[5 May 2008]
Winter Music Conference
Miami Beach, FL
March 25-29, 2008
As of this writing, Philadelphia weather is in that uncertain and precarious state between winter and spring: the sun tends to shine almost every day now, but stray into the shade or catch a gust of wind when you’re not expecting it, and you’re going to feel an all-too-familiar chill. It’s one of many adjustments I’ve been forced to make since returning from Miami on a straight-up cold Sunday morning, wearing shorts and sunglasses and ready to cry.
Now, a few weeks removed from that initial shock, and with serotonin levels back to normal, I’ve come to terms with the good (weather, landscape, architecture, and, oh yeah, music), the bad ($$$), and the ugly (club rats and douchebags) that made my trip to the Winter Music Conference such an unforgettable experience.
But perhaps the most significant thing I took from WMC—and probably my biggest excuse for putting off writing this review for so long—is the feeling of inspiration I got, and still have, from seeing so many talented DJs and producers in one place, something which cannot be properly explained nor done justice with mere writing. Rather, it’s my own DJ sets that have been my primary output for this exposure. Not only has my experience of the conference broadened the range of the actual music I dig for, it’s given me exciting new ideas about how to present that music in a club setting. If you have even a passing interest in dance music, whether from the perspective of a DJ or a dancer, scrape and save and make plans early to set aside the last week of March and go for broke, because there really is nothing else as wild or uplifting as the experience of WMC—not in this country at least.
In any event, this is the kind of manic babbling that’s made this write-up almost a month overdue, so I mustn’t get derailed, especially this early in. No, the point of this is to give you full coverage of WMC, if such a thing exists. Personally, I doubt it. With literally hundreds of events and parties spread across Miami Beach and the downtown area throughout the week, an undertaking of that magnitude would require a team of reporters working out of a state-of-the-art command center (or situation room, if you will) with full internet access, GPS capability and radio communications, a fleet of high-performance convertibles, unlimited VIP access, and insider contacts at every bar, club, poolside cabana, and yacht in the city, not to mention a bottomless supply of food, water, alcohol, and narcotics (uppers mostly, for practicality’s sake, but after all, variety is the spice of life).
Unfortunately, due to budget constraints and unabashed laziness, all I’ve got to work with are some scribbled, mostly illegible, notes, and some outstanding photography courtesy of the two friends who accompanied me. So without further ado, here is my improvised diary of the 2008 Winter Music Conference in Miami Beach, an event I’m sure will go down as the beginning of a long and lasting love/hate relationship. I certainly can’t think of any other reason I’d want to spend a week in Miami, home of the $8 bottle of water.
The Miami Beach Resort & Spa on Collins Ave.
We’re well-rested and ready to go on Tuesday morning, after arriving yesterday evening and shopping for bread, peanut butter, jelly, water, and liquor to stock our hotel room. We’re on the fourth floor of the Miami Beach Resort and Spa, the official hotel of the conference, with a sideways view of the pool area if you crane your head out the window.
Downstairs, the lobby no longer resembles the tranquil scene from last night, the calm before the storm. Now, convention delegates are everywhere, checking in at the front desk, lugging suitcases and DJ equipment, heading out towards the pool with flip flops and towels. In the banquet room adjacent to the lobby we retrieve our badges and a coveted press pass for myself, and flee to the beach.
After a few hours, we hail a cab out on Collins (it will take us a little longer to achieve the presence of mind required to figure out the simple bus routes) and head south.
Basic NYC Beach Plaza Kickoff at Beach Plaza Hotel
Simon Baker in the headlights
Miami Beach appears to be at least 90 percent composed of hotels, and they’re almost all gorgeous. The Beach Plaza is no exception, with the DJ setup right smack in the middle of a subtropical garden.
This is also where I first notice that nearly everyone spinning at the conference uses CDJs rather than turntables, though a pair is usually present just in case. Not that I’m bothered by this; while I like seeing people use vinyl because it’s fun to watch, I’m no purist about it. As long as a DJ isn’t using one of those ridiculous iPod mixers, I’m really concerned only with what’s coming out of the speakers.
But I digress. I have chosen this showcase as our afternoon activity because I want to see the talent from Leftroom (Marc Ashken and Matt Tolfrey) and get a minimal fix. Apparently so has the guy break-dancing. In fact, a decent number of people are up and moving for a Tuesday afternoon, so we oblige and dance to most of Simon Baker’s set, which features some great tracks from his own Infant Records.
Incredibly, there seems to be some kind of disagreement between the promoters and the Authorities over the noise level, which is still not resolved by the time we leave to get sushi (my last meal for about 36 hours).
