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Partying under Ultra’s spell with 70,000 friends

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The Prodigy performs during the Ultra Music Festival at Bicentennial Park on March 28, 2009 in Miami.
Photo: Richard Brian

As palm trees swayed to a light breeze in 80-degree weather, hordes of young electronic music fans paraded down the sidewalks of Biscayne Boulevard, a wide street in Miami lined with glass and steel skyscrapers. The street fronts Biscayne Bay, dotted by day with sailboats and yachts and at night with glittering purple lights from the bridge that crosses over into South Beach.

The crowds were heading to Bicentennial Park, site of the 11th Annual Ultra Music Festival, where stages and tents spread across the grassy, hilly waterfront space normally occupied by the homeless who enjoy the corner of prime real estate.

However, for the two-day outdoor electronic/house/trance/breakbeat extravaganza, the park belonged to the club kids. Girls wore bikini tops, fishnet body suits, tiny skirts, furry boots, backpacks, bows and binkies – the more colorful and outlandish, the better. Boys went shirtless, decked out with glowsticks and flashing neon lights, or sporting bright shirts that read “I’m in Miami, Bitch” or “DJs heart BJs.”

Winter Music Conference 2009

The pounding beat of Ultra’s performers could be heard from miles away, as around 70,000 people from all over the world attended the festival from early afternoon until midnight, dancing feverishly to the beats of David Guetta, Tiesto, Rabbit in the Moon, Black Eyed Peas, Deadmau5, Paul van Dyk, The Prodigy, Carl Cox, Crystal Castles, Armin Van Burren, Cut Copy, Santogold, Moby, Erick Morillo, MSTRKRFT, Swedish House Mafia and many others.

Leach Blog Photo

Singer Fergie of the group The Black Eyed Peas performs at Ultra Music Festival at Bicentennial Park on March 27, 2009 in Miami.

BEP fittingly kicked off their first live show in three years at Ultra – and Fergie’s birthday – with “Lets Get It Started” followed by “My Humps.” Fergie accompanied the song with a lot of hump shaking. They went on to perform the live debut of their newest hit “Boom Boom Pow,” then LMFAO joined the foursome for the unofficial anthem of the week “I’m in Miami, Bitch.”

Before they took the stage, an emcee boomed into the mic: “We have 80,000 representatives from 80 different countries here to make Miami history! Thanks for coming out here, because without you we’re just a big fucking park. Australia, Africa, Cuba, Brazil, France, England, Mexico, Canada, we’re all here for the love of music! Raise your hands!”

The crowd yelled and vibrated with high voltage energy. International flags and girls on guys’ shoulders stood out against the sky as it darkened from silver blue to obsidian. Ravers hula-hooped inside glow-in-the-dark hoops, or twirled and spun glowing sticks in the air, lighting up the dark with flashes of bright green, pink, yellow and blue.

Famous DJs spun under huge white tents hung with star and sea anemone-shaped glowing balloons and lit by flashing lasers. A giant screen flashed hallucinatory images. As the music filled the open space, girls danced on platforms and everyone dripped with sweat.

Leach Blog Photo

Fans enjoy the 2009 Ultra Music Festival in Miami.

On one stage The Prodigy overdosed on adrenaline, running all in circles and into one another and jumping off of speakers. Rabbit in the Moon, in a full-body multicolored electric light suit surrounded by mists and several female back-up dancers, hypnotized the crowd like he had sold his soul to some futuristic Satan.

Crystal Castles killed it with a cutting edge sound that evoked a mix of video game sound effects, all sirens, drums and 8-bit synths. Female vocalist of the Canadian experimental thrash band, Alice Glass, with her thin frame and cropped hair, danced like an on-fire Jim Morrisson. Her voice is little girl high-pitched, screeching and supernatural, but in a very, very good way.

Leach Blog Photo

Singer Alice Glass of the electronic duo Crystal Castles performs during the Ultra Music Festival at Bicentennial Park on March 28, 2009 in Miami.

The sunny days of the Winter Music Conference, which lasted from March 24-28 and included Ultra, were filled with packed hotel pool parties, while nights were spent at overcrowded clubs that stayed open until 8 a.m. Nikki Beach, a famous South Beach nightclub, had big canvas beds and tee-pees on the beach for people to crash on under the stars after a long night. Other people, aided by energy drinks and all manner of other substances, didn’t sleep at all.

Sometime past midnight, a photographer and I hopped on a rented scooter and bypassed the crowds, cops and standstill traffic to breeze over the bay bridge. We grabbed mamey milkshakes and freshly squeezed cane juice from a 24-hour Cuban café and cruised around a colorful, art deco, electric city that would rather dance than sleep.

Now that I’m home, I miss the humid, ocean-scented air, the wild and crazy strangers and the ubiquitous, thumping music. For the first time, Vegas feels a little boring.

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Jennifer Grafiada

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