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Editorial: Metamorphosis – a weekend at Marquee Las Vegas

The Beginning

Pretend you’ve never been to Marquee (at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.) Adrenaline seeps into your veins as you step through the velvety partitions. You are surrounded by suits and legs bookended by ultra-mini dresses and stilettos. Just before the elevator doors opens, the operator mirrors the grins around him and says, “Have fun tonight!” Drink in hand, you make your way to the floor. In case you weren’t sure, a mural on a wall proclaims, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Driving through the desert from Orange County to Vegas, we were treated to the rare spectacle of moonrise over the barren peaks. Less than 24 hours ago, I had gotten final confirmation that I had won Dancing Astronaut’s editorial contest to cover the New Year’s Eve weekend at Marquee. Because no road trip to Vegas would be complete without it, we stopped at In-N-Out, hoping some double-doubles would fortify us against the sub-40 Nevada chill. After making a real friend out of the internet friend we were crashing with, we hastily decked ourselves out and hopped back on the I-15 towards the piercing, gleaming lights of the strip. The most powerful spotlight on earth reaches out towards the infinite depths of space from the top of the Luxor pyramid; like moths to flame, we were irresistibly compelled.

When the elevator deposited us on the main floor, the first thing I noticed were the bartenders, who were attired in rainbow tutus and manually improvised t-shirts that matched the “Halfway To EDC” decals everywhere. At once expansive and intimate, Marquee combines all the grandest features of a modern club with the intricate showmanship of an EDC main stage. The dance floor was packed, and surrounding it in every direction were tables attended by rave-ready hostesses, eager to refill drinks when not enthusiastically jumping up and down. Lights flashed from all angles, pulling at my peripheral vision to find some new wonder. The music pulsated out from the giant speakers reverberating off every wall and surface, the thump of the bass filling every empty cavity in my chest.

My contact for the weekend was Morgan Deane, the Head of Marketing for Marquee. She told me to find her at her table – to look for big hair. Dual wielding a Blackberry and iPhone, Morgan would have been impossible to miss. Amidst the chaos, she radiated the calm and precision of an orchestra conductor.

Within minutes at the table, I met Ezio Burani, Benny Benassi’s creative director, a writer for Rolling Stone and Naomi, the wife of Ryan Raddon – better known as Kaskade – who was headlining the evening. My girlfriend was my +1, and my sister Reese was across the floor for a friend’s friend’s birthday. This was barely a coincidence; no one in Vegas with a mindset like our generation would miss Kaskade that weekend. I have probably seen Kaskade more than any other artist, but despite my familiarity with the family-man producer, I was not immune from the feeling of euphoria that was emanating from every patron of the club that evening.

Adolescence (Night 1)

Pretend you’ve never experienced VIP bottle service in Marquee. A shit-eating grin threatens to give away your inexperience at any second, you try to contain your excitement – it isn’t often that any joe schmo gets an unrestricted view of the stage and its surrounding theatrics at Marquee. You are absolutely dwarfed by the security guard in charge of your table, and nearly intimidated by the smile of the hostess who makes sure your drink never quite reaches half empty. You spontaneously burst into a fit of dancing, moving your arms synonymously with the beat. No one else around you seems to be enjoying this quite as much as you.

The room seemed to explode as Kaskade took the stage. The lights stayed mostly dark as his logo briefly shimmered in and out behind him. He opened with a delectable ID whose lyrics evoked feelings similar to those the first time I heard “Language.” It is sure to be a banner single off of his promised upcoming album, and sprinkled throughout his set were several other candidates. Marquee is perfectly designed with the DJ in mind; while the room is exploding in anarchy, the DJ booth is nearly always illuminated. His confident grin belied the intense concentration that lined his face as he made intricate adjustments on the decks. On stage and on the catwalk above him, dancers writhed in ensembles straight from Alice In Wonderland, all sharp angles and dizzying checkered patterns. A few minutes into his set I embarked on a tour chaired by Marketing Manager Mike Olortegui to get a real feel for the behind-the-scenes and inner workings of Marquee.

