LAS VEGAS — If time-lapse photos existed to illustrate the movements of the crowd during the first two nights of the Electric Daisy Carnival this past weekend at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a bird’s eye view would show clusters of human ants, an estimated 80,000 for each of the three days of the annual electronic music festival, moving in packs within the grounds of the 1,200-acre complex as if by mysterious force.
Zoom in, and patterns would begin to emerge. Within the facility’s 1.5-mile oval track, home on most weekends to racing events such as the Kobalt Tools 400, thousands of bobbing heads gathered in darkness around five booming, crystal clear sound systems, bouncing among carnival rides and strobing lights to the sounds of some of the world’s most popular DJs — including Benny Benassi, DJ Tiesto, David Guetta, Swedish House Mafia and Skrillex — and some of the genre’s most innovative and forward thinking masterminds, such as Richie Hawtin, Green Velvet and Rusko.
Focus on just one of the event’s many stages — Guetta’s Sunday 1:30 a.m. set — and witness party trains snake through the crowd, rolling in time to a 128-beat-per-minute metronomic thump. Notice one fivesome, holding hands; boys musclebound and shirtless; bikini-top girls wearing matching panties that say “booty” on the bottom; faces lost in music; Mona Lisa smiles.
Welcome to the first Sin City installment of the biggest dance music festival in America, one that seems to have found its natural home in Nevada. Previous West Coast versions of the Daisy Carnival have taken place at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in downtown Los Angeles, but partially as a result of last summer’s death of a 15-year-old girl who had attended the party and the ensuing scrutiny, the company that produced the 14 previous events, Insomnia, moved the carnival to the biggest, most secure outdoor space in Vegas. If there’s one city that can handle this crowd, it’s Vegas, whose public safety officers deal with adrenaline addicts all day, every day.
The scale was massive: a dance party as county fair, with Ferris wheels, a funhouse, and many swirling spinning devices. You could find corn dogs and hamburgers, lemonade and beer. From a proper distance (and with earplugs in), one could imagine it was REO Speedwagon and LeAnn Rimes sharing the showbill.
But EDC draws a subculture that has little overlap with NASCAR dads, even if their children are no doubt here in droves: teenagers and twentysomethings in love with house music and all its myriad forms, swollen with energy and desire. It’s a demographic that the Vegas casinos are chasing hard these days. Many of the weekend’s headliners are resident DJs at clubs along the strip; and at the city’s hottest new hotel, the Cosmopolitan, gamblers shoot craps while the casino-wide sound system shuffles a playlist that includes Radiohead, Talking Heads and Hot Chip.
And yet, more than two decades after rave culture first sprouted in England, participants have come to accept that their particular passion for electronic music and gathering outdoors in a large, communal mass to dance all night long still confuses and frightens parents reared on the guitar and not the sampler/computer. It continues to be the sonic crux of a generation gap.
The DJs that performed here are ruling the pop charts in 2011: Italian Benassi’s collaboration with Chris Brown, “Beautiful People,” was a top 10 smash, and Frenchman Guetta’s “Love Is Gone” had thousands screaming every word on Saturday night. DJ Tiesto makes as much money as a pop star. But not having risen out of rock & roll, or country, blues or classic pop music, the notion of gathering large volumes of people to watch DJs throw their hands in the air doesn’t really register with the verse-chorus-verse crowd or the media seeking to understand the allure.
There were two fatalities at the rock-oriented Bonnaroo music festival earlier this month, but this news was greeted with relative indifference and little fear-mongering. News of two deaths at the Dallas installment of EDC in early June, however, was treated much more ominously, as though there were trouble lurking inside the music and the structure of its presentation, rather than inside every curious teenager faced with the temptation of experimenting with illegal drugs, be it an organic fungus or a synthetic drop of Ecstasy.
Ecstasy? It’s a word whose original meaning gets eclipsed by its pharmaceutical one. But ecstasy was everywhere at Electric Daisy Carnival, the kind created by — zoom in further, into the mind — firing neurons racing in the region of the brain devoted to reward, motivation and arousal, where naturally occurring opioids fill the pleasure centers, whether you’re on drugs or not.
Specifically, it happened on Saturday night at a stage called the Circuit Grounds, where Chicago house innovator Green Velvet dropped a rich, dynamic set of minimal beat music that contained not only sophisticated experiments in Steve Reich-ian rhythmic phasing but a relentlessly hypnotic roller coaster of sound. Later at the same stage, Detroit techno producer Jon Gaiser crafted a mathematically precise weave of beats, each placed in the proper spot as if by tweezers and microscope, combined to create an intricate code of sound.
He was followed by Richie Hawtin, who, it could be argued, invented the minimal house template (Hawtin’s “Spastik” was sampled throughout the weekend, as was Green Velvet’s work), and offered a generous, bass-heavy blend of aural drips and drops that sounded like the last few moments of a spring rainstorm.
Across the speedway at the Basspod, Los Angeles-based producer/DJ Rusko pushed his innovative dub-step beats. The night prior, Skream and Benga, two-thirds of the dub-step “supergroup” Magnetic Man, offered innards-rumbling stutter-step beats.
But it was Skrillex’s packed 3:30 a.m. slot at the Neon Garden that remains stamped in the memory, even if that’s partially due to the size of the sonic hammer that the Los Angeles born and bred DJ used: The artist born as Sonny Moore crafts monstrous, bass-heavy sounds that rip out of the speakers. Harsh digital skids collide with deconstructed vocal phrases, the most memorable of which was his complete destruction of British singer La Roux’s “In for the Kill.” He chopped words in half, carved them into syllabic snippets that stuttered frantically. It was abrasive and absolutely unsubtle.
The La Roux mix was one of an entire collage of sonic samples over the weekend, one that connected past and present in fascinating ways: the music and voices from the Big Bopper, Adele, Henry Rollins, the Clash, Nirvana, the Ramayana monkey chant, and hundreds more weaved through the music.
Combined with lasers and lights, the gymnasts on trampolines, the spinning sounds and the overall feeling of ... Las Vegas, Electric Daisy Carnival proved not only a production success but, quite possibly, a portent. As of press time Sunday night, the Las Vegas Police Department had reported only minor problems. (Sunday night’s closing roster took place too late for print.)
Music, dance, dopamine and lots of shiny sparkly things: the foundation upon which Vegas was built. As one generation cedes pop culture control to the next, could a Rave du Soleil be too far behind?
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