I was surprised when I heard New York was getting a large electronic music festival. Outside of Ultra Music Festival in Florida and the Detroit Electronic Event, electronic music culture is largely unobservable in the USA, unlike Europe where it is more common. But Made Event decided to stage a two-day production over Labor Day weekend on Randall’s Island in New York City called the Electric Zoo Festival (EZ Fest) with some of the top electronic music producers and DJs from around the world and I hoped to check it out.
For a long time, the New York City area was not so lucky with music festivals. In 2003, the organizers of the Field Day Festival had the plug pulled on their multi-day event but put together a one-day show at Giants Stadium, last minute, with half of the artists. Before that, it may be tough to recall other festivals for New York. But since then, New Yorkers have been given a hip-hop festival with the Rock the Bells events and a possibly annual, genre-blending festival with the All Points West Festival and its successful runs the past two years in a row.
I applaud the EZ Fest organizers for putting together a great event on the grounds of Randall’s Island. Fortunately, amazingly nice weather turned out to listen to the music on both days. Walking long distances to sets was never a problem as the grounds had three tents and a main stage, areas for shade and water, vendors lining up on the edges, free samples from companies, many porta-potties situated in the back and tons of space for dancing. The large stacks of speakers sounded amazing and made it possible to hear music over every square inch of the space. As a perk for the more affluent attendees, organizers offered upgraded tickets which allowed access to a VIP tent with some premium vendors, loungers, tables, bleachers and the Sirius XM Radio broadcast area, as well as a separate side space of the main stage for dancing.
A few minor complaints I can think of would be one that most festivals hear regarding the price of concessions. Beer was $9, flavored water $6, t-shirts $26 and pizza slices $5, but other people noted there were cheaper drinks at some food stalls that I just never got around to exploring. Also, as the day turned into night, the over capacity tents grew hot and stuffy despite the cool, pleasant weather. Lastly, it seemed insanely risky to let the photographers stand on the small tent stages directly behind the DJs and so close to the equipment and action. But most people did not concern themselves with that.
While running around Saturday to catch all the action, I took a few moments to ask attendees thoughts on the day and lineup. People came for the main sets from Kaskade, Deadmau5 and Armin van Buuren for the most part, but others were eager to see Chus & Ceballos, Danny Tenaglia, Benny Benassi and Roger Sanchez in the tents. With all those amazing artists and more in the line-up, I could have stayed at the main stage for most of the day, but curiosity kept me between sets from the smallest tent “Respect Grove” near the gates to the “Sunday School Hilltop” dotted with school buses that glowed an eerie blue at night to the largest tent “Riverside Arena” and the “Main Stage”. In between, I avoided festival mainstays, the hula-hoopers, hacky-sackers and glow-stick dancers doing their thing.
Ben Watt had an early set, starting before 5pm, which was the one I most wanted to see. He came on after Francois K to a dismally small audience; perhaps the crowd’s aversion to daylight kept them in the overfilled tents. Watt is now the head honcho of the Buzzin Fly and Strange Feelings labels, where he puts out very forward-thinking house music mixes on the former. Watt gained fame for his work in 90’s alt-rock group Everything but the Girl and afterwards as half of deep house duo Lazy Dog. As the crowds gathered for the latter half of his set, Watt pulled a remix of St. Germain’s “Rose Rouge”, his own reworking of Björk’s “All is Full of Love”, label-mate Darkmountaingroups’s minimalist house piece “Lose Control” and then climaxed with the awesome rework of EBTG called “Tracey in my Room” to the audiences delight.
Watt’s set transitioned into Kaskade’s, a US house DJ, and it involved a slow dubbed version of Roykopp’s “49 Percent” while they set up. But it wasn’t long before Kaskade spun one of summer 2008’s hottest tracks, his Deadmau5 collaboration, the slow-burning “Move for Me” then followed it up with a blissful remix of Roger Sanchez’s “Another Chance” in tribute to his earlier set in the Riverside tent. His set contained a bit of MGMT’s “Kids”, a track that surfaced in other setlists if I am not mistaken, a remix of Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here Right Now” and then brought the dreamy mood back into his set with his songs “4am” and “Steppin’ Out”.
Deadmau5 came on after Kaskade, though I am unfamiliar with him aside from “Move for Me”, he has been rising to the top of the DJ charts incredibly fast over the past year. He came on stage with his trademark mouse head on to a pulsating backdrop that featured the same grinning ear-to-ear face. Perhaps a bit untraditional as a DJ, he spun a bit of Daft Punk’s “Harder Better Faster Stronger” followed by bits (8 of them) of the NES Zelda theme and then Funkagenda’s “What the Fuck”. Later on he dropped, “I Remember”, the first song of his I actually did know, with its smooth vocals and mellow beat that fit well as a comedown at the end of his set.
That brought us to Armin van Buuren, the headliner for Saturday. A renowned trance DJ, often #1 on the DJ Mag polls, he is an equally talented producer with four albums under his name. But I did not stay at the packed stage and went to check out Benny Benassi’s set where the crowd was chanting his name repeatedly while the laser lights flashed. When he spun his massive hit, the pulsating-electro “Satisfaction” the crowd cheered loudly.
I caught bits of other sets including the tribal rhythm sounds of Chus & Ceballos, the legendary NYC DJ Roger Sanchez where Underworld’s “Born Slippy” could be heard from underneath the overflowing tent. I also caught a bit of Steven Aoki whose set seemed very off the wall but the rabid crowd ate it up. Finally, Tiga entertained in the smallest tent before I made my escape from Randall’s Island.
Unfortunately, I did not make it out Sunday when the line-up consisted of Ferry Corsten, Richie Hawtin, ATB, a DJ set by LCD Soundsystem, Josh Gabriel and David Guetta. Sunday’s headliner, Guetta is a huge cross-over producer, collaborating with artists like Akon, will.i.am and Kelly Rowland on his newest release One Love. I don’t have a firm opinion on him and as I was not there, it would be unfair to pass judgment, so any electronic music fans can do so; if you search for Guetta’s setlist online, he played a song by Zombie Nation (hint: search that name and “worst songs”). But otherwise, I am sure Sunday was an equally fun and positive experience as the amazingly nice weather held up and a great crowd returned. LCD Soundsystem and Corsten would have been my top choices in hopes of hearing tracks from the Sound of Silver or the Right of Way and L.E.F. albums respectively.
On both days, the main festival had an 11pm curfew, so NYC super-club Pacha took the responsibility of keeping the party going late. It hosted a few familiar faces on each festival night including Danny Tenaglia on Saturday and Ferry Corsten on Sunday.
Though the Electric Zoo Festival is over and summer fades, New Yorkers are fortunate to get electronic music year round. Tiësto is coming for three nights, Ben Watt for another two and Paul van Dyk will return for a second show before the year is out. Before those shows though, cross your fingers and hope that Electric Zoo will be held again next summer.