In 2008, underground party promoters minimoo tried to give New York City its very own electronic music festival. For years music fans had complained that there was nothing in the city comparable to Miami's WMC or Detroit's DEMF. The event, Minitek, was theoretically supposed to change all this. With two days and three nights of international bookings, the anticipation was enormous. However, as RA reported last year, Minitek failed to deliver anything near an organized festival experience. Parties were shut down for fire ordinance violations, lineups failed to materialize, stages were plagued by poor sound and rumors abound that many artists were never paid. Minitek succeeded, though, in demonstrating that there is a substantial enough fan-base to financially support a large electronic music festival in New York City.
The only thing missing, of course, was a capable enough organizer. Enter MADE Event, a group that has been throwing large parties in New York and Miami for years. Consistently beloved by trance enthusiasts for hosting DJs such as Paul van Dyk and Armin Van Buuren in Central Park, while being equally respected by underground heads for throwing WMC's marquee techno party, Sunday School for Degenerates, MADE were the ideal entity to step up and attempt a festival in the city. Expectations were thus high when MADE announced Electric Zoo, a two day festival to be held at Randall's Island over Labor Day weekend in New York City.
Arriving Saturday afternoon at Randall's Island, I was immediately impressed by how well organized everything seemed. Ticket pick-up, security checks and entry went off without a hitch. Once inside we were confronted by a massive field with the Manhattan skyline as a dramatic back drop. At one end sat the large main stage while the other end had three large tents, each playing host to a different dance genre. We began our weekend at the Respect Grove stage where DJ Mehdi was dropping Ed Banger electro bombs like it was 2007. While tracks like Justice's "Stress" have been played to death, it's always impressive to watch the frantic crowd reaction these staples generate. The kids in the tent were losing it as Mehdi climbed on top of the mixer table to wave at the crowd. Transitioning into some newer material, Mehdi dropped an electro track which sampled the Salsoul Orchestra's disco classic "Nice N Nasty."
Passing the controls to Ed Banger CEO, Busy P, the crowd seemed to expect more of the label's famous indie electro. Instead, Busy decided to slow things down by dropping an indie rock song that featured Mexican-Mariachi style brass. While it was certainly interesting, he ended up clearing half the tent in only a few minutes. Eager to enjoy the last few hours of glorious sunshine, we made our way back to the main stage where Ben Watt was spinning some gorgeous deep house.
The Buzzin' Fly founder has always been known to bring a classy sweetness to his sets: Deep house full of sultry melodies, female vocals and groovy rhythms. Playing a laid back remix of St. Germain's "Rose Rouge" (not the tired, festival-friendly Rhadoo mix) as well as a remix of Björk's "All Is Full of Love," the UK selector kept the selection pop-oriented enough for the main stage while remaining true to his house music roots. In the end, his hour-and-a-half set proved to be the highlight of our day, the music being a perfect soundtrack for a beautiful end-of-summer sunset.
As the sun faded, the main stage became increasingly packed. The crowd had grown exponentially in anticipation of the evening's headliners Kaskade, Deadmau5 and Armin Van Buuren. Not being able to handle an ocean of shirtless bodybuilders and their surgically enhanced girlfriends screaming along to Kaskade's radio-friendly trance, we made our way to the Sunday School stage to catch Luciano's set. Taking a spot near the front, we followed the Chilean as he rushed back and forth between his two laptops, dropping bomb after bomb of Latin-infused minimal funk.
While Luciano's festival routine has now become a bit predictable, it's impossible to ignore the incredible energy his selection has and how expertly the man can manipulate a crowd by working the mixer. Peaking with Reboot's "Caminando," the Cadenza boss worked the audience into a frenzy, leaving Danny Tenaglia to either dampen the groove or continue to fuel the hedonistic Sunday School vibe. Unfortunately the NY-native chose the prior and launched into a somewhat restrained set of tribal house.
Eager to catch a bit of the light show on the main stage, we made it down just in time to catch Deadmau5 bobbing along to "Faxing Berlin" in his infamous mouse mask. The crowd was several thousand people deep at this point and seeing the stage lit up with the New York skyscrapers in the distance was truly awe-inspiring. While I personally couldn't say the same for Deadmau5' music, I must admit the crowd was certainly feeling it as they lapped up each Beatport #1 hit the producer dished out.
