feature for Popmatters
British festivals are grey and muddy, feature huge amounts of beer drinking, and everyone camps. At American festivals (well, Coachella at least), there’s sun and baking heat, huge amounts of water drinking, and very few people camp. Primavera Sound is based on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, in a complex of stages in Barcelona, so I was keen to find out whether it would represent a midway point between those two experiences. And it does, in the best possible way—there’s sun and moderate heat, a fair amount of boozing and late-night partying, and a beautiful city to explore too with loads of accommodation options to pick from. Did I even mention the music? Primavera prides itself on its curated line-ups, with stages hosted by Pitchfork and ATP, and a general commitment to putting on interesting and challenging music. Artists I didn’t even see a second of included Yo La Tengo, Ghostface Killah, Phoenix, Shellac, Squarepusher, the Vaselines, Sun O))), Gang Gang Dance, and El-P. But what I did see made it one of the best weekends of my life.
The atmosphere in Barcelona before the main events started was buoyed by Wednesday night’s success by the city’s main football team, FC Barcelona, in Europe’s biggest football competition, the Champions League. The match was watched by tens of thousands on big screens erected across the city, and when Barca completed their 2-0 win over Manchester United, everyone went crazy. It was a long night, with thousands of fans celebrating in the streets, eventually having to be cleared at 3am by police in riot gear firing rubber bullets. Barca is a brilliant team, but don’t rely on this pre-festival excitement every year.
MAGIK MARKERS @ ATP Stage, 7pm
Magik Markers are the first band we see, but from the offset it’s clear they aren’t suited to the setting they’re playing in. From where I’m sitting I can see hundreds of audience members chatting, thrilled to finally be here and enjoying the sun, while the Mediterranean Sea stretches out behind the stage. Magik Markers are playing dark, imposing, funereal-sounding songs from their new album Balf Quarry, with long droning organ sounds and minimally picked off-key arpeggios. They need to be in a tent, a small dark tent, with a little bit of smoke and red light, not out here on a big stage among palm trees and excited laughter. Four songs in, “Don’t Talk in Your Sleep” provokes a minor crowd reaction, but it’s just not working. We leave for beer.
(Listen to Magik Markers' full Primavera set here)
LIGHTNING BOLT @ ATP Stage, 8:45pm
Later on the same stage, Lightning Bolt don’t give a fuck what you think about the setting. The duo—an overdriven, messy guitarist and crazed, caged monster drummer—play songs that sound like a reinterpretation of Sonic Youth’s “Nic Fit”, an unintelligible rant, completely meaningless, stuck in primal development. Also, it’s pretty loud. Half-an-hour through it’s becoming a bit of an ordeal. From any other band we’d be demanding a change of pace right about now, but we clearly can’t demand anything from Lightning Bolt. They don’t give an inch: They just keep on rampaging, grunting, and flailing, until you’re ready to take it again. Or, leave. But as newly born masochists, we all stay, and we burst through that wall.
Later, we catch a bit of the Jesus Lizard from afar, and they’re pretty loud too, before leaving for Andrew Bird. He’s whistling on-stage, alone, and plucking his violin to new song “Oh No”, but clashes call, so we have to depart early again, this time for The Bug.
THE BUG @ Pitchfork Stage, 11pm
I read an interview with The Bug’s Kevin Martin a while ago where he described with reverie a memory of feeling his nostrils bulge with bass at a party—so if it’s his aim, to billow our noses with bass, he’s succeeding. He’s playing with just one MC tonight instead of the usual group, but the duo really know how to work the crowd—the MC yells “make some noise for The Bug!”, and The Bug complies by playing crowd noises, embellishing our own. Then we’re asked “who won the Champions League?”, and the bass drops, a siren alarms, a backspin reverberates through the crowd, and the bass briefly departs my face to shake my Adam’s Apple. Well it’s everywhere, really, the low frequencies are all-consuming, charging through the crowd, enveloping us all. It’s really good, and kinda tiring.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE @ Estrella Damm Stage, 00:20am
Well, I thought The Bug was loud, but then there was My Bloody Valentine. They’re doing two shows this weekend, one outdoors and one indoors, but I plump for the outdoors one to avoid clashes. From about 50 meters away, every kick of the bass drum is shaking my bones. The mid and high frequencies are so loud and distorted it’s difficult to tell where the haze of guitars end and the otherworldly vocals begin. After a while of sheer undulating noise, I grab for my earplugs; but there’s no point. They just muffle what’s already distorted, and the kick drum continues to assault. So I take them out again, and look around. Absolutely nobody is disengaged; it’s impossible not to watch, in awe, because of the volume. Then, midway through “You Made Me Realize”, MBV launch into their so-called Holocaust section, when the volume rises and they just play brittle, extreme noise for a good 10 minutes (shorter than usual). It’s an endurance test so many people have earplugs in, and are pushing them further in with fingers, gritting their teeth. It isn’t just the volume that is extreme here—the noise is so crunchy, so low, it sounds like the air around us is fracturing. It’s like a natural disaster is occurring—the airquake at the end of the world. At the end, the huge crowd erupt in cheers and applause, but I can barely hear it.
