It took three years but Ultra Abu Dhabi has finally arrived in the capital.
The popular dance music festival, which originated in Miami in 1999, has since expanded to more than 20 countries including South Korea, Japan, Peru and Brazil. It was meant to debut in the Middle East in March 2020, but was postponed because of the global pandemic — but it turns out the festival was worth the wait.
Day one of the two-day event featured headliners Skrillex, Illenium and Kshmr on the main stage while Adam Beyer closed out the Resistance stage with a massive two-hour set.
Doors opened at Etihad Park at 3pm but it was early evening before the crowds appeared. While Ultra is also known for its music, fashion is another notable aspect of the festival and Abu Dhabi concertgoers did not disappoint.
Neon-coloured clothing, light-up footwear, glowing accessories and glitter make-up were de rigueur, with attendees decked out in looks that wouldn't be out of place at other Ultra festivals around the world. During a break between sets, organisers announced fans came from Chile, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Spain.
After the sun had set, Indian-American DJ Kshmr took to the decks alongside an orchestra and dancers to bring Kshmr: The Live Experience to Abu Dhabi for the first time. His set was an energising boost that really got the crowd engaged. The DJ played some of his hit tracks such as the Tiesto collaboration Secrets as well as his remix of MGMT’s Kids. He also nodded to the first song he ever “produced that got popular” with tones from Far East Movement’s hit Like a G6.
The cinematic aspect of his set — which includes an animated film playing in the background as a break during songs — along with the live orchestra and energetic dancers, was impressive. He closed out his performance by thanking the crowd: “I’m honoured to be part of the first Ultra in Abu Dhabi with you guys,” he said to the cheering ensemble.
Fellow American DJ Illenium was up next, opening his set with the dub-heavy track Feel Something — a bit of a switch from Kshmr's softer sounds. His songs featured a heavy bass line then slowed the tempo with a switch to pop, such as a remix of Taylor Swift’s Anti-Hero as well as the tracks Luv Me a Little, Sideways and Blood.
At first the set seemed jarring, but it evened out as it unfolded. Illenium also played remixes of some EDM bangers including Alesso and One Republic’s If I Lose Myself, Marshmello and Khalid’s Silence and a remix of The Chainsmokers’ hit song Don’t Let Me Down. Closing out his set, the DJ told the crowd it was his “first time in this part of the world.”
After a final 10-minute break, Skrillex took to the main stage, opening with the newly released Ratata from his recent album Quest for Fire. The bass-heavy, in-your-face opening song explained why it made sense to have Illenium as the DJ on stage before Skrillex, as the gradual shift of the night finished with an edgier and heavy sound. Although Skrillex played a host of newer songs, he also performed some old favourites including his remix of Benny Benassi’s Cinema and early career hits such as Bangarang and Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.
Closing out the Resistance stage for day one was Swedish DJ Adam Beyer, who brought techno to the forefront with a two-hour set, much to the delight of fans of the genre. Although a smaller-sized stage, it arguably made for a more intimate and comfortable setting than the main platform.
One of the most impressive elements of the night was that despite featuring two stages hosting performers the same time, the sound never overlapped. Whether at the main or Resistance stage, concertgoers couldn't overhear music from the other DJ. Even better, and a rarity these days, all artists followed their allotted time slots, starting and ending on time.
One notable downside of the festival was the logic behind its physical set-up. Despite being located almost back-to-back, the main and Resistance stages are difficult to switch between, with concertgoers having to take a roundabout route through the food and beverage stalls to go between the venues. Surely there should be an easier way.
Ultra Abu Dhabi has something for all electronic music fans, with an impressive line-up of artists descending upon the UAE capital. Day two looks set to be an even bigger showcase with Scottish chart-topper Calvin Harris, world-renowned DJ and producer Armin van Buuren and Belgium's Amelie Lens headlining, giving dance music fans in the region plenty to get excited about.
Day two of Ultra Abu Dhabi is Sunday; tickets start at Dh360; doors open at 3pm; www.ultraabudhabi.com