You’d think there’s no way Las Vegas could be more brightly illuminated, more dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, more accommodating of radically skin-baring fashion. But for three balmy nights kicking off June 24th, all the things that make Vegas Vegas were massively amplified as the Electric Daisy Carnival landed on the sprawling grounds of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway a half-hour outside of town. More than 150 of the planet’s biggest DJs and electronic acts – including Tiesto, David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia, who each headlined a night on the Titanic-sized pyro-and-laser equipped main stage – played for 240,000 of the happiest, most surreally accessorized (giant inflatable banana? check.) and nakedest music fans in America.
"It’s just like a rock festival, only without guitars, bass and drums," veteran Italian DJ Benny Benassi told Rolling Stone backstage, before amping the Saturday night crowd for French superstar David Guetta, who was speeding to EDC via helicopter. "It might not seem the same to [older] behind-the-scenes people in the music business, but to the young people it’s exactly the same."
Spread over six massive stages – equipped with hi-res LED arrays, extremely epilepsy-unfriendly strobes and monster PAs that made the sonic-boom kick drums and serrated synths felt as much as heard – the Electric Daisy Carnival was a little like a chemically tweaked version of Coachella or Bonnaroo, packed with familiar music twisted into new, adrenalized forms: DJs from Guetta to Dirty South dropped Benassi’s pummeling, soaring remix of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ "Otherside"; Guetta, Tiesto and Swedish House Mafia’s Steve Angello (playing a solo set Friday night) all broke out a hard-edged version of Adele’s "Rolling In the Deep." During their blast of a sunrise set, Diplo and Switch’s dancehall crew Major Lazer chopped together everything from Ace of Base’s "All That She Wants" and Harry Bellafonte’s "Day O (Banana Boat Song)" to Duck Sauce’s 2010 dance smash "Barbra Streisand."
Dutch DJ Laidback Luke, who followed Swedish House Mafia on the main stage Sunday night, ranged furthest, deploying pieces of Swizz Beatz’ "It’s Me Bitches," Kanye West’s "All of the Lights," Terror Squad’s "Lean Back," Robin S’s "Show Me Love" and Blur’s stadium rock anthem "Song 2". Steve Aoki surprised with a tough set of new tracks, including killer collaborations with Diplo ("Sacred Peyote") and the young Dutch breakout star Afrojack ("No Beef") – who not only played two sets, but seemed to be having the most fun of anyone at the festival in the side-stage VIP section.
On his way to the heliport Saturday night, Guetta broke down the difference between the club sets he plays to hardcore fans and performing for the vast EDC crowd. "This is a show, this is like a concert," he said. "I think of it like a concert – there’s the big light show, it’s more about my music. At a club I play everything. I ask my agent to make sure I play at least one club a month – it’s what inspires me." Taking the stage at EDC, Guetta definitely put on a show: he unleashed one monster track after another ("Love is Gone," "When Love Takes Over," the Diplo collaboration "C’mon") as fireworks exploded overhead, acrobats tumbled across a narrow trampoline that ran the width of the stage, and, in the most surreal moment, Flavor Flav appeared with a mic and got the crowd chanting his name as he bounced happily on the trampoline.
Since 1997, EDC had been a Los Angeles institution – but following last year's widely reported drug-related death of a 15-year-old girl, the festival decamped this year for Las Vegas, whose mayor welcomed the promoters Insomniac by officially declaring an Electric Daisy Carnival Week. Unsurprisingly, security was tight, with a comically long list of prohibited items. But in the end, remarkably few incidents were reported – a few dozen arrests and not a single life-threatening health problem. (A 19-year-old man died earlier this month at a Dallas edition of EDC; two people died this year at Bonnaroo.)
Throughout the weekend, Vegas felt like summer camp for DJs, especially at the Cosmopolitan, the new Strip hotel that housed most of the artists. Fans staked out elevator bays for Facebook photo ops, DJs hit the blackjack tables and drank together by the pools. At a daytime pool party next door at Aria, German DJ Boys Noize – whose morning set was a highlight of Night Two – gathered friends including Diplo and rising DJ Skrillex, a former emo singer signed to Deadmau5’s label.
When the pool party wrapped, the crew commandeered the hotel’s nightclub Haze, with Boys Noize spinning tracks accompanied by Diplo on a keyboard. Later that night, during Skrillex’s own set, he turned the stage into yet another party, packing it with fellow DJs, dancers, industry types and members of the media. Toward the end, he managed the impossible at EDC – creating total silence, as he convinced the crowd of thousands to quietly remember his friend Ryan Dunn, the Jackass star who died in a car crash the week before the festival.
All EDC, anticipation had been building for the closing-night set by Swedish House Mafia – the Scandinavian trio of Axwell, Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso – who debuted their epic remix of Coldplay’s new single "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall," building on the tune’s ravey, Underworld-ish intro. "Shit can happen when we play together that wouldn’t happen when we play solo," Axwell said the night before, eating with his bandmates at a Japanese spot on the Strip. "It’s three brains working together." The Swedish crew’s monster single "Save The World" – which has racked up nearly 15 million YouTube views – was a goosebump moment when it they finally played it, with vocalist John Martin singing and all three mafiosi up onto the top of their DJ console, dancing along with the crowd.
Because of the pressure of pleasing such a vast audience, act after act dropped the same handful of guaranteed crowd-pleasers, giving a déjà vu quality to wandering between the stages. But in a nice twist, what might have been the weekend’s biggest jam wasn’t a remix of any of the pop, R&B or hip-hop stars currently riding house beats to the top of the Hot 100. It was a aggressive new take on the twisted mid-Nineties Chicago house classic "Flash" by Green Velvet, who also lit up the second-largest stage with a set of own. Another vet, techno legend Richie Hawtin, played twice – including one of the weekend’s musical peaks: the menacing, nail-hard minimal tracks he cranked out under his Plastikman moniker. In a nice twist, the most famous Plastikman track, the machine-gun assault "Spastik," was sampled by younger acts throughout the weekend.
And in the end, it really was the massiveness of EDC that makes it special: so many of the scene’s biggest stars, the perfect sound, the retina-frying lights, the endless amusements (carnival rides; nightly 4th of July-worthy fireworks; fire-breathing Burning Man-style art; stunt planes buzzing the grounds in formation at dawn). "It’s the location, it’s the synergy around it, it’s the fact that it’s the biggest one," Skrillex said backstage before his much-buzzed set. "It’s EDC!"
Additional reporting by Melissa Arseniuk