Worn out from a day dancing in the sun, we made it back up to the Sunday School tent to see if we could handle a bit of Speedy J's set. Unsurprisingly, the Dutchman's brutally hard techno onslaught was just a bit too heavy for our tired bodies and we took off eager for some rest before the night's afterparties. Overall a hectic but successful first day for Electric Zoo: No amazing musical surprises, but none of the painful organizational hiccups either.
Returning to Randall's Island on Sunday afternoon, the temperature had dropped dramatically and the skies were grey. It looked as if the heavens would open at any moment and turn the massive green field into a muddy quagmire. Against this background, the Electric Zoo acts had the difficult task of animating a tired but demanding crowd of punters eager to forget the gloomy weather.
Luckily, Frankie Knuckles and Andy Butler more than rose to this task. Dropping a varied set of soulful house and techno at the Grove Discotheque, the duo played with energy and flair, getting the tent jumping to classics such as Derrick May's "Strings of Life." Ducking into the Sunday School tent for a peek, the crowd was already fully into the festival spirit as Adam Beyer pummeled the ravers with one of his trademark, punishing techno sets. Meanwhile, fellow Swede Steve Angello was rapidly drawing a crowd to the main stage by playing commercial dance hits like Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams."
Wanting to ease into the assuredly wild end of the festival, we decided to take an open space at the back of the dance floor for Steve Bug's set. Starting out with some restrained tech house and slowly escalating towards higher BPM techno, Bug easily got the crowd screaming by dropping classics like Carl Craig's remix of Theo Parrish' "Falling Up."
After Bug passed the controls to Victor Calderone at sunset, we decided to grab some food while taking in the corporate laser show orgy that is a David Guetta peak-time festival set. Playing out his hits such as "Now That the Love Is Gone" while massive screens displayed messages like GUETTA BOY. GUETTA GIRL. GUETTA LIFE, the grandiosity of the production reminded me more of a Super Bowl halftime show than a traditional DJ set. Still, the Frenchman's infectious smile and frantic stage antics coupled with the screen-savers on-steroids display was certainly entertaining to watch.
We left soon left the spectacle to go bust some moves to vintage disco. James Murphy and Pat Mahoney of LCD Soundsystem were about halfway into their set when we arrived at the Grove Discotheque. Moving gracefully between classic disco jams and modern disco house, the pair had a rather small but dedicated crowd gyrating on the floor. However, I couldn't help but notice that James and Pat seemed more interested in talking to their friends on stage than interacting with their fans on the floor.
Even when dropping massive crowd pleasers like Sound Stream's "Dance with Me" it felt like the duo hardly cared much about the crowd's reaction, throwing cursory glances to check if the track was working before returning to their on-stage conversations. We wanted to finish off the festival with a bang, not with a disenchanted stare and wry smile so we made the short trek to the Sunday School stage to catch the end of Richie Hawtin's set.
Having caught Hawtin several times in the last two years, each time I'd been pretty disappointed. With the rise of M_Nus and Contakt, he seems to have gotten too caught up in splicing and looping bleepy drum tracks to deliver a truly engaging set. This time, however, was a completely different story. Dropping vintage Plastikman tracks over other frantic, hard techno, the man was on fire. Playing at a much higher speed than I'd seen in the last few years, the entire tent was shaking as the bass threatened to splinter the wooden floor. Even the sound guy who had been relaxed throughout the entire weekend was jumping up and down. This was Richie as I remember him in the early 2000s—relentless, creative and funky.
Making our way back to Manhattan, I felt glad that the festival had gone off without any major issues, but also a bit disappointed that it had only reached its energetic peak at the very end. MADE Event has to be credited for keeping things organized and satisfying multiple types of dance music fans. They have successfully created the framework for an annual electronic music festival in New York City. However, to truly rival DEMF or WMC they need to add something more unique to the celebration. DEMF, for instance, consistently books exclusive performances from hard-to-hear Detroit artists.
As it currently stands, Electric Zoo offered a diverse but somewhat safe and bland selection of electronic music acts. For the festival to truly rival the top picks in the US, it needs to get creative and offer something special. Perhaps a tent playing homage to the rich dance music history of New York. An area with key NY acts from the '70s disco, '80s new wave and '90s house scenes would be a great way to introduce some unique local flavor. But even if MADE simply continues to run the festival as it was this year, New Yorkers can rest assured that this will be a well-run event where fans can comfortably enjoy a variety of electronic music outdoors. It's something that's been sorely lacking in New York City, and we're lucky to have it.
All except laser show - Boris Prutkovsky
Laser show - l_c_m_tt_