Photos | Review | Electric Zoo Festival | New York

Words by: Chadbyrne R. Dickens | Images by: Bennett Sell-Kline, Doug Van Sant, and Maggie Nelson

Electric Zoo Festival :: 08.31.12-09.02.12 :: Randall's Island :: New York, NY

Full review below photo gallery!

Electric Zoo 2012 by Bennett Sell-Kline
Sometimes the lunatics run the asylum, and for 3 days on 4-acre Randall's Island on Labor Day weekend in New York City, the animals were set free to run the Zoo. The 4th annual Electric Zoo Festival, the premier EDM (Electronic Dance Music) festival in the country, proved again to be an impressive gathering ground for young music goers to entrance themselves within the musically euphoric offerings of today's dubstep, trance and electric house genres. With 110,000 attendees over the three days, it was a smashing success.

Arriving via ferry, subway or automobile, fans set out in search of the Electric Zoo for the 107 acts spread over 4 stages. As other current uber-successful acts like Taylor Swift can attest, one should never underestimate the power of the youth in the marketplace. Simply punch up any YouTube video of Skrillex, the DJ obsession d’jour , to witness each nearly has 100,000,000 views. The fans are absolutely far more multi-cultural when juxtaposed to other Festivals, with music goers of varied backgrounds in attendance, including a significant representation of our brothers and sisters from the Far East.

Electric Zoo Revelers by Maggie Nelson
Fans of other genres are often critical about the EDM movement. However, one must respect that unlike many other festivals, people at EDM shows dance and often keep propelling their bodies and bobbing heavy heads through sweat and exhaustion. The cohesion between fans is not so much in the act of dancing as it is in the solidarity simply created because one is in proximity to similarly like-minded peeps. At one point at the end of the final day, in blistering heat and with growing crowds due to the larger acts present that day, a very rare announcement was made on the PA system for safety concerns, “If you are experiencing dizziness, or if you have an elevated heartbeat…” The crowd spontaneously burst into an uproar of applause as if to say, “of course we all have an elevated heartbeat!” One who is not an avid follower of this genre may not know why 15% of the crowd was sucking on a pacifier. Incredulously, it may prove hilarious and beyond the scope of any rational behavior and defy acceptable explanation, but remains a strong representation of the current zeitgeist among this generation of festival attendees.

The enormous upbeat creative crowds may be the most entertaining in terms of people-watching, this side of Burning Man. The 1960’s left tie-dyes to the jam crowds of today, and the unofficial ‘costume’ is very apparent the moment one enters through security and into sensory overload. The most prevalent colors are pink, teal or anything neon with furry boots, ballerina dresses, hula hoops and with tank tops adorning slogans like, “Sex, Drugs and Dub Step” or “Drop bass not bombs”. The most prevalent slang term today, “YOLO” was a fervently seen acronym.

Amidst the hordes of frenetic youngsters chasing another adventurous moment at one of the stages, a majestic and magical respite from the madness was situated near the front entrance. The Garden of Electric Zoo lit up the trees lining the hillside with over 1000 bright neon butterflies, colored lights and gnomes. This served as a more than satisfactory meeting spot to find friends amongst a calm and relaxed atmosphere where many stopped to catch a breadth and endlessly gaze at the visual stimulation.

The Electric Zoo was a professionally run and highly organized Festival. In addition to clear direction, signage, an easy to follow Festival guide, convenient and logical safety stations, and varied food trucks and vendors, they had free water-refill stations and booths that sold wine and champagne, a very rare treat for libation lovers, as festival rarely ever sell hard alcohol to those without VIP tickets. Considering it was a festival, it was odd that there were no other frills and a lack of varied merchandise for sale or any real vending presence, but with so much stimulation being provided amongst the varied stages, this was not necessary.

Ferry Corsten by Doug Van Sant
Many readers may ask, “What does a DJ actually do?” One may think they just stand stoically while pressing a computer button, don’t actually play an instrument, or feed off the crowd. With no instruments, there is minimal break between acts, allowing for more continuity to flow endless music and not lose the rhythm. When I asked a DJ how I could tell if one was a DJ or not from afar, he said, “Look for sunglasses that look expensive, that no one else has, jeans and a posse.” Except for a DJ yelling “Hey” or “Let’s Go!” or “Alright New York!”, it is quite rare to hear any vocals within EDM, except for the acts that utilize the sampling of a song in order to remix or manipulate it to fit their sound and to showcase their talents on the board. The vast choices were most compelling over the course of the weekend, as many of the songs included grooves from tunes created before the current generation, and by bands that likely most fans didn’t even know, such as Blondie.

