Some things are inevitable at Ultra: Slamming main-stage sets from artists like Afrojack, Kaskade and David Guetta. The occasional pop star drop-by (e.g., Madonna, Will.i.am). Lots and lots of neon. But every year, there are moments of higher consequence: Sets that test if new artists are worth the hype, demonstrate the fervor of an upstart's fan base, broadcast the arrival of a new sound or trend, or give an established name a chance to renew himself. Below, seven such must-see sets over Ultra's two weekends. Don't miss them.
After his "Harlem Shake" spawned a global video meme and hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, It Boy producer Baauer (aka Harry Rodrigues) decided not to do any TV appearances or pop collaborations. So his early-evening set on the Trapped stage (March 23) is essentially his post-"Shake" coming-out party. "I've gone to Ultra twice as a fan, so going now as an artist is both incredibly exciting and absolutely nerve-wracking," he says. "I'm going to be playing a lot of jazz and maybe even some really exciting baroque stuff," he joked.
Disclosure hit No. 2 on the U.K. pop chart with instant classic "White Noise," heralding that country's vocal house revival. The act's set on the Live stage (March 23) will test whether it can repeat the feat stateside. The 20-something brother duo of Guy and Harold Lawrence recently sold out a small-venue North American tour. But Ultra's a much bigger stage, literally and otherwise, and they know it: "We're rolling out a brand-new live set," Harold says. "We've been working really hard to improve it over the last few months--lots more instruments and better production."
DJ'ing with vinyl records might seem old school, but Austrian stalwart Cassy Britton, better-known as Cassy, will bring fresh tracks to Ultra not on zip drive, but on wax. "I've bought a lot of really good music in 2013, so I want to play as many new records as possible," she says of her set in the Carl Cox & Friends Arena (March 15). As a resident DJ at Panorama Bar, the house-oriented floor of Berlin's Berghain nightclub, Cassy is used to a smaller room and an edgier clientele. But if she can pull it off, she could advance the case for deeper music on festival stages.
A huge main-stage set from Tiesto--with pomp, pyro and all manner of special effects--is an Ultra given (and will take place March 22). But to diversify the festival's extended two-weekend offering, the Dutch super-DJ (as well as other headliners like David Guetta and Avicii) is playing another set as well, at the not-as-huge MegaStructure, a semi-enclosed tent. While his main-stage set will "obviously be bigger," says Tiesto (real name: Tijs Michael Verwest), he has special things planned for March 17 in the MegaStructure: "I'll be debuting a couple of new tracks, and unveiling new visuals."
Just as he walked the Grammy Awards' red carpet with collaborator Sirah, reigning Ultra king Skrillex has decided to share his throne this year. Dog Blood, his collaboration with German mainstay Boys Noize (aka Alex Ridha), will make its festival debut (March 17) and replace a Skrillex main-stage set, uniting the colossal sonic might of two EDM all-stars in one DJ booth. "Dog Blood is something new, rather than a fusion of both Skrillex and Boys Noize music," says Ridha, who's played the festival every year since 2007. "We'll be premiering a few new songs, too."
This three-piece dance band already had some hype, thanks to fetching singer/songwriter sisters Jahan and Yasmine Yousaf, and a self-released EP of singalong pop-step. But now they've got a top 40 radio hit in "Alive," so the pressure to perform (March 17) is on. The group will present "a live DJ set infused with a vocal performance," Jahan says, and premiere a few new tracks, undoubtedly from recording sessions for its debut album, slated for release this year on Columbia.
Just when the energy of underground hero Nicolas Jaar's recent set at live-streamed Internet party Boiler Room was about to crest, a cord snapped and the sound cut out. The abrupt ending was oddly fitting for the New York-based producer's eccentric selections, and proof that Jaar's live appearances are unpredictable. Even he doesn't know what to anticipate from his headlining performance at Ultra on March 15 on the Live stage (with his full band). "It's fun to push people's boundaries and see how far they can go," he says.