"You can't discount the value of gathering everyone from a certain industry in one place and seeing what transpires," says Dial artist John Roberts, though he admits to spending most of the weekend "eating lunch at the Raleigh Hotel and walking on the beach." Having flown in for his Sunday School gig directly from Vienna, Roberts found the glare of Miami a little bit disorienting. "I took a taxi straight to the venue in a winter coat and opened the car door to 90 degree heat and gold lama It was pretty interesting." For other artists, the city's flamboyance is part of the appeal. "I just love Miami, the flamingos, the clothing style—it's like a ridiculous moving postcard with boats and palm trees," says Guy Gerber. "I think also that people don't really sleep for three days, so it gets crazier and crazier as it goes on." Standing by the barbecue at Electric Pickle one afternoon, he tugs on one of several Hawaiian prints I see him in that weekend. "And I finally get to wear this shirt."
For me, the sound of the weekend was deep but sunny tech house, the kind of thing that's championed by Circo Loco, Visionquest and Crosstown Rebels, but gets played by everyone from Cassy to Danny Howells (who happened to play together at my favorite party of the weekend, but more on that later). This was the sound du jour at some of this year's biggest parties: Flying Circus at Nikki Beach (Miami's opening ceremony), Sunday School at the Ice Palace, and practically everything at Electric Pickle. At this last one, Seth Troxler introduced me to the term "underground pop." He meant for it to describe Visionquest specifically, though it could easily apply to a lot of music I heard that weekend—the slightly sleazy, pop-inspired house of artists like Soul Clap, Jamie Jones and Wolf + Lamb. My favorite performance at Get Lost was a live set by Maceo Plex, an artist whose profile has shot up dramatically thanks to his own foray into underground pop. Though he produced darker tracks for years as Maetrik, his new album on Crosstown Rebels is all glistening synths and romantic vocals, and two of its tracks were played to death all weekend ("Can't Leave You" and "Your Style").
Whether or not this is your thing, it suits Miami to a tee, in part because it's upbeat yet subtle enough to keep people going indefinitely. Like Guy Gerber said, lack of sleep is a defining aspect of the week. It's not uncommon to see someone in the same outfit three days in a row, with greasier hair and blearier eyes each time. On the last day of Sunday School I ran into Eli from Soul Clap, who was looking particularly fresh. He told me he played it safe this year and made sure to get a good night's sleep each night. Then he clarified: "You know, at least an hour-and-a-half or two hours. Makes such a big difference." By Friday, session victims are part of the scenery, curled up on couches, slumped in corners or worse. At Nikki Beach I asked a security guard what he was looking out for, and without hesitation he said "I'm waiting for somebody to collapse."
"It's the survival of the fittest," says Heidi, who still had enough juice left in her to play jacking house in the blaring heat that Sunday. "No sleep... lots of parties... minimal food... copious amounts of booze. Lethal combination." Even Gerber admits things can get a little hairy. "It's very hard to get to the last day with all your equipment or your brain still in working shape."
Sleep deprivation isn't the only thing working against you. There's also the usual medley of party ailments—hangover, sore legs, stiff back, raw throat—plus a few interesting twists, namely a heinous sunburn, and if you go to enough boat parties, the lurching sensation of still being on a boat. The city itself has a few stumbling blocks too, most notably expense: beers average $7 or $8, cocktails are never less than $10, and cabs can easily set you back $50 in one night—assuming you're lucky enough to flag one down. This is almost literally impossible when Ultra Fest is beginning or ending, as everyone who attended the Liaison boat party (Bruno Pronsato, Soul Clap, Tanner Ross, Catz 'N Dogz, DJ Three) found out the hard way. Due to some insane docking troubles (another story in itself), we got out at pretty much the same time as Ultra and were left to fend for ourselves. I piled into a PT Cruiser with seven other people—including two girls in the trunk and me on another man's lap—and set off through an endless mess of teenage ravers, bicycle cops and bumper-to-bumper traffic, a five mile trip that took over an hour. I later spoke with someone whose cab driver refused to turn on the meter (common all weekend) and charged $100 for the ride back to South Beach.
In a more general sense, Miami can feel like a vicious place, at least from this traveler's perspective. At Sunday School a guy ran up to me in tears, saying he'd just been robbed at gunpoint right outside the club. Having lost all his money and his phone, he didn't even know how he'd get back to his hotel. I left a few minutes later and told a cab to take me to Space. He said it was too close and refused, and I walked there by myself (to be fair, just a few blocks, but still). While I waited outside the club, staff kept shooing away homeless people who would wander up and ask for money. One girl was barefoot with no teeth and burn marks on her face, which is a weird image to carry with you as you walk into one of the city's most ostentatious clubs.
Sunday School is another obvious stand-out. Although it's almost big enough to feel like a music festival, it too achieves a kind of special chemistry, and a few different artists have said their gigs there over the years are among their all-time favorites. Sunday night on the grassy outdoor dance floor, John Roberts played some of the deepest music I heard all weekend, perfectly timed with the sunset. I wondered how much of this was booking savvy—as the second to last act of the 36-hour party, he played for a very languid crowd, which worked well for his subtle tones.
Josh Wink came on next and took Roberts' lead, slowly notching up to a smooth but punchy groove. The vibe was winding down more and more—everyone chatting, laughing and dancing lazily. Wink played Inner City's "Good Life," but mixed the a cappella over a long, subtle beat, so it formed a moment of reflection rather than a climax. By now the skyline was fully lit, and a warm breeze drifted in off the bay. Most of us still had at least one party left (Hot Natured at Electric Pickle), but it felt very much like the end of Miami. A few rows ahead I saw Eli from Soul Clap doing some kind of exaggerated hip-hop dance. He told me this was probably his favorite Miami ever. Chatting over e-mail a few weeks later, Heidi said the same. "I came back a broken woman, but it was worth it."