Review / photos: Sunset Music Festival brings Major Lazer, safety upgrades to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa
Somewhere beyond the barricades and mountainous LED stages of the Sunset Music Festival, there had to be worry. There had to thousands of parents in parking lots and empty kitchens, anxiously distracting their minds, every now and then checking their phones.
Inside Sunset ’17, though? Totally business as usual.
From the crowd of more than 25,000, Tampa’s sixth annual electronic music bacchanal at Raymond James Stadium seemed to go off about as well as hoped. But there were echoes of 2016's two drug-related deaths that prompted widespread reevaluation of the festival's safety procedures, starting with booming warnings and advisories outside the gate:
Stay hydrated. Be responsible. If you see something, say something. Medics are ready to take care of you. SMF enforces a zero-tolerance rule. Narcotics officers and K-9 teams will enforce all drug-related laws.
Did the warnings work? Immediate numbers on medical treatment and transport weren’t available. But shortly after the show ended at midnight, Tampa Police spokesman Eddy Durkin said Day 1 of SMF ’17 saw 25 mostly drug-related arrests, including 20 felony charges (up from 14 total on Day 1 in 2016, but down from 34 in 2015); and 15 ejections (up from one in 2016 and four in 2015).
Inside, the adjustments were hard to miss. The stages were much more spread out, easing what in years past might have been packed, unnavigable logjams. There was more shade, more cooling stations, easier access to supplies like earplugs and electrolytes. Heck, there was even a tent offering haircuts, free in exchange for a promotional Instagram. And in one safety change fans might not have noticed, for the first time, there also were no pyrotechnics, a dry-weather restriction organizers said was levied by the county. Instead cannons launched cryo and streamers into the churning pit.
Crucially, though, there was more water, and plenty of it -- not just more free-refill stations, but smarter stations, with serpentine barricade lines instead of the maddening cattle calls of the past. Circular fans near the front and in the VIP risers spritzed the crowd with a cool mist, a welcome relief (especially at the dusty Eclipse Stage) for those not too busy SnapChatting the moment.
And as usual, there was a lot to share and like, from the cotton-candyish costumes to Saturday’s headliners Major Lazer, a riotously energetic and radio-friendly dancehall trio led by South Florida production king Diplo.
"It feels good to be back in the Bay," Diplo said. " I love you guys so much, Tampa."
Truth is, its like he never left. Diplo headlined last year's fest, too, albeit as part of his Skrillex tag team Jack U. He and his cohorts/hypemen Jillionaire and Walshy Fire showed their home state copious love, shouting out St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Bradenton and even the University of Tampa during their set, which blasted fans with elephantine beats and Carribbean-tinged riddims, interspersed with easier-on-the-ears pop hits like Cold Water and Lean On.
"I want to thank you so much for supporting electronic music in Florida," Diplo said. "If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have a job."
Major Lazer's set thrived on the crowd's in-it-together vibe -- at one point, they convinced fans hundreds of feet deep to do jumping jacks. That allowed Diplo to blast horns and hip-swinging syncopation into bangers like Future's Same Damn Time and Jack U's Febreze, and give pop trifles like the Spice Girls' Wannabe and Ed Sheeran's Shape of You a spark of the sinister. It wasn't long before he was shirtless, and many fans were, too.
"So many different flags in the sky," said Walshy Fire, noting the territorial totems in the crowd. "This is what we want to see, love and unity."
Before Major Lazer's main course came a buffet of EDM aperitifs, including Tritonal's set of euphoric, color-splashed house; and RL Grime's muscular mix of trap and hip hop, working in Kendrick Lamar, Rae Sremmurd and Migos. Slushii worked his crowd-pleasing playlist magic on the masses, effortlessly mixing cuts as random as Oasis's Wonderwall and Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams alongside Drake's Hotline Bling.
Unlike many plug-and-play DJs, top-notch turntablist A-Trak let his fingers do the talking on the main stage, diverting from his hip-hop-heavy set to weave a Yeah Yeah Yeahs remix (Heads Will Roll) into a fit of squiggly scratching so nimble and chirpy it sounded like an aviary.
Over at the Eclipse Stage, bonecrushing bass was the coin of the realm, particularly from nutso dubstepper Getter, whose frenetic genre-smashing set occasionally bled all the way to Major Lazer. Ghastly managed to mix in some major-key synth progressions, no-brainier party drops (House of Pain's Jump Around) and a guest spot by Slushii amongst his cockeyed, cricket-like beats and spastic, squelching bass.
And over at the third Horizon Stage, where Euro trance maestros like Gareth Emery and Aly and Fila came to play, Tampa royalty (of a sort) stopped by in the form of Hulk Hogan, an SMF semi-regular who appeared onstage to introduce French mixmaster Cedric Gervais, then hang out all set as the DJ spun house-adjacent hits like Disclosure's Latch and the Chainsmokers' Paris and Something Just Like This.
“Tampa Bay, I got nothing but love for you!” Hogan bellowed. “If you got love for Hulk Hogan, give me a hell yeah!”
Hell, yeah, they did. Because who really comes to these things for the music, anyway? Between all the skin on display and meme-totems waving in the sun (hollering Meryl Streep, the "Cash Me Ousside" girl and a fidget spinner all made an appearance), Sunset was once again all about being seen and snapping selfies, waving your arms and wagging your glutes in equal measure.
Somewhere, despite all the safety improvements, some parents will still wring their hands. But it ain't happening at Sunset. Those hands are firmly in the air, and they aren't coming down until Monday.
Sunset continues Sunday with Above and Beyond, Zeds Dead, Yellow Claw, Louis the Child and more. Click here for details.
-- Jay Cridlin