no return: a great festival is about much more than the line-up

Mad Cool Festival 2018 review

By Sean Tizzard | Published: Thu 19th Jul 2018

Mad Cool Festival 2018

Thursday 12th to Saturday 14th July 2018
Mad Cool Space, Valdebebas, Spain
150 euros
Daily capacity: 80,000

As festival line-ups go, the 2018 edition of Madrid’s Mad Cool had it all. I dread to think how much moolah the head honchos must have shelled out to deliver such an impressive schedule across seven stages. What a shame then that awful infrastructure, lame logistics and a sense that your punters are not that important is what ultimately characterises this unfortunate shambles. 

The signs were there as we approached the site on the Thursday; the heat from Madrid’s fierce sun still beating down on us at 6PM. It’s not entirely clear what we do or where we queue but we follow the masses and pitch up at the back of a line that circles around the festival site. There are few stewards to ask what’s going on. Fights nearly break out in the queues when selfish, coked-up sorts push on in. At least we can hear Slaves set as we boil outside the perimeter. It looks very empty inside.

Eventually, after more than an hour of waiting, we get through a turnstile where we are rigorously searched and directed out into a space where we need to pick up our wristbands. More queueing ensues. Photographer Ollie looks faint and clearly needs some food. It’s two hours since we began queueing. Our water bottles have long since been taken off us from over-exuberant security guards. This is not the start we wanted. We catch the end of Eels set (a must see at the start of the day but now hard work in the heat) and then head off for some food, water and alcohol.

Most of the food stalls are pitched in the middle of the site. There are no tables or seats laid out on which you can eat your food. But it’s ok because it’s actually quite challenging to purchase any. The queues are lengthy to even get a ticket for food; you then have to wait for it to be cooked. An hour later, we’re eating a ten euro burnt pizza sat on some fake plastic grass surrounded by rapidly over-flowing litter bins (no sign of recycling going on here). Sound hits us from a few stages; it’s a cacophonous mess.

I queue for some beer and some water. It’s another forty minutes wasted (and fourteen euros) but I do return with a large beaker of beer and a small bottle of water. I’ve also got my own souvenir cup (one euro) that I will always treasure. Ollie takes one gulp of his two euro water and it’s gone. I’m hesitant to queue again because there are bands to watch.

And if there is a saving grace from the Thursday at Mad Cool it is that the bands, by and large, are impressive. It would seem that we’ve got different music tastes from the masses here so I’ll have to take their word for it and concur that Pearl Jam were excellent. We watch a bit from way back in the site and it does all sound very epic, bombastic and American grunge. I’d been looking forward to seeing Tame Impala for some time and perhaps should have pushed further forward to see them. Towards the back of a large space, I feel remote, distant and hardly connected to their pumped psychedelics. Later on Kasabian do what Kasabian do best; they bang out their anthemic hits whilst Tom Meighan gives it his best front-man posturing. We leave after half a dozen songs or so to catch a bit of Justice in the Loop tent.

The Loop is where the more dance-based elements of the Mad Cool line-up play. It’s a covered aircraft-hanger like space; a tunnelled arch of corrugated iron where lights bounce around you and sound does the same. Earlier in the evening we’d caught the end of the DJ set from Actress in here and most of Gold Panda’s set. It’s not particularly busy for either. Gold Panda has laptop issues meaning that he’s missing his beats but toils on gracefully; in truth it’s quite relaxing after the stresses. Actress must surely not be as bad at mixing his tunes as is coming across and we wonder about his monitor sound. ‘My friends at Uni can DJ better than this’, observes Ollie. In between the joins, it’s still possible to dance and enjoy though.

We can’t get into the Loop for Justice. It does seem quite a small covered space in which to put on a band of this stature. The Loop is also the nearest space to the entrance and exit meaning that it’s getting quite crowded outside. We watch from a distance; the lights and sound boom on out and it appears to be a triumph. The squeeze inside the Loop doesn’t bear thinking about.

