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Review / photos: Sunset Music Festival brings storms, superstar DJs, surprise guests to Tampa

Is Tampa's rave scene unkillable? At the Sunset Music Festival, it's starting to look that way.

For the second straight year, severe weather forced Tampa's rowdiest day-glo bacchanal to evacuate thousands of fans into Raymond James Stadium. For the second straight year, pretty much everyone complied with patience and good humor. And for the second straight year, the second the music resumed, so did the party, the mood barely dinged by the storms.

Rain or shine, Sunset just has a way of engendering positive vibes among all who pass through its sparkly neon gates. In its fourth year, the EDM festival keeps getting bigger and bolder, not only in terms of record-breaking crowds – around 27,500 on Saturday's opening day – but with ever more ambitious stages, technology and star wattage.

The opening day of Sunset 2015 brought not only A-list headlining DJs Tiesto and Skrillex, but a couple of huge surprises – Colombian rock singer Juanes and Tampa's own Hulk Hogan, who both held court on the main stage during a set by Cedric Gervais.

Sunset wasn't the only festival affected by Saturday's thunderstorms. Around the same time fans were filing into RayJay, thousands more were being ushered from the Tampa Bay Margarita Festival toward the Poe Garage near Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa. And over in St. Pete, following a jubilant rain-soaked set from Robert DeLong, lightning and heavy rain forced the 97X Barbecue in Vinoy Park to shut down for more than an hour.

But Sunset fans have been there, done that. So when the power was cut around 5 p.m., they calmly filed into RayJay or their cars, cheering for each thunderclap and chanting the White Stripes' Seven Nation Army, just as they did in 2014. Fittingly, when the music resumed after 90 minutes, DJ TJR chose that very song – the unofficial anthem of SMF rain delays, it seems – to re-open the main stage. And like that, it was right back on like Donkey Kong.

Gervais, known for his hit remix of Lana Del Rey's Summertime Sadness, pulled out all the stops for his SMF debut, having Hogan introduce him (and dance onstage throughout his set) and bringing out Juanes for a live premiere of their single Este Amor. Fans in the crowd, perhaps tipped off to the cameo through Twitter and Instagram, waved Colombian flags as Juanes emerged from backstage with a microphone, and again as he, Gervais and Hogan waved together from the riser near the end.

That unlikely trio was a fitting image, considering the musical diversity on display at Sunset.

One of the world's most popular and powerful DJs, Tiesto lived up to his rep in his first Tampa show since 2009, dominating the eye-poppingly gigantic main stage with a set of merciless, pitiless, effortless precision and perfection. While the Dutchman's playlist hewed in places toward Euro-flavored pop and dance (Edward Maya's Stereo Love, Bastille's Pompeii, Ellie Goulding's Love Me Like You Do), all of it – even a mix of Iggy Azalea's Fancy – felt positively Tiesto-ian, so powerfully did he re-mold each song in his image.

Skrillex, meanwhile, was his usual kinetic tinder stick on stage, his Adderall-addled set leaping from style to style on a dime.

"I heard that Tampa, Florida is the land of the bounce!" he yelled, dropping A$ap Ferg's Work. Bounce, slap, slide, skitter – if it's movement, Skrillex is all about it. He mixed in deep, trappy singles like Fetty Wap's Trap Queen and O.T. Genasis' CoCo alongside poppier, crazier, everything from DJ Khaled to C+C Music Factory to Sum-41 the soundtrack to The Lion King.

Elsewhere on Saturday, SMF gave some prime slots to newer talents in a handful of rising subgenres, particularly on its Horizon Stage, dedicated to artists taking EDM in new directions.

British producer Duke Dumont, a two-time Grammy nominee, headlined the Horizon Stage, and his deep house mélange of pianos, pyro, and funky syncopation had fellow DJ Oliver Heldens – a fast-rising talent in his own right – dancing in the wings of the stage, both of them reveling in the revival of early-'90s dance.

Known for his work with Ariana Grande and Kanye West, producer Cashmere Cat also performed on the Horizon Stage, mixing glassy twinkles and dreamy vocals into heavy hip hop and R&B beats, at times aided by fellow forward-thinking producer Trippy Turtle.

Of course, as anyone who's ever been knows, Sunset is only partly about the music. Like everything else, the music is just an excuse to dance, snap selfies and – more than anything – dress up in Halloween-quality rave attire. The wild costumes here aren't just part of the fun, they are the fun, and if you want to stand out, you've got to work pretty hard. If you're not sleeveless, shirtless or squeezed into a tight, tiny romper, you're dressed as Thor, a Ninja Turtle, a Blue Man or, well, just use your imagination.

Amid all the bikinis, CamelBaks, sombreros and homemade bead masks was one curious accessory that seemed to be on the arms of dozens of partiers: The American flag. Countless ravers waved the stars and bars as totems, rocked them as capes or otherwise incorporated them into their attire.

It's funny, because Tampa's EDM scene has indeed grown into a full-fledged nation over the last four years. The Tampa Sports Authority has estimated that Sunset creates 10,000 hotel stays each year, so even people outside Tampa are finding it. The festival is growing, but more importantly, so is the community behind it.

When Skrillex paused his synapse-snapping party to spin Sam Smith's downbeat anthem Stay With Me, the SMF mini-nation stopped and hugged and sang along to every word.

"Oh Florida," he ad-libbed on the final line of the chorus, "won't you stay with me? Please?"

He needn't worry. With a year like this, Sunset isn't going anywhere.


The Sunset Music Festival continues at 2 p.m. Sunday at Raymond James Stadium with Armin van Buuren, Porter Robinson, Flosstradamus, the Chainsmokers and more. Click here for details.

-- Jay Cridlin