Kaskade’s collaboration with Swanky Tunes and Christmas Day release, “No One Knows Who We Are,” went off in a big way, like it did on every stop of his Freaks Of Nature Tour. Mirroring his penchant for playing mashups that combine melodic builds and vocals from his back catalog with big room house tracks, its abrupt drop sent the crowd into frenzy. Recent Kaskade Music Monday favorites like “Move For Me The Legend” and “Don’t Stop Hells Bells” had the faithful in the congregation singing along. Lasers that refracted out like neon machine tracers accompanied the persistent beats. Still on our tour, we passed through the ultra VIP balcony area overlooking the stage and crowd. I was able to whip out my camera phone just in time to catch Kaskade blast the crowd with confetti and arctic air along with his mashup of “Reloaded” and “Eyes.”

In the later hours of his show, I was brought up on stage by Sara Ireland, the head of artist relations, who assured me that Kaskade loved to play over his allotted time. Seeing everyone react to each delicate manipulation from the confident Raddon was the ultimate treat. When he played the Dada Life remix of “Llove,” I was able to anticipate the paper blizzard nanoseconds before the strobe light flashbanged it onto the teeming mass. As four o’clock in the morning approached, the whole room seemed to be holding its collective breath, waiting to see if he would play further, and if he would drop “4 AM” at the appropriate time. Showing no signs of slowing, he fired off his incendiary mashup “4 AM Quasar” as literal snow fell from Marquee’s lofted ceiling. Attempting to pace myself for the full weekend, we left soon after, even though according to Kaskade’s twitter he played until well after seven in the morning.

Chrysalis (Night 2)

Pretend you’ve never seen a DJ take the stage at Marquee. The noise of the crowd intensifies, and your voice is lost in the ecstatic screaming of thousands. Without realizing it, your hands are in the air as the DJ takes the stage. The lights flash incandescent for a few tenths of a second, long enough to turn your vision purple at the edges. There isn’t anyone sitting down in the house. The music begins.

After what seemed like too short an interval of napping, recovering, and jotting down addendums to the extensive notes I had already taken, I found myself back at Marquee. I was waiting with Sara in some proximate vestibule lobby for the impending arrival of Tim Bergling, better known under his Avicii alias. After an indeterminate amount of a time, a black SUV pulled up and dropped off Bergling and company. In the elevator, everyone seemed to have forgotten the fact that we were sharing the space with the recently voted #3 DJ in the world. I probably wasn’t supposed to, but my inner-fan got the best of me, I leaned in to Avicii and told him crowd-surfing to his set at EDC in Las Vegas last year was one of my most treasured memories. I’m pretty sure he smiled at me, but I got lost in his baby blues.

Wearing his trademarked backwards baseball hat but eschewing the flannel shirt for a plain white tee, Bergling stepped up to the decks to the corresponding roar of the crowd. Years ago, my very first exposure to Avicii was “Seek Bromance,” implicitly endorsed by Tiësto on his Club Life podcast; it was only fitting that that was song he led with in the most up-close performance I had seen from him yet. He followed with arguably his strongest outing since “Levels,” the recently re-retitled collaboration with Nicky Romero “I Could Be The One” to the hectic waving of the orange light wands that Marquee had so generously provided. He continued with a slew of remixes of the dazzling productions he is known for, like Albin Myers’ re-Swedish’d and possibly better take on “Fade Into Darkness” and EDX’s Arena Club mix of “Silhouttes,” a rather on point remix title.