When at a festival I like to seek out some ‘smaller’ acts - or at least bands not on my radar. The Thunder Bitch and MondoSonoro stages sit facing each other under canvas. When an act finishes on one stage another begins on the other. This appears to be the stages for the up and coming (or the Spanish acts). It's ridiculously quiet in the tent for Durand Jones & The Indications and many miss a treat. In fact, this was my surprise and highlight of the Thursday. It's old school soul (think Charles Bradley RIP) put on by a group of talented and lively musicians. Apart from anything else, there's a connection between the band and the crowd. "This is our first time in Spain and we'd love to come back", says Durand with open honesty. They throw themselves into entertaining and the audience lap it up. Fabulous.

Leon Bridges is a better known name than Durand but is still worth a watch. He does have an undeniable presence when he takes to the Koko stage and his dance moves keep you interested for a few songs. But after half of his set you find yourself wanting a bit more variety and a bit more of a connection with the audience. It feels like this soul boy is just going through the motions. Post Malone has passed me by. I'm reliably told by Photographer Ollie that he's had hit singles though. I had little expectations and they were surprisingly surpassed. With tattooed forehead and glistening good teeth, this redneck rapper bounces around the stage encouraging all to join in by raising their hands. He does get the party going although some rightly feel a tad awkward when he's verbally spewing hatred about his ex-girlfriend who has clearly annoyed him somewhat. (Fuck that bitch). I just about stomach that but feel the need to leave when he gets his acoustic guitar out for a couple of tunes. In truth though, Post Malone has been worth watching.

I'd been worried about getting off site for most of the time I was on site. General levels of organisation hadn't felt great and we were miles out of Madrid with limited options back into the city. One metro line was running all night but that was only taking you to a stop on the city outskirts. A couple of bus routes had been organised yet neither were they heading that central. A taxi might have been an option if I'd been in a bigger group. Über's were being offered (Uber was a lead sponsor of Mad Cool) but at a predicted cost of 70 euros that felt prohibitive for the deepest of pockets. In the end I went for the bus option. After a fair amount of queueing (which looked like nothing compared to the taxi queue) we hopped on a bus to Colon and then walked for another forty minutes to get back to the apartment. The first day of Mad Cool had been a tiring, exhausting and joyless experience even for this hardened festival goer.

When I woke on the Friday, I felt little desire to put myself through another evening of Mad Cool. Madrid is a beautiful city full of wonderful sights, smells and sounds. Another great bill was in the offing but the obvious pull of the Arctic Monkeys, Jack White and Massive Attack didn't outweigh the lethargy I felt towards the festival as a whole. I immersed myself in rooftop bars, indie clubs, royal palaces and tapas restaurants and felt little regret that I'd missed a night of live music. Encouraged by positive Twitter reports, I vow to return a bit more refreshed the following day.

I was happily snoozing in bed when I received an odd sort of press alert from Mad Cool. Clearly there had been some trouble with Massive Attack not playing their set and cancelling at the last minute. The press release made Massive Attack out to be complete divas, refusing to play on that small Loop stage because the sound bleed from the Franz Ferdinand set that was overlapping would be too great. Punters had apparently been waiting for two hours in the hot and sweaty Loop unaware of these developments and with little in the way of updates. Chaos was once again breaking out at Mad Cool.

Later updates received when the festival had ended were more balanced. Massive Attack had stipulated within their contract that they needed a specific piece of technical equipment. Mad Cool had not been able to provide it. There was clearly a battle of wills going on here and the only group to have really missed out were the fans who had, in some instances, travelled across continents to see their favourite band. Another poor show.

True to my commitment, I again made the hour long trek on public transport from my apartment to the Mad Cool festival site on the Saturday. The difference from Thursday's challenges was stark; a very small and acceptable queue greeted me on arrival with security checks kept to an acceptable minimum. I had two beers during the evening and didn't queue once for the privilege. In terms of food, I had a wonderfully tasty vegetarian curry and again there were no queues. If only, I thought, the festival had been able to set this sort of tone throughout.

