Electric Zoo (August 31-September 2) might not be the country's largest, splashiest, or most hyped electronic dance music festival. But we're going to go on record and say that it's the best.
Electric Zoo 2012
There are basic, tangible reasons for this designation: Randall's Island has grass, not asphalt, introducing "lolling about" as an alternate option to "dancing" and "trekking between stages." September in New York is mercifully cooler than, say, Vegas in June or Miami in March. Concessions include mini-cheesecakes and Pad Thai, instead of chicken fingers and $7 pizza slices. Clean-up crews make the rounds throughout the day, so the grounds aren't a cesspool of garbage and empty water bottles by closing time. The tents are sturdy; the sound systems overloud but properly thumpy; the queues never impossibly long; the water, free.
But it's the intangibles that make Zoo so different from its supersized sisters (and to be fair, the bigger these things get, the more unwieldy). Perhaps the care that producer/promoter Made Event puts into the details begets care on the part of the partiers: The young crowd seemed to carry itself with a stronger sense of personal responsibility. The booking policy toes the line between expected and adventurous: David Guetta headlined the main stage on Friday, but dubstep band EOTO hit actual skins in the Hilltop Arena on Sunday. Attendees were able to see their favorite artists, and discover a few new ones -- and it was obvious that those fresh names were carefully curated by organizers, not hustled onto the lineup by the headliners' booking agents.
The perfection of the weather over these three days only added to the easy, breezy vibe -- despite the volume and ferocity of a lot of the sets. Here are some standouts.
With Diplo prodige Dillon Francis drawing a significant crowd to the Fool's Gold Clubhouse, Guetta collaborator Nicky Romero kept fans singing and dancing through his mid-day Main Stage set. In fact it turned into a bonafide singalong, with tracks like Eva Simons' "I Don't Like You" and Romero's mix of Zedd's "Spectrum" giving the crowds something to chirp to. Romero kept the vocals coming, and fans frequently paused dancing to lift their heads up toward the bright blue sky and belt the lyrics.
Hardwell took the Main Stage after Romero, and a skank-fest worthy of a mid-90's punk concert broke out by stage left. He dropped several mashups, including Kanye West & Jay-Z's "Niggas In Paris" with Benny Benassi's robotic "Satisfaction" - but stayed true to his name, closing with a triptych of electro aggression: Dada Life's "Kick Out The Epic Motherfucker," Knife Party's "Rage Valley," and Flux Pavilion's "Bass Cannon."
David Guetta punctuated a darker and harder set than usual by dropping an unreleased track, "Just For One Time" feat. Taped Ray. This video captures the moment.
Pretty Lights, aka Derek Smith, cut his 90-minute headlining set down to 60, graciously allowing his first Pretty Lights Music signing, Polish producer Michael Menert, to sneak in a half-hour set of his Middle Eastern-inflected rhythms.
With the release of their debut full-length slated for this year, it's time for Dada Life to explode. The Swedish duo's set saw the Saturday Main Stage's biggest hoard. Spotted in the crowd: an elderly woman dancing and singing along to every word - in a bright banana-yellow top, of course (Dada's signature fruit).
Swedish House Mafia announced their break-up in late June, but that didn't keep their biggest (and not even their latest!) single "Save The World" from being the most frequently played track of Electric Zoo. Dropping this hit is the DJ-ing equivalent of taking your top off so that people look at you. Look no further for evidence of the complacency and desperation that 45-minute festival sets can spawn.
House was the order of the day for Main Stagers Nervo and Bingo Players, who benefited from more bodies and more energy than Friday (a typical festival progression).
While 12th Planet slammed the bass in the Dim Mak tent next door, Madonna collaborator and "Hello" hitmaker Martin Solveig kept the Hillside Tent crew moving with some high-energy house. He dropped Igan Gough and Feenixpaul's "In My Mind," a Solveig set favorite, sending the crowd into hands-in-the-air ecstasy.
"I'm the alternative today," announced Z-Trip at the top of his early afternoon Hilltop Arena set. The longtime DJ plays everything from classic rock to hip-hop, but those in the third-full tent picked up what he was laying down. Amongst a sea of digital DJs playing the same European dance tracks in the same exact way, Z-Trip was doing some hard manual work up there: Dropping acappellas, cutting and scratching, riding tricky transitions - you know, DJ-ing. And he played everything, from Robert Plant's epic moans on Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" to vocal dubstep favorite "Hold On" (Rusko as remixed by Sub Focus) when the kids got impatient for some bass (which seemed to happen after more than ten seconds of silence, or actual instrument sounds).
Knife Party celebrated its members' histories as rave legends (in electronic band Pendulum) with a blistering main stage set that ranged harder toward the electro side than almost anything else at Zoo. They played a lot of their own work - most of the tracks from their two EPs thus far, and yes, their remix of SHM's "Save The World" - as well as wordless bangers like Mightyfails & Jordy Dazz's snare-hitting beast "Drum Fail." Next to the dubstep guys, Knife Party stabs the hardest.
Excision plays mostly in Middle America and Canada (his home country), so the New York dubsteppers don't get to see him that often. The nearly all-male front row was noticeably stoked during his early evening Hilltop Arena set, flashing cross-wrist X's (his trademark) and at one point erupting into a full-on slam-dance - brostep in action. Excision, aka Jeff Abel, played a lot of his flinty, hip-hop inflected full-length X-Rated, including a pitched-up version of the Donald Duck-sampling "Ohhh Nooo."
No one does vocal + dubstep = RAGE! quite like Flux Pavilion and Doctor P. When the U.K. pair dropped Flux's mix of DJ Fresh's "Louder" (featuring the unmistakable vocals of drum 'n' bass queen Sian Evans, of electronic band Kosheen), the crowd roared in recognition, then thrashed with particular fervor for the particularly satisfying drop.
Already developing an enviable production profile, Zedd will be the breakout DJ star of 2013, if his Zoo set is any indication. The diminutive German packed the Riverside Tent to overflowing, sticking to his own canon of electro-charged explosions, plus the more melodic stuff like "Spectrum," the first single from his forthcoming Interscope album, which none other than Lady Gaga affectionately Tweeted about in late August.
Skrillex moved from the tents last year, to the closing slot on the Main Stage this year (behind even Tiësto), and his bass-powered set - delivered this time from his custom-fabricated spaceship/booth - lived up to the increased scope. He played the hits - his own "Kyoto," and "Make It Bun Dem" with Damian Marley - plus his usual interludes of reggae and hip-hop, and even a frisky drop of the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" theme song. Cut with video clips - like the Indian version of "Thriller," and some monstrous anime - stuttering and dropping along with the music, plus pyro, lights, and all the rest, it was an appropriately epic close to Zoo.