I watched from the stage as he continued to play songs that started with seemingly peaceful intros before descending into festival anthem breakdowns, like “She Wolf” and the Torro Torro remix of “Go Deep.” Lithe neon-appareled dancers slunk nimbly up the ladders, literally past my ears, to perform elaborate ultraviolet maneuvers on the catwalk above the decks. Fist-pumping melodies had those in the crowd who could still see straight emulating the characteristic Avicii beat-matching hand movements. Its heyday may have been long past, but “Levels” is still very much relevant when Mr. Bergling drops it himself; forgetting its place in the resurgence of dance music is a sin akin to forgetting the contributions of David Guetta. The frigid air that Avicii blasted over the redoubled dancing mass was quite welcome; faces already blissful became exponentially joyous. After Tim closed up his set, we exited presently (my Red Bull spree over the last two days was leaving me wired and jittery.) We unsteadily stepped out into the differently bright world of The Cosmopolitan accompanied by a large swath of the (formerly) impeccably dressed denizens, all stumbling off in groups of two or three, stilettos and jackets in hand.

Metamorphosis (Night 3)

Pretend that you’ve never been on the stage at Marquee. You can’t tell if the DJ is feeding off the energy of the crowd, or the crowd is being sustained by the animation of the DJ, or if it’s a perpetual motion closed cycle. You are entangled in this otherworldly eddy, as you catch some of the runoff of the adulation of the crowd, and the stamina of the legend behind the decks is infectious. The DJ turns and looks back at you, and you suddenly discover that you’re singing one of your favorite songs of all time along with the talented producer who created it.

Navigating the police barricades, we crossed the closed off Las Vegas Boulevard, bypassing the mobs of revelers fortified against the desert chill with jackets, scarves, and various alcoholic concoctions: an imperceptible urgency hung in the air.

Benny Benassi was set to debut the new iteration of his live show, Metamorphosis, a full 360 degree production that was the brainchild of Ezio, whom I had met the first night, and developed in conjunction with Morgan. The new show featured a completely redesigned wardrobe, many of which seemed inspired by H.R. Giger’s Alien designs, and the flawless choreography of Belluscious, who had previously worked with Tiësto and David Guetta. I was a leg up in my expectations, having caught the tail end of the dress rehearsal that afternoon at a static and eerily well-lit Marquee that afternoon. Production started over two months ago, and after catching a glimpse of it, I believed they were going to hit their goal of “[doing] something strange and surreal, not exactly electronic,” as Ezio put it. Morgan had promised even more;

“We want people to be blown away, to see something that can’t be replicated anywhere in the world. An experience they’ll remember forever.”

I was absolutely certain the night was going to deliver.

My sense of déjà vu as we once more crossed the threshold into the elevator soon evaporated. The place was markedly more thronged with carousers, and the Marquee-issued NYE top hats and feathered tiaras were on nearly everyone’s head. The opening DJ played a cautious selection of tracks, which had the effect of keeping the heat on the crowd without bringing them to a boil. In the convivial, inebriated state that everyone was in, I’m not sure that anyone was keeping track of the time. Thankfully, the MC took to the mic every few minutes to give an update on the rapidly approaching New Year.

Finally giant blue numbers started fading in and out on the LED screens behind the DJ booth. Everyone put their hands together for Benny Benassi and then turned to wish significant others, friends and complete strangers a happy New Year. I’ve seen Benassi more than a few times, but I have never seen him grin like he did when he first unleashed a hailstorm of confetti with accompanying icy blasts upon the eager, upturned faces. Opening his set with Thomas Gold’s recent remix of One Republic’s “Feel Again,” Benny struck an effortless balance, playing tracks from both banks of the mainstream. Charming the crowd with the instant-sing-a-long-classic, “Don’t You Worry Child,” while interspersing lesser known and newer tracks like Firebeatz’s “Disque” and Thomas Gold’s last single of 2012, “MIAO.”

The screens that had gone down to hide the setup of the dancers finally came up as Benassi launched into his first original track of the evening, “Cinema.” Suspended in the air on tiny platforms, the dancers performed a mesmerizing dance on their backs while Benassi effortlessly switched from the Laidback Luke remix of his anthemic original to Skrillex’s and back again. The visuals were suited to the odd and wondrous costumes the dancers were wearing, full of intricacies that grew weirder the closer one paid attention, both evolving -much like Benny’s performance – throughout the evening.