I'd not noticed it on Thursday (I'd not been close to the main stages) but to the front left of these areas was a sizeable VIP compound. They'd attracted criticism because they'd been largely empty for many of the bands on the undercard. Some reported that the atmosphere at the Tame Impala and Fleet Foxes gigs was subdued as a result. In the interest of journalistic integrity, I wandered up to the entrance of this compound when Jack Johnson was playing his set. I held out my wrist fully expecting to be turned away but was allowed straight in. It appeared that common sense had come to the fore; once it had been established that VIP sorts wouldn't fill the areas for any given set, general punters were allowed to roam. Unfortunately for me this now meant that I was far too close to Jack Johnson's brand of ever-so-happy smiley reggae pop ska. I jest - in truth, Mad Cool needed more smiles and Johnson, who will never be my favourite, had charm in abundance. He apologised when bringing Portugal, The Man onto stage that they'd not been able to practice the version of Rocky Raccoon that they played (it showed) but the feel good factor, largely missing elsewhere at Mad Cool, had returned.

The VIP compounds at the stages were not the only VIP concessions. Elsewhere on site, elaborate platforms had been built where those who had paid more for the Mad Cool privilege could laugh, talk loudly and feel important. I'm told that drinks were cheaper on these platforms as well. Perhaps such division of us and them is a necessity when your artist budget is so bank-breaking (it might also explain the in-your-face sponsorship largely from drinks companies desperate to sell you their wares). I'm not sure it made for a better festival though.

And I think that Josh Homme agrees with me. The Queens Of The Stone Age frontman, deliciously confrontational, is clearly irked that real fans of his band are placed beyond a secondary barrier whilst a VIP enclosure is less crowded. "Security, let them over", he urges and then pretty much downs tools in protest at their resolute stubbornness. "We won't play our next song until you let that area fill up", he repeats with revolutionary ardour. Some might say that Homme was reckless to issue such edicts with the danger of a crowd surge a potential problem. But QOTSA do play their next song. I'm too far from the stage to see what impact his demands had.

"Prensa", I say as I wave my wristband under a security guards nose at the entrance to the Depeche Mode VIP area. I'd seen others with press wristbands do the same and I thought I'd attempt to secure a good viewing spot for at least one band this festival. "No, sorry sir, this is just for VIPs", comes the response. "But I saw you let others in about five minutes ago", I complain. "Oh, the rules have changed since then", explains the security guard pointing to his headset. This exchange, insignificant by itself, is typical of Mad Cool. You do get a sense that staff are making it up as they go along. I'm sure they're all trying their best but when you're involved in a 80,000 capacity festival I'm pretty sure it's dangerous for staff not to be better trained or briefed.

As it is, a more senior security guard comes along five minutes later (I assume this because he's wearing bigger badges) and waves me through. Depeche Mode are incredible. Dave Gahan is a frontman who gets better with age; a performer who sings every word as if he feels them all. When Gahan temporarily leaves the stage and Martin Gore takes the pace down with the ballady 'Somebody', you realise what great songs this band write. The videos that accompany many of the tunes are emotional and heartfelt; the lights and sound enthralling. I find myself wondering why this band have never headlined Glastonbury and ponder if their moment might still be around the corner.  Indeed, they've almost done enough here to pull Mad Cool out of the shambles category.

Nine Inch Nails follow Depeche Mode. I watch a bit and then start the long trek back to my accommodation. I treat myself to a taxi, not of the 70 euro Uber variety but from the queue outside the festival fence. It's a long ride back into town and I'm charged 26 euros. It's worth every penny to be able to curl up in bed and to not think about excessive queues again.

I wouldn't return to Mad Cool. I've always thought that a great festival is about much more than the line-up. In Madrid last weekend it was evident for all to see. Yes, things did get markedly better as the days passed but it should never have been so naff in the first place, not when you're dealing with the health and safety of 80,000 music fans. Such a shame - on paper, this should have been the festival of the summer.


review by: Sean Tizzard

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