Wave Music Party & Hallucination Unlimited at The Pawn Shop
The Pawn Shop
FYI, it’s an approximately $21 cab ride from our hotel to the downtown area on the other side of the Biscayne Bay, but, conveniently, every place we will go to on the mainland is all contained within a radius of only a few blocks.
We arrive at the Pawn Shop around 11, only to find it deserted. The lighting is terrible, and softcore porn is being projected on one of the walls. The place is also littered with raver-kitsch eyesores, like the hollowed-out school bus covered in graffiti that’s more useful as a test tube for trapping cigarette smoke than as a place to sit and recuperate.
The crowd starts to slowly filter in, and Tedd Patterson delivers an awesome upbeat house set, getting everyone fired up for François K. The master does not disappoint, starting off housey but gradually working his way into techier regions, only to finish us off with a disco blowout.
In the other room, though, Cobblestone Jazz is the standout of the night. The trio of Danuel Tate, Tyger Dhula, and Mathew Jonson plays true to its name with a mixture of jazzy techno and house, and the energy is infectious. After Radio Slave’s spaced-out minimal techno set causes a veritable mass exodus of weary clubbers from the first room, these warm sounds seem to give everyone the second (or third) wind they need to get to 5 a.m.
Welcome to Miami at Nikki Beach
Paul Harris of Dirty Vegas fame, killing it
I won tickets to this show through Resident Advisor, and the lineup is fantastic, so I’m dead-set on going. My comrades are dragging their heels a bit, though. I can already feel things between us becoming strained, and it’s only Wednesday. Perhaps I am being a bit of a taskmaster, always keeping us on the move and out of the hotel room as much as possible, but that’s sort of what this is all about. Aside from my hour or so on the beach (and therapeutic swim in the ocean) every morning, relaxing is the last thing I want to do on this vacation.
I eventually get us out the door and we figure out when and where to catch a bus to South Beach. But we get off too soon and still have about ten blocks left to get to our destination on the tip of the island, with the scenery gradually getting more highly stylized the further we walk down Ocean Drive.
Luckily, once we arrive at Nikki Beach, we’re able to skip the line and proceed directly inside…and then right back outside, to the patio area on the beach. On the decks is a total blast from the past: Paul Harris from Dirty Vegas is spinning, and the first thing we hear coming out of the speakers is some sort of progressive house remix of “Rocket Man” by Elton John*, which looks hideous on paper but is actually pretty goddamn sweet at the moment.
Harris definitely kills it. After his set, though, the Area 1 lineup under the roof proves to be far more interesting musically (though lacking the Nip/Tuck flavor of the outdoors), and the crowd disperses accordingly. We will notice a similar divide throughout the conference, a marked split between the dress-code trance goons and the more, well, musically inclined. I’m sorry if that makes me a genre-ist or something, but I think you know what I mean.
Mobilee in particular gets props. Label boss Anja Schneider is a great techno DJ, and Sebo K is a fucking rock star. I attempt to talk to a few people about the set during my various trips to the bar and bathroom, but everyone I approach is European and can’t speak English very well: I strike out with Germany, Spain, and France. Still, they’re much nicer than most American clubbers, and the French guy even congratulates me on the play of the 76ers.
As the sun starts to sink in the sky, we make our exit and start back up the strip in search of a bus stop.
*I’ve since found the song on a blog: it’s a version by Superbass & Tom Novy, mixed by Paul Harris
Ovum vs. Poker Flat at The Vagabond
Sweat on the Walls
Though tensions had nearly reached boiling point this afternoon, the Ovum vs. Poker Flat showcase proves to be all about letting go. Right off the bat, the atmosphere is the most comfortable we’ve experienced so far, and will probably be able to defend that title for the duration of the conference. Soft lights, not too crowded, plenty of room to sit…even the drinks are priced normally. It’s quite conducive to the unspoken understanding my friends and I arrive at as we sink into one of the plush couches off in a corner, where we remain for the entire night, too caught up in the ecstasy of the vibe being put out from the booth to even attempt to dance.
Aside from the above photo, captured on a whim with my cell phone, no other photographic evidence exists linking us to The Vagabond that night—and we never even saw a single DJ from our vantage point—but this event is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the conference.
My favorite moment occurs around 2 or 3 am, when someone drops the Tiger Stripes remix of “Aria” by Lee Jones, and the three of us simultaneously look up and at each other, smile, and sigh.
