On arrival into Benicassim, I can't help feeling that I might have missed the boat (or train or bus). The streets of this sweet coastal town, nestled at the foot of mountains somewhere between Valencia and Barcelona, have been overtaken with a swathe of marauding (but well mannered) teenage Brits. Some might be anxiously awaiting A level results and some might be taking a break from their University studies. There are some Spanish music fans in attendance but my guess is that they're outnumbered. FIB Benicassim clearly positions itself as a rite of passage, a sunshine alternative to Reading or Leeds and I, a 47 year old man in no particular need of such life-changing experience, have just walked slap-bang into the middle of it.
As it turns out, I have no need to worry. The friendliness and camaraderie that I experience throughout the four days here is refreshing. After a while, age becomes little barrier in conversation. The overwhelming feeling at Benicassim is one of a caring community; people keep an eye out for their mates and their wider community. It's a hard festival, especially if you take the camping option within the acrid, desert-based fields but the sense remains that we're all in this together. And even when the thunderstorm that's threatened does arrive on Sunday morning those that have been camping for a week just lap up the conditions.
Of course, a man of my advanced years chooses not to camp. I can think of nothing worse than depriving myself of sleep by sweating in a sleeping bag in the constant Spanish heat. I luck out with a hotel booking; a reasonably priced two star hotel with air-conditioning about 20 minutes walk from site and 10 minutes from the train station. For sure, they might have inflated their prices for the four days but that's supply and demand. The welcome is warm and the basic room a great place to rest my head should it all get too much.
After the fiasco I'd experienced the previous week at Mad Cool in Madrid, I'm more than prepared to cope with inefficiencies at FIB Benicassim. But this fine festival is the polar opposite. Getting into the site is a breeze; getting a bus back at night as simple as could be possible (even when slightly out of it); queuing for drinks, food and the toilets never a hardship. In addition, the site rarely feels over-crowded, the smiles and general level of joy from the punters indicative of a festival running like clockwork. I suppose it has had years to get it right.
There are bands on the bill that I'm keen to see but a fair few that I'm ambivalent about. With headliners such as The Killers and Liam Gallagher, the stall is set for an obvious kind of indie; add into the mix the likes of Catfish and the Bottlemen, The Vaccines and The Kooks and you could be mistaken for thinking that there'd be little to delight a discerning music snob here. But the truth is that each of these, by and large, give their crowds what they want to hear. The Killers might play too many new tracks but pull it back from the brink with a fine rendition of Mr Brightside. Noel doesn't appear for the inevitable Oasis reunion yet but you can bet your bottom dollar that when they do reunite FIB Benicassim will be on their shopping list.
Programme-less and with rapidly dying phone battery, I choose to spend most of my evenings at Benicassim wandering around the site dipping in and out of band and DJ sets. Some are acts I recognise, many not. It rarely feels particularly crowded and even with the bigger acts of the weekend it seems possible to get a viewing stance within metres of the stages.. There are four stages; Las Palmas and Visa being the main two with the VW Driving Music FIB club and the South Beach Dance stage being slightly smaller. There's also a makeshift beach area (the South Beach Pool Party) where drunken Brits think nothing of dancing in murky, paddling pools in their speedos whilst others look on with a mix of incredulity and awe. Wherever I head, I'm struck with a sense of freedom and fun.
A typical Benicassim day seems to run thus; you wake from the previous night slumber (which might be earlier for those camping than those in hotels) and head into the town of Benicassim. There, you'll find a cafe or restaurant to sit at, to have some food and to perhaps top up on last night's alcohol intake. Some will head to the beach to have a swim in the sea or to sizzle on the beach whilst others will just watch the world go by at their chosen bar. You'll invariably chat to random strangers there and review what you might have missed from the night before. You'll make plans to meet later in the evening which invariably won't come off because you'll be dancing elsewhere with other new-found friends. "It's a sociable experience with a festival bolted on. We don't know much about the bands that are playing", observe one group that I chat with.
Perhaps in a move to diversify their demographic and to appeal to a slightly older market, there are a few acts at Benicassim that the youngsters seem oblivious about. "What else have the Pet Shop Boys done apart from that West End Girls?", asks one young girl when I suggest that their live show is worth seeing. "Never heard of Belle and Sebastian", says another when I boast about meeting one of their members. "My Grandad used to love Madness", mentions another as I rapidly try to validate the maths of such a comment. As it is, all three of the 'senior citizen' acts play wonderful sets and I hope they went some way to persuading the kids to dig into record collections of yesteryear.
The sets can hardly be described as lengthy here. Even established bands such as The Charlatans, The Horrors, Two Door Cinema Club, Everything Everything and Sleaford Mods only get an hour, sometimes less, with which to wow their crowds. It does give the festival something of a blink and you'll miss it quality. Bands are encouraged to give less filler in their festival sets and to be more urgent in their planning. It all adds to the vibrancy and wonderfully contrasts with last week's Mad Cool where lengthy, ponderous sets seemed to be the norm. Perhaps I just have a short attention span.
Of the new(ish), Oscar And The Wolf impress me much more than when I saw them at Sziget a couple of years back (and I didn't entirely hate them then). They've now become a much more rounded live proposition with a lead singer (Oscar?) who now commands the stage with all sorts of hypnotic dance moves. I curse myself for missing Shame only to realise that their early evening slot on Las Palmas stage has moved and they're now playing an early morning show on Visa. I randomly walk past and don't leave, compelled by their angry yet controlled performance. Sofi Tukker and Tommy Cash are now acts that I'd always take in if given the chance, their late night sets at the South Beach Dance stage enough to hold my drunken interest.
There's a sprinkling of Spanish acts performing throughout the festival. I'm briefly drawn into the VW Driving Music Fib Club tent when I hear Venturi from outside. A three piece dressed identically in blue cotton shirts, they do a garage rock thing that really comes alive when they swap instruments mid song and the bass guitarist becomes the drummer. I'd previously seen Los Punsetes at an Alicante Music festival and had appreciated the eerie, static-ness of their singer (seriously, she moves not one jot throughout the jolting rock) and again they don't disappoint.
Food and drink provision is competent here. You'll find all the typical festival foods but there does seem to be a surplus of places making 'gourmet' burgers and hotdogs. I'd rather that Fosters wasn't the lager of choice but, unlike some other Spanish festivals, the menu doesn't stop with the lager. Ladron De Manzanas, a new Spanish cider is getting wide promotion in these parts at the moment - it's sweeter than the ciders we might be used to back at home and feels a bit like drinking a sherbet dip but is nonetheless a welcome addition. There's always tried and tested Strongbow for sale at some bars as well. Wine comes in decent half bottle measures (375cl's) and the spirit measures will be sure to knock the most hardened of drinkers sideways.
I am sitting on a plane about to head home to England for a few weeks. I think about the opportunities that have come my way over the past months whilst travelling around Spain. There's a rich festival scene here, each one having their unique character. Most have been impeccable in their organisation and have been happy, smiley events as a result. Having never been to Benicassim before (and thinking that my opportunity might have passed), the best praise that I can give to it is that I'd love to now make it a regular feature in my festival calendar.
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