One can predict that someone new to EDM, or green to the scene, will probably quickly conclude that “it all sounds the same.” However, just like a new reggae fan with an untrained ear may claim to a veteran, “this all sounds the same”, EDM is strewn with varied tempo, sounds, approach and nuance. It takes time to discern which particular act or sound may fit your wheelhouse.

David Guetta by Bennett Sell-Kline
Friday Highlights

David Guetta :: 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM :: Main Stage

The Parisian DJ David Guetta, having already sold 15 million singles worldwide, is arguably the most popular on the scene. He possesses the innate ability to ‘move the crowd’ and delivered a monster set that included many songs one would not expect, rather than a rehash of his known favorites. After a remix of One Republic’s “Too Late to Apologize”, he played his new song, “She Wolf” for the first time in the US, and admirably placed the Florence and the Machine vocal from “Spectrum” within “Sunshine” to exemplary results. Guetta is a well-known and established DJ who keeps things interesting and alive, and he continued that tradition on this day with his varied and daring set selections. Known to only play songs he has produced, he surprised with a varied delivery of selections. He included the crowd-pleasing collaborative hit with Usher, “Without You” to awesome adulation from the audience as it closed the set.

Pretty Lights by Bennett Sell-Kline
Pretty Lights :: 10:00 PM – 11:00 PM :: Main Stage

Skrillex may be the poster boy of the movement, and the unofficial headliner closing the Festival, but considering his detractors, the highlight of the weekend for most may have been Derek Vincent Smith, aka Pretty Lights. Closing out the first night of the fiery and rambunctious weekend, Smith immediately ignited the crowd with Aaron Neville’s “Hot Like Sauce”, which set off a firestorm of energetic foot stomping and hand pounding. Complete with his usual hip-hop inspired production, he seamlessly segued into Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” playing over Nas’ “New York State of Mind”, “Still Rockin’” and “I Can See It in Your Face.” The hip-hop beats interspersed with funk, classic rock and soulful sounds captivated a crowd ripe to grind, as near Midnight moon adorned the crisp New York City air. The set was one of the very few all weekend where attendees huddled close, sweaty and tight and did not depart mid-set to find more comfortable space or investigate other stimulating options. At times, the music was as close to a jam band sound as one would hear all weekend. A contagious set list, complete with his patented trippy surreal neon kaleidoscope stage production, left no one willing to miss any of the special moments Smith was stringing together to evoke.

Saturday Highlights

Datsik :: 7:45 PM – 9:00 PM :: Riverside Tent

Datsik, aka Troy Beetles, the Canadian Dubstep DJ, was a highlight for a variety of reasons. Naturally, the prolonged energetic and layered builds were engaging and intensely mesmerizing, resulting into a heavily satisfactory drop that made the tent move and many fan’s souls visibly shake. Also, in addition to Beetles behind the table, there was a dreadlocked singer occasionally adding live vocals, encouraging the fans with inciteful banter and dancing with a style that oozed cool, while wearing a shirt reading, “Bring back da Ruckus”. However, one need listen to the fat beats being dropped for only a few bars to realize the band possessed a unique style and approach. The band’s musical pinnings were oft-rooted in the inherently festive genre of reggae music. Nothing can incite a frenzy of fanatic would-be partiers than the heavy fat grooves inherent in the Jamaican jam.