Demon Days at The Delano
Poolside at The Delano
Talk about Nip/Tuck: King-size mattresses, bottle service cabanas, and plenty of silicon double-scoops surround the pool at The Delano, which is easily the most super-chic hotel I visit all week. We lounge on one of the mattresses until 7pm, when we’re informed that they’re now at a $500 minimum. Fuck that; there’s a Hennessey open bar, so we can at least pretend to be living large.
Roland Appel provides the perfect ambient-tinged soundtrack to this lazy afternoon, as we settle back into our down pillows and get stoned on brandy. My opinion of him immediately goes through the roof when he plays one of my favorite tracks of the last several months, Martin Buttrich’s remix of “The Call Up” by the Far East Band.
Demon Days co-founder Gamall is on next, and takes it up a notch above chill-out as we’re ejected from the mattress by an unsmiling pool boy. But I’m on my third Hennessey mojito, so it’s whatever. We move in closer to Gamall to better hear him over the screeching electro house of the Beatport pool party next door, which is intruding into our space.
The other end of the pool
We don’t get any pictures of Carl Craig, or any good ones I should say, because we seem to forget how to operate the flash on the camera once the sun sets. A thousand words won’t do the man justice, though, so you’ll just have to wish you were there.
Volatl and Vision Nightclub Present: Destinations at Club Empire
I only mention this party because it is the one and only time at the conference when my press pass actually impresses a doorman, not only to allow us inside without being on the list but to waive the cover and be nice about it. Thanks, man, whoever you are.
I wish I had more to write about, though, because if you looked at the flyer for this show and didn’t get a little wet, you probably don’t like techno all that much. But Lisa and I get there way too early, so the place is dead, and after doing a lap and snagging copies of the promo CD lying on every open surface we have to leave to meet up with Matt at the Pawn Shop, where he’s eager to see Dominik Eulberg.
RA vs. Kompakt at The Pawn Shop
Gui Boratto’s live set at the Pawn Shop
The Pawn Shop was empty on Tuesday compared to this. Tonight, the clubbers are out in force, many of them dressed to the nines, and though I’ve been in high spirits all week, I start getting annoyed when people bump into me as I try to dance, first to über-remixer Ewan Pearson’s sugary house jams and then to Gui Boratto’s spirited live set. Everywhere I attempt to settle into a groove eventually becomes an avenue for people jockeying to get closer to the front, and it’s damn aggravating.
After Gui Boratto we’re expecting Dominik Eulberg, but I find out later that he had to back out of his appearance due to illness. Resident Advisor has gotten Radio Slave to replace him though, and to my delight he opens with the mammoth Villalobos track “Fizbeast”, a 35-minute minimal stormer that basically confuses and alienates most of the dancefloor when he plays about half of it. Radio Slave is far more engaging this time around, perhaps due to the fact that his audience is quadruple the size of what he had on Tuesday night, and he eventually lures back the deserters. I’m at the front now, and I’ve got my elbow room, so I’m cool with that.
Ultra Music Festival 2008 - Day 1 at Bicentennial Park
Richie Hawtin (if you squint) at the Ultra Festival
For the most part, Ultra proves to be the biggest waste of time at the conference. The candy ravers and goth kids kind of make me feel old—the median age of attendees must be somewhere around 17—but the sound is the biggest problem here. Out in the open, it all bleeds together to the point where you can’t distinguish Erol Alkan from Boys Noize from Justice from Tiësto from…ok, well, Tiësto clearly sucks no matter what. But either way, this whole setup is just an aural and logistical clusterfuck, which is a shame because there are some great musicians on the bill.
Inside the Carl Cox & Friends tent, this proves to be especially true: Carl Cox, of course, Josh Wink, Danny Tenaglia, and Richie Hawtin, who just blows me away. I’ve never seen someone be such a cocktease with bass, but he knows exactly how to do it right. Characteristic acid and techno gives way to a fist-pumping old-school house finale before Tenaglia takes over. And when Carl Cox comes on I feel bad for hating on those kids earlier, because this shit makes me feel like I’m a teenager going out to clubs for the first time, and it feels awesome.
One Night Only… an AM Only Event at Karu & Y
Misstress Barbara at Karu & Y
It turns out that Karu & Y is exactly the kind of place I’ve been dreading we would end up at eventually. The line to get in is down the block, and it’s a full-on dress code, bottle service crowd. Some of them are nice enough, like the blonde who gushes over Lisa and insists they’re best friends when she lets her bum a cigarette. I overhear some disconcerting chatter, though, specifically the fact that the cover to get in tonight is $70—which, in a way, is justifiable considering the lineup, but still. I decide to see just how useful this press pass of mine is.