APHEX TWIN @ Rockdelux Stage
Although the Estrella Damm stage is officially the main stage, Rockdelux is surely bigger, as it has a large terracing around it for viewers to sit and watch. When I get into the crowd, the bass is so loud it’s making me nauseous, so I retreat up to the terracing for a seat. There are thousands of people below, and Aphex is playing a pretty straight techno set by his standards. He’s making use of the screen behind him to be subversive, merging giant images of ill children with his own gurning, scary mug. And, it looks really good, but from up here I’m struggling to get into it all. It’s been a long day, and my mate’s going home, so we head for the bus. As I lie down to sleep an hour later, there’s a deafening buzz in my ears.
Primavera doesn’t start until 5 or 6pm each evening, which frees up the daytime to sleep, lie on the beach, or explore the city. On Friday I decided to visit La Sagrada Familia, a ludicrously extravagant cathedral of Gaudi’s that’s been under construction since 1882, and is expected to need at least another 17 years to complete. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a lot of European cities, and each one is guaranteed to offer its tourists a massive church as one of the main attractions. So now I’ve got Huge Church Fatigue. It’s like each city at one point had a top architect who jealously eyed another city’s massive church and resolved to bequeath a bigger one for his own city.
Alongside La Sagrada Familia’s massive grey arches, stone-engraved bible scenes and statues are appended skips, bright yellow cranes, and hard-hat warning signs. Like the size of a building, the volume of a show seems to me to be an easy feature to amplify to win admiring gapes from viewers—or at least, it seems to be a technical achievement, one of mathematics or engineering, rather than an artistic one. The buzz in my ears as I circle La Sagrada Familia on Friday afternoon is an unwelcome but inevitable consequence of the loudness wars of the previous night. It’s almost as if each stage had an artist who jealously heard another stage’s massive volume across the festival grounds and resolved to beat it for his own crowd. Only Andrew Bird stayed out of it. And I know that churches are supposed to be big, and that live music is supposed to be loud; but when competitiveness of scale causes a building to take over 130 years to complete, or a crowd to suffer nausea and tinnitus, then perhaps someone needs to take a step back.
BAT FOR LASHES @ Estrella Damm Stage, 7:10pm
A girl in the crowd spies my notepad and tells me all I need to write down is that Natasha Khan has a perfect bum. But I’m a serious journalist, don’t you know, so I tend not to mention that kind of thing. She does look rather fabulous in a stripy black-and-white bodysuit, prowling around the stage waving bunches of golden bells, and though she’s been emphasising in recent interviews that she’s not just a singer, she is a great singer. The first few songs—“Glass”, “Sleep Alone”, and “Horse and I”—showcase her falsetto, each one reminiscent in spots of Bjork, Portishead, and St. Vincent. Her set’s a roughly equal mix of songs from both her albums, and while I prefer debut Fur and Gold for its minimalism, the songs from Two Suns sound great live, stripped of their production sheen. Also, it’s a nice change to have a show that doesn’t barrage its audience with noise.
THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART @ Pitchfork Stage, 9pm
It’s temping to be principled when it comes to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, to take a stance against their shameless pilfering of mid-‘80s C86 indie-pop. But while I’d be standing in the corner with my arms folded and my lip petted, everyone else would be having a really good time. Even at a festival like this, which is overrun with opinionated indie music geeks, the majority of folk don’t know enough C86 to be bored of it yet; and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart do it really well. They’re not messing about—no between-song banter or breaks to swap guitars or re-tune—they burst straight from one song to the next, building momentum, getting girls dancing. Actually, everybody’s dancing. It’d be no fun being a po-faced wallflower.
DAN DEACON @ Pitchfork Stage, 01:00am
Call it the Susan Boyle Reflex, but there’s an incongruence between the appearance of Dan Deacon—fat balding guy in a white jumpsuit—and his expected ability to rile a crowd full of art students and fashionable creative types. But he did, he really did, through yelled instructions to the crowd: To crouch and stand and “aaah” according to his hand signals; to form a huge circle so we can have a dance contest; to get everyone to step back three steps; and to get us all to form a tunnel with our hands and run through it, snaking all through the crowd. Of course, at a festival, a foreign festival in this case, it’s a logistical nightmare—he doesn’t speak Spanish—but most of it comes off, to some extent. Meanwhile, there’s the music—his ensemble features two, three, then four drummers, three keyboardists, and lots of others I can’t quite see—and his hyperactive electro-pop, almost gabba-like in attitude, rises and crashes and builds and holds and retreats and explodes. Did I mention that we made a tunnel and everyone ran through it and formed a longer tunnel for everyone else? It was like a giant kid’s party, and it turned us all into hysterical toddlers. Incredible.