Steve Aoki by Bennett Sell-Kline
Steve Aoki :: 9:00 PM – 10:15 PM :: Riverside Tent

The Californian electro house Master exhibited the exact performance legions of fans have consistently expected from the innovative producer. Aoki has developed a strong reputation as a DJ but also through his record label, Dim Mak records, where he has displayed a knack for introducing quality outfits, including Infected Mushroom and Datsik. Well respected in the music community, he has collaborated with a who’s who in the business, including Tiesto. Although an entrepreneur with ownership in restaurants, a magazine, a management company, and a clothing line with sister Devon, his prowess on the stage remains at the forefront. Always a people-pleaser with a knack for entertaining the crowd, Aoki played a pop-heavy set list of crowd favorites including a remix of “Hungary Like the Wolf.” Aoki leaves little for improvisation musically, as the peaks are programmed, but adds a visual element by throwing numerous artifacts at the audience. The set was popping with energy and included Aoki’s requisite entertaining romp crowd surfing while sitting in a raft. I asked Aoki about his stage antics and why he put more effort into this aspect of his sets than his contemporaries, “People want to be entertained and see a show. I want to play off the crowd’s energy and introduce new ideas. So far people have been accepting of each new direction I attempt.”

Sunday Highlights

Paper Diamond :: 1:20 PM – 2:20 PM :: Riverside Tent

From the “out of left field” category comes Alex Botwin, aka Paper Diamond. Botwin is part of the Pretty Lights Label that is beginning to take over the scene with acts like Break Science and Gramatik. He immediately blurted out upon meeting me representing JamBase, “I’m a huge jam fan. I love Phish and all that shit. I grew up on jam music and actually still listen to much of it today, it remains an influence that shapes my music.” A modest, articulate and extremely friendly man wearing huge black rimmed glasses, Botwin explained that his roots lie in a variety of musical tastes and have positively colored his music. Not only is he known for a wide variety of styles, but is a breath of fresh air in the scene. Many await the follow-up to his successful EP. His set varied from electro house to glitch-hop, including “Time Flies”, “Levitate,” and “Can We Go Up.” With many outside the EDM fan base complaining that “it all sounds the same”, that adage could never be pinned on Botwin, leaving an audience always wondering, “what’s next?”

Krewella by Bennett Sell-Kline
Krewella :: 2:20 PM – 3:20 PM :: Riverside Tent

Surprisingly, the highlight of the weekend was the lesser-known, but quickly ascending band, Krewella. Not only was this upbeat and contagious outfit led by two gorgeous women, with Yasmine Yousaf poised to quickly become to EDM what Kournikova was to tennis, but this trio proved unique compared to the other performers. The Chicago outfit offered up powerful catchy live vocals and a stage presence that evoked a natural effervescence that felt like a sincere invitation to let loose and party. Although they deliver the builds and drops as well as anyone, they are effortlessly successful in engaging the listener throughout the entire song. Band member, Yasmine Yousaf described the music as “Something that makes you want to rage, get sweaty, headbang and bang.” One only need listen to a portion of their breakthrough single, "Killin' It", to feel their pleasant wrath of dance destruction.

EOTO :: 5:10 PM-6:10 PM :: Hilltop Arena

Even before hearing a note, one must respect the approach and musicianship of the Colorado duo. Michael Travis and Jason Hann (also players in The String Cheese Incident) were the only act at the Festival that was 100% live and improvised. A versatile duo, the jam stalwarts utilize their roots to share sensory stylings that evoke a fresh take on Dubstep/house/bass-driven music, while infusing unique trippy sounds and mixing vocals with varied live instrumentation. With an extensive tour schedule, including a diverse array of Festivals such as Catskill Chill, EOTO was the most jam friendly act at the Festival. Often, bands say they want to blaze a path through originality, and EOTO is a rare example of it coming to fruition. I asked Jason Hann about his non-stop touring schedule, “It can be challenging but I have the opportunity to play with two amazing bands and will always cherish that I can share music with so many throughout the year.” They are on an extensive tour throughout Fall 2012.

Amidst a summer of umpteen festivals, Electric Zoo was an original and different scene. True music lovers want to expand their knowledge of music in order to make an informed decision. It is ignorant to judge a musical movement or genre based on pre-conceived notions or snap judgments based on misperception. One may go to a zoo and not want to necessarily see a certain animal because assumptions one won’t like it. The only way to understand a festival like Electric Zoo, and the music in it, is to immerse one into the scene. While attempting to assimilate into the unique experience, similar somewhat to Bonnaroo in its scope of extreme stimulation, one may not want to play with the animals, but even just learning the rituals and habits of the species while observing them is worth the price of admission itself.

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[Published on: 9/26/12]

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