Turns out, not very. I take us to the front of the VIP/press line and smoothly tell the woman with the clipboard that I’m with PopMatters, assuring her that, even though she can’t find me on the list, my editor has made the proper arrangements for me and my photographers here. When that doesn’t work, I mention that the site gets millions of hits every day (it doesn’t), so if the club wants the publicity they should really let us in, because what difference is three more people anyway?
She looks us meaningfully up and down and doesn’t budge. I try to retaliate, but the six-hour energy drink I had at Ultra is starting to wreak havoc on my digestive system, so my arguments quickly deteriorate into inhuman snarls of desperation and finally, into surrender. Seventy bucks poorer, I make sure to take my vengeance upon the bathroom once we’re inside.
Of course, it ends up being totally worth it. While I’m murdering the bathroom, Lisa runs into Philly’s own Dave P, whose earlier set we missed. The outdoor room where he played is the one that’s completely stacked, though, so we end up camping out there for the rest of the night, ignoring both indoor douchebag-filled rooms.
Misstress Barbara plays a block of funky techno, and Green Velvet follows by adding even more bounce. Around 4:00 or so, Matt and Lisa head back to the hotel, but I resolve to go all out tonight and still be here when the sun rises. Steve Bug inadvertently provides the soundtrack to my decision, opening his set with the Carl Craig remix of Sebastien San’s “Rising Sun”; when that yields to the Dubfire rework of “Spastik” by Plastikman, everyone loses their shit.
I’m still going strong for Guy Gerber, and when he plays “Belly Dancing”, it has the effect of a Jäeger bomb. The sky is getting steadily lighter now, and rather than thin out, the crowd is swelling, both with exiles from the now-closed indoors and with brand new arrivals looking for the early morning action. By the time Richie Hawtin and Magda hit the stage, the whole place is jammed.
I’m starting to feel fatigue now, relying on pure adrenaline to keep my body locked into the inertia of non-deliberate dancing, and Richie’s bass-withholding habits aren’t helping me to maintain a steady groove. He and Magda switch off every couple tracks, though, so it’s fun to watch, until the whole system shorts out, eliciting thunderous applause. It’s not long before they get everything up and running again, but when it happens again, and then a third time, my fragile nerves can’t take it, and I stumble out into the blinding 9 a.m. sun and hail a cab.
The Odyssey: A Yacht Party
Jarred awake by sub-par dubstep, the bass pummeling and reverberating off every surface in the room. I’m exhausted and my legs are sore. The Hi-Tek Soul party with Kevin Saunderson is not even an option. It’s going to be enough of a struggle to get to the yacht before it sets sail.
Matthew Dear doing his Audion thing
Of course, by now it’s common knowledge that the Odyssey ultimately only sailed for about 45 minutes, if that, due to a busted generator. This, after getting underway two hours late thanks to Homeland Security all but cavity-searching everyone before boarding. Yeah, Homeland Security was there. Because if I were a terrorist I’d go straight for the techno parties; that’s how you break America’s spirit!
No matter. The tracks Kate Simko plays are perfect sunset minimal as we slip away from the dock, and Pär Grindvik goes even deeper with his live set. By the time Matthew Dear gets on, the boat is no longer sailing, but that doesn’t mean it’s stopped moving. People are literally swinging from the rafters, hanging upside-down and screaming. Richie Hawtin is posing for pictures. Seth Troxler is wearing booty shorts and grinding up on girls. Dear plays an edit of “Mouth to Mouth” that causes a collective orgasm. Seriously, I can’t do this anymore; look for a clip on YouTube.
His last track, and essentially the last thing I hear at the Winter Music Conference, is brand new and a seeeeecret, according to one of the label reps onboard. A few weeks later, Dear’s hard drive will be stolen literally right out from under his nose at a Brooklyn gig. I hope to God he has that track backed up somewhere.
And so our trip comes winding down. We have a flight at six in the morning, so we decide that the Odyssey is as good a place as any to end it. We spend our last night in the hotel room and in the pool, drinking and making our own playlist, going without sleep until it’s time to throw everything in a suitcase and hail a cab to take us to the airport. I suppose it was poor planning to leave before Sunday School for Degenerates, but we’ll be back next year, seasoned professionals.
Outside it’s still dark. We put our bags in the trunk of the cab, take one last look into the lobby of the Miami Beach Resort & Spa and speed away to the airport. I fall asleep immediately after boarding the plane, and when I wake up I’m back to reality, sunny but in the 40s.