Download Dan Deacon's entire Primavera set here at the Free Music Archive
BLOC PARTY @ Estrella Damm Stage, 2am
This is where my notes fail me, because I’m far too giddy to write anything more helpful than “AMAZING!!!” Much to my surprise, Bloc Party sound fantastic. I wasn’t even planning to see them initially, because their two latest albums weren’t very good. But “Song for Clay”, from A Weekend in the City, is actually pretty powerful here, and like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart earlier, they’re not giving anyone the time to get bored—it’s straight into the next song, and the next, and the next. “Mercury”, which I hated on record, captivates me now, and there’s huge momentum within the crowd. Of course, the Silent Alarm songs—“This Modern Love”, “Like Eating Glass”, “Helicopter”—get the biggest responses. But for the first time, I’m able to hear the more recent songs in the same set, and not think of them as weak links. More than that, it was one of the most rip-roaring sets of the weekend.
BOWERBIRDS @ Joan Miro Park, 2:15pm
Joan Miro Park is a tiny park near the centre of the city, which hosts a few low-key gigs on Saturday afternoon for any member of the public to watch. But it’s not filled with curious taxi drivers and shop workers—it’s pretty much just a small crowd from the festival again. A small, sandy section is cornered off for Bowerbirds, who play for us among palm trees under another hot, clear blue sky. They’re perfect for the setting, playing gentle acoustic-based indie with just enough brightness to keep us awake, but no more. Everyone is hungover (by which I mean I’m hungover, and assume others are too), and combined with a gentle breeze, it’s very soothing.
SHEARWATER @ Pitchfork Stage, 6:15pm
When last I saw Shearwater, in a tiny basement in Glasgow around six months ago, they seemed unsure of how to translate their ornate, exquisitely produced albums into a live setting, where atmospheric noise and the energy required when playing onstage hinder any attempts at delicacy. Now, on this Pitchfork stage, which dwarfs their usual European stages, they appear a fully-fledged rock band, less concerned with preserving details, happier to put a bit of bluster into it. Jonathan Meiburg has even developed a bit of a swagger, and impresses the crowd by speaking (what seems to me like) fluent Spanish in between each song. It’s left to the songs to impress the non-Spanish speakers, and they have no problem winning me over. A mix of tunes from last year’s Rook and 2006’s slept-on Palo Santo, Shearwater excel at contrasting bombast with tenderness, and Meiberg sings with an alternating roar and falsetto croon, just short of Scott Walker’s. In a word: Superb.
NEIL YOUNG @ Estrella Damm Stage, 9:15pm
Primavera’s organisers are sensible enough to clear the other stages while Neil Young is on; they know it’d be unfair to other bands to have them clash with a musician who’s probably inspired everyone here. But this was widely reported to be a two-and-a-half hour set, and it wasn’t. He came on 15 minutes late, and left the stage at ten past eleven—I make that one-hour-forty, which is quite a shortfall.
But it was a brilliant 100 minutes. Any fears about him hawking his subpar new album were unfounded, as he only played one song from it in a seventeen-song set. “Hey Hey, My My”, “Pocahontas”, and “Cortez the Killer” featured really crunchy, overdriven guitars, reinforcing his “Godfather of Grunge” reputation, and the latter in particular struck a real emotional chord when Young yelled “he was a killer!” while leaning away from the mic. “Cinnamon Girl” went down a storm, and when he played three songs from Harvest in close proximity—“The Needle and the Damage Done”, “Heart of Gold”, and “Old Man”—the audience went wild, and I was a little teary-eyed myself. After “Rocking in the Free World”, which seemed to get the biggest reception of any song, the band took a bow while Young waved an FC Barcelona scarf. But the inevitable return produced only one more song—a cover of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”—before Young walked off again and the stagehands began the clear up. At Coachella last year, the similarly aged Roger Waters took a half-hour break midway through his epic set. It’s understandable that a 63 year old would need a rest after 100 energetic minutes, but then it perhaps shouldn’t have been billed beforehand as a special, extended set.
LIARS @ ATP Stage, 11:30pm
“Thanks to Neil Young for opening for us”, Angus Andrew says, as his set starts immediately as crowds swarm in from the Estrella Damm stage. Generally I’m a Liars sceptic, but here in the darkness, with a smoky stage and lots of very drunk and happy people, they have more appeal. The tribal drums are causing a kind of trance in people, especially on “Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack!”, which reels my sober self in to dance and should really have been extended longer than its three or four minutes-long duration. All we need now is a giant fire to dance around.
SONIC YOUTH @ Estrella Damm Stage, 1am
Two years ago, Sonic Youth performed Daydream Nation in full here. Tonight it’s a mixed set, including a handful of songs from new album The Eternal, and at least three from that aforementioned highpoint. Like the new album, they’re pretty good, but they’re not revolutionary any more. They’ve become a fairly reliable albums band and a reliable live band too. “Hey Joni” is a thrill, and “Tom Violence“‘s epic sprawling drums reverberate for miles, before an encore of “Bull in the Heather” and “Expressway to Yr Skull”. It’s a fittingly loud and cacophonous ending to Primavera’s rock band line up, which emphasises how much Sonic Youth have influenced almost every other band on the bill.
But it’s only 2am, with Simian Mobile Disco, A-Trak, DJ Mehdi, Zombie Zombie and more to keep the party going through the night. I don’t remember much of it, except that I had a great time. I’ll definitely be back next year.