After a brief spell by the regular Marquee dancers in purposefully ripped Metamorphosis shirts, the dancers returned in new ensembles, ready to dance on the LED screen behind Benassi. The purposeful asymmetrical symmetry was readily apparent in both their movements and garb. Benassi played his relatively recent remix of the vintage “Jamming,” and interspersed some newer hits, like Wolfgang’s “Nuke” and Kill The Noise’s “Rockers” before briefly returning to his own productions. His remix of the new Rolling Stones single, “Doom And Gloom” and increasing rumors (at least for the Stones) makes me vehemently pray for the possibility of a live rendition at Coachella this year. Iridescent lasers painted a blistering matrix across the ceiling to the cacophonous “House Music,” similar in idea, if not scope, to what happened at the main stage of EDC in 2011.

He did play the Clockwork remix of his collaboration with Pink Is Punk, “Perfect Storm,” but sadly neglected to play their as-yet-unreleased “Koala,” which was premiered at the main stage in Miami at the Ultra Music Festival and is still my favorite unreleased track from the Italian producer. The Clockwork touch inflamed a fervent hope that he might drop the spankin’ new RL Grime trap remix of Benassi’s all time chart topper, “Satisfaction.” A few songs later, Morgan informed me were leaving the booth to go party on stage with Benassi. I had the rare privilege of seeing Dada Life’s remix of “Llove” destroy a crowded dance floor for the second time in three days from the stage. After spinning in the vocals from “Satisfaction” into his remix of “Otherside,” Benassi proceeded to run the trap to my immense satisfaction (for lack of a better word). He turned around right as the chorus hit, and I had the absurd privilege of singing one of the songs that got me into electronic music along with its’ creator. Benassi’s performance solidified his relevance in a world where there is a young class of elite DJs who were born after he first started spinning and producing. The rest of his set passed in a blur before the Dutch dynamo, Chuckie, took over on the decks.

Epilogue

Pretend you’ve never left Marquee at some late hour of the night or early hour of the morning, depending on whom you’re asking. You shiver in the crisp desert air as the horizon lights with the promise of sunrise. You’re still buzzing from pure, unadulterated euphoria that only a club like Marquee could provide. You stare out at the empty streets, already noticing the nuances of the evening fusing into your memory banks… tonight was a night you’ll never forget.

When I first arrived at Marquee, with every introduction I made, with every curtain that was drawn aside, with every curt head nod from an ear-pieced security guard, I still felt slightly in over my head and somewhat out of place. In a little over a year, I had gone on a steep climb, from writing smallish articles for a similarly-sized blog, to covering major events from the elevated status of a press pass. And now, I was covering NYE for Dancing Astronaut with the full VIP treatment at one of the greatest clubs in the world; comparatively, this was the crown jewel of dance music journalism.

EDM continues on a meteoric rise from the underground and pervades every aspect of mainstream society, championed by Las Vegas nightlife and the masterminds behind Marquee. The growth of this genre in the past few years has roughly mirrored my personal budding passion and enthusiasm. To me, it seems increasingly likely that the rest of America will experience a similar growth in their obsession with the almost-universally hailed genre of EDM. When I first heard electronic music in Vegas, I saw Cosmic Gate perform at Rain in 2010, and at the end of 2012, I got the chance to thank them personally at our booth on Saturday as we all stood by to watch Avicii. Just as I have matured, so too have the people and the scene, from under-aged kandi kids with fake IDs to fist-pumping young professionals paying thousands of dollars for a table with a view – dance music continues to assert itself as morre than just a fad – it’s a cultural movement.

As the weekend progressed, I felt progressively in my element, like I had always belonged there. Dancing in the crowd to the alternating dark and commercial tracks Chuckie was playing, I spotted a kid in bright red suspenders in the crowd bobbing enthusiastically to every beat. Recognizing him from earlier, I tapped him on the shoulder and gave him the black Marquee-branded sunglasses frames I had scored. He was partying too hard not to have them, and I was leaving with so much more.

Words by Joe Cole

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