heart thumping-bass inside the stadium could easily be felt. Ultra Croatia had officially kicked off, with the thousands pouring in to revel in mash-ups, remixes, pyrotechnics, dancers and more.
Montreal’s Adventure Club really got the party started. There might be a Canadian bias on my part, but I felt like this duo gave it their all and then some, helping to cultivate an energy that kept on until dawn.
As the sun set and the DJs continued to delight the main crowd, it was time for a quick break to check out the Carl Cox & Friends stage, just in time to catch yet another Canadian duo: Toronto’s Art Department. Kenny Glasgow and Jonny White delivered a laid-back deep house set that won the clear approval of the crowd — an inspired a swell of hometown pride in the heart of this festival-goer.
As darkness fell and UMF’s always-impressive lighting display illuminated the crowd, electro house wunderkind Porter Robinson took the stage, enthralling the crowd with his expertly-deployed drops and mixes. The night marched on, and before I knew it, one of my personal favorites was taking the stage: Avicii, a.k.a. Tim Berg. This Scandinavian superstar had received mixed reactions from the crowd in Miami earlier in the year, with a set that highlighted his progression toward a newer sound. There was no such ambivalence here. The 23-year-old Swede, sporting a Toronto Blue Jays cap no less (I swear, I was on European soil), smashed the decks with classics like “Levels” and new hits such as “Wake Me Up.” Nicky Romero closed out the night, and soon enough the sun was rising on a new dawn. Ultra Europe day one was already a thing of the past.
Best Set: Avicii
Yeah, things really are a little different in Europe. What with festivals running until 5am instead of midnight, crowds tend to be smaller for some of the earlier acts of the day, as the multitudes rest up and hydrate in preparation for another marathon.
Spanish newcomer Danny Avila delivered a standout set during the early hours, and bpm:tv had the pleasure of speaking with the 18-year-old house sensation afterward. (Stay tuned for the interview coming soon). But there was no about what the crowd was waiting for: it was the Dutch invasion of Afrojack, Armin van Buuren and Hardwell, all DJ Mag top 10 heavyweights. Props to UMF for saving some tricks for Day Two, as the firework and pyrotechnic displays were kicked up a notch for these world-class acts.
Afrojack delighted the masses with the top tunes in his repertoire, including “As Your Friend,” which has been getting tones of radio play worldwide (the crowd sang along to prove the point). Armin Van Buuren also had the crowd lustily belting along when he closed his set with the summer anthem “This Is What It Feels Like,” with a pretty-darn-cool superimposed Trevor Guthrie on the screen and fireworks lighting up the whole stadium. Next up, with the world tuning in to to a live stream on YouTube, came the 24-year-old phenom Hardwell. He opened his set with a blast, rewarding the crowd’s anticipation with “Spaceman,” one of the biggest tracks of the the past year. And from 3:30 am to 5:00 am we were treated to the very best the EDM world has to offer: a masterfully crafted set that mixed in a few classics from the past — even a tune from grunge-rock faves Nirvana.
With daylight in full flight, it was time to catch a couple of winks before the boat ride to Day Three.
Best Set: Hardwell
Honourable Mention: Bingo Players
How on earth am I going to do this?
That was pretty much my first thought as the alarm went off. Two days of Ultra Europe had taken their toll. Three hours of sleep, a quick shower, and before I knew it, I was on a ferry to Hvar Island bound for the Amfora Hotel — and for a Vegas-style pool party that was destined to become the highlight of the trip.
Judging from the hundreds of festival-goers passed out on any available floor space, I wasn’t the only one feeling a little tuckered out. But this feeling quickly dissipated when I caught a view of the stage setup straddling the divide between the pool and the sea. Vegas: you now have your work cut out for you, if you plan on topping this.
It was the party of a lifetime, as anyone was lucky enough to get tickets (it sold out in 10 minutes) would surely agree. With acts like Nervo, Cazzette and Dada Life supplying the auditory bliss, this splash-fest was an afternoon to remember.
And then … there was Chuckie. Chuckie, Chuckie, Chuckie — wow, thank you! As the sun began to dim on what would turn out to be a nine-hour show, this was the artist who kept the ecstatic energy alive — a DJ perfectly in tune with his rapt audience. Whether it was serving up the newest Beatport chart-toppers on Beatport or dipping into the throwback file for a mad Linkin Park mash-up, Chuckie always seemed to nail exactly what the crowd wanted to hear. And after three days of the top names in EDM, I can assure you this was no easy feat.
Finally, Steve Aoki closed out the festival in classic Aoki fashion — constantly finding new ways to interact with the crowd, dropping killer mash-ups and party remixes. And suddenly it was over, seemingly as quickly as it had begun, leaving on all of us the powerful impression that we’d experienced a festival unlike anything that can be found on North American soil.
Best Set: Chuckie
Honourable Mention: Dada Life
Once again in the words of Russell Faibisch: “After the inaugural edition’s massive success, Ultra Europe is very proud to call Croatia home for many many years to come.” Music to a music lovers ears. Take some advice, and start planning your trip to Ultra Europe 2014 right now. This is not an experience to be missed.