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Wednesday, Aug 15, 2018
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Review / photos: Sunset Music Festival keeps rain at bay, brings Marshmello, Rezz to Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium

In the end, we were waiting for a drop that never came.

With Subtropical Storm Alberto forming in the southern Gulf of Mexico, it seemed a matter not of if but when but the Sunset Music Festival would suffer its nasty effects — inches of rain, gnarly winds, maybe even an evacuation like those we've seen in the past.

But the cloudburst never came, at least not on Day 1. Not a single beat skipped.

In fact, at SMF, maybe gray skies and a thin carpet of mud are actually preferable to 90-degree heat and a golden haze of dust. Police data on medical emergencies wasn't immediately available early Sunday, but officials said more than 20,000 fans passed through the gate, on par with previous years.

That's doubly impressive considering this year's SMF poster arguably didn't have a drop-dead, slam-dunk, A-list headliner. But a case could be made for Saturday's headliner Marshmello, a guy who's had a huge couple of years, including a few pop hits (Friends with Anne-Marie, Wolves with Selena Gomez), and major festival success.

Marshmello performed on Day 1 of the Sunset Music Festival on May 26, 2018 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. (Luis Santana | Times)

Much like his sticky-sweet moniker, the masked and anonymous producer was a blast of pure indulgence, packing sugar highs into his set like a giddy kid in a candy shop. Trading his cylindrical white noggin for one that glowed and swirled like a lava lamp, Mello had no problem spinning hits by bigger-name DJs who came before him (Calvin Harris' Close To You and Sweet Nothing, Daft Punk's One More Time, a nice nod to the late Avicii with Waiting For Love).

Marshmello performed on Day 1 of the Sunset Music Festival on May 26, 2018 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. (Luis Santana | Times)

He did spin his own hits and mixes; Alone, which features his own pitch-shifted singing voice (he added some live vocals Saturday), was an enormous crowd-pleaser. But then, Mello's in the crowd-pleaser business. Taylor Swift's This Is What You Came For? Post Malone's Congratulations? Kendrick Lamar's HUMBLE.? The Killers' Mr. Brightside? Bon Freaking Jovi's Livin' On a Prayer? This is a serious basic-B playlist, yet Marshmello made it slay on Saturday.

Marshmello performed on Day 1 of the Sunset Music Festival on May 26, 2018 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. (Luis Santana | Times)

Coming with a little more left-of-center flair was Saturday's second-billed act Rezz. Dubbed "Space Mom" by her many ride-or-dies, the Ukranian-Canadian DJ popped out ensconced in a stage of pyro plumes and flashing red and white, her glowing, swirling goggles, spinning futurist, sci-fi twists on trap, dubstep and slightly industrial house. Edge, Drugs! and plenty of other tracks were equal parts menacing and enthralling; elsewhere the set had moments of unsettling surreality. And she, too, wasn't above dropping in a little Rage Against the Machine (Killing In the Name), Linkin Park (One Step Closer) or Marilyn Manson (her remix of This Is the New S—) to roust the crowd.

EDM is still largely a boy's club, but Rezz wasn't alone on Saturday. There are around 10 women spinning at SMF 18, far from a gender balance yet not insignificant Aussie DJ Anna Lunoe battled flight delays and cancellations — on her birthday, no less — to just barely make her 9 p.m. set, a playful, high-motor mix of house and trance that saw her joined on the riser by AC Slater, Destructo and Wax Motif. Later, she was to headline the intimate, bubble-domed Corona Electric Beach stage, one of two new cool-down stages this year.

Elsewhere on the main stage was K?d, effortlessly sliding Porter Robinson's robo-chill Sad Machine into A$AP Ferg's Plain Jane on the main stage. There was L.A. duo Slander, dropping a sing-along cover of the Cranberries' Zombie into Usher's Yeah! without batting an eye, then inspiring a hug-your-neighbor moment with a doleful Post Malone.

Artists had to make interesting choices to stand out amid the blinding neon madness. Squelchy dubstepper NGHTMRE and the mascot-headed Bear Grillz snapped necks with ligament-melting bass. Dutch producer San Holo strapping on a guitar to open and close his glistening, open-hearted set. Elephante wore an Alex Killorn Lightning jersey; they're old college friends from Harvard who hung out backstage at the fest. There was even a rapper, Yo Gotti, throwing it down for a big Eclipse Stage crowd to add some much-needed sonic diversity.

NGHTMRE performed on Day 1 of the Sunset Music Festival on May 26, 2018 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. (Luis Santana | Times)
The Tampa Bay Lightning’s Alex Killorn, left, hangs out with Elephante backstage at the Sunset Music Festival on May 26, 2018. Killorn and Elephante went to college together at Harvard, the DJ wore Killorn’s jersey on stage at Sunset. (Jay Cridlin | Times)

And then you had was Space Jesus closing his set with Freda Payne's '70s slow jam I Get High, adding by way of benediction, "Smoke as much weed as you can, and take acid on occasion."

No problem there fur Hippie Sabotage, who delivered what'll go down as one of the weekend's scene-stealing sets. Kevin Saurer came out, lit a blunt, and proceeded to hang out in the pit for a while, smoking out fans and hugging everyone within arm's reach of the fence. Quite a way to usher in a set of psychedelic bass, a melty melange of chill grooves, mosh madness, the whole spectrum.

Hippie Sabotage’s Kevin Saurer went into the crowd on Day 1 of the Sunset Music Festival on May 26, 2018 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. (Jay Cridlin | Times)

A little after 9 p.m. was about the only time the rain turned from a mist to a drizzle, and as you can imagine it mattered not a whit to the feather-flaunting, fanny-packed multitudes. They'd come to sunset if the headliner was a Sanyo boombox blasting 2 Live Crew. It would take a hurricane to keep them away.

Speaking of which: How's Alberto looking for Sunday?

The beats return, weather permitting, at 3 p.m. Sunday at RayJay, with headliners including Excision, Illenium, Alan Walker, A-Trak, Zomboy and 3LAU. Click here for details.

— Jay Cridlin

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