(1) PRIMAVERA SOUND - INTRODUCTION:-
Primavera Sound has bite, energy and bile. It spits out the unexpected and has the capacity to leave you in a heap of tears after moments of overwhelming beauty. It’s no accident that pretty much every band that plays the 2018 edition cites it as ‘the best festival in the world’ and one that ‘we've always wanted to play’. There’s a unique spirit in action here that’s undeniably ace and that's never afraid to take risks.
Sunday evening and I’m standing at a free gig in the heart of Barcelona city. There’s been a whole series of these across Primavera week, a gift to the Catalan citizens who haven’t got tickets for the main event. So many bands have given their all but none more so than this act that we can’t take our eyes away from. The combined forces of Fermin Muguruza and The Suicide Of Western Culture are the fiercest of political statements, an electro-punk collaboration with revolutionary zeal. Fermin, a Basque boundary pusher, is evidently something of a hero in these parts. He’s a radical agitator with a call to arms. With a video reel playing in the background, we tour the world in angry protest and in allegiance with hunger strikers and political prisoners. It’s incendiary, a lighting of the touch-paper in these turbulent times and it’s incredible programming from Primavera’s organisers to schedule it thus. Things are changing in Catalonia and you feel on the brink of that moment.
Indeed, Catalan pride about Primavera and the bands from the area scheduled to play is evident from the off. On Wednesday and before the main festival begins, those attending the pro conference are invited to attend a welcome networking lunch. Whilst munching on botifarrada, a local sausage-like delicacy, we get to quaff some free beer whilst listening to the sounds of Marion Harper, The Zephyr Bones and North State. This is my sort of festival. On Thursday, international press are invited to a 'wine and nibbles' session whilst learning from local journalists about the 28 Catalan acts that are listed to play Primavera. It's clearly a healthy scene covering a range of genres and bases. I make notes about those that I will endeavour to see as the week progresses. Marina Herlop doesn't disappoint at all on Sunday at the Sala theatre with her avant-garde classical thing; her voice and the piano complicate and captivate in a manner more complex than Kate Bush. Puput know how to build a wall of sound within which you can lose yourself for a half hour.
The main Primavera site opens (for a free show for all) on the Wednesday - and then opens from Thursday to Saturday for ticket holders. It's hosted a little way from the city but the trek to get there by metro and tram is not too arduous. Others travel by taxi and bus to congregate on the edge of the abstract, concrete jungle that is 'El Forum'. An elaborate conference centre hugging the coast, harbours and ports, the stages nestle neatly within the astonishing and brutal, modernist surrounds. You get to look up at sculptural photovoltaic plates as you stride across impressive gangways and bridges to access other areas of the site. You can watch bands from within brick-built amphitheatres and dance in an underground car park that's been reclaimed as a dark and dingy nightclub. If the mood takes you, you can go for a dip at Primavera's very own beach; those with a VIP ticket can go for a swim in a hotel pool. It's a mammoth maze of stone (and some grass) that's pretty easy to navigate around due to the fine signposting on site. You mightn't get lost but your pedometer will definitely rack up the steps. If your limbs don't ache and your feet are not blistered by the close of the festival then chances are that you've been doing it wrong.
In common with many European festivals, things at El Forum don't begin early like they would at British ones. The main gates at the site open at 4PM and crowds don't begin to gather until the sun goes down. Here, you become a nocturnal creature. You'll look at your watch and express all sorts of surprise at how the time has flown. Somehow, it's now 4AM and you're dancing your socks off to The Black Madonna or John Talabot as the sun begins to rise again. You'll likely fall asleep on the metro home, miss the day by sleeping but wake at siesta time, refreshed (perhaps) and ready to do it all again.
It'd be easy to fall into the mistake that many make by forgetting that Primavera isn't simply about the activities that take place at El Forum though.From 11AM over every day of the festival, you're able to watch showcases of acts in the city of Barcelona itself. In a courtyard at the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona (CCCB), I spend beautiful afternoons with charming people whilst watching half-hour sets from some fabulous stars of the future. The pick of these showcases for me is the one put on by the Irish delegation on Friday afternoon. Paddy Hanna is described as the missing link between Jonathan Richman and Scott Walker. With a tight band (the rhythm section of Girlband no less), he impresses all with his awkward posing and witty style. Fontaines D.C. have been creating quite a buzz in the last few months and it's clear to see why when they take to the stage and do their modern-day take on Joy Division and The Fall. The duo of Le Boom have such a cheery dynamic and such an upbeat manner that you have to dance even though your head is telling you to conserve energy for it will be a long night.
Primarily, crowds are drawn to Primavera sound for the musical line up. This isn't a festival that indulges in a great deal of fancy dress or gimmick. It lets the quality of the booking do the talking. Here, you can both unearth your favourite new act whilst getting reacquainted with bands you've always loved but perhaps have not seen for a while. It has the big international headliners but it doesn't shy away from the up and coming. It stretches the genres mixing grime, dance, pop, rock and metal headliners. Arguably, it doesn't really have headliners at all with all stages awash with a mix that makes hopping around the site so intoxicating.
What seems to unite all at Primavera is that appreciation of fine music. If I have a minor criticism it can at times seem too earnest. There's many knowing glances exchanged between music geeks here as guitar or drum solos are expertly crafted; this audience are an informed bunch and they know their Shellac from their Sumac, their Abra from their Abba. In the grand scheme of things none of this really matters. The only time I experience that shove and push of people pushing past to get towards the front of the gig whilst throwing plastic pint glasses full of piss is during the Arctic Monkey's set at the large Mango stage. I shouldn't be surprised that it's rowdy British teenagers forming long, unbroken lines by holding hands that are responsible for the jostle. That's how we're taught to behave at Reading and Leeds isn't it? Others look on with bemused stares. The Monkey's try their best but to my ears their sound sounds slightly off and I leave after "betting that you look good on the dancefloor" (three tunes in).
(2) PRIMAVERA SOUND - THE SEAT AND MANGO STAGES:-
Let's start our mini tour of the Primavera music at those main stages sponsored by Mango and Seat. Facing each other and separated by a gravel desert, big acts alternate between stages with few breaks in the sound. For many that I chat with, this is the area equivalent to the Pyramid at Glastonbury. It's the space that punters will actively avoid unless there's something that they must see. I dip in and out. There are definitely must sees.
Jane Birkin sings Serge Gainsbourg songs, with the backing of a sixty piece philharmonic orchestra, from the comfort of the Seat stage on Saturday as the sun begins to fall. It's no exaggeration to say that there's barely a dry eye in the house. Wonderfully arranged, Jane sings beautifully and with purpose. Barcelona loves her and she loves Barcelona. She ponders what Serge would have made of it all and we cry a bit more at the intense, special and poetical magic that's being created. A Frenchman, now living in Edinburgh, is weeping bucketloads behind me, clearly overcome with the emotion of it all. "I grew up with these songs", he utters. I put my sunglasses on to hide the fact that I too am overwhelmed by tears. It's impossible to say why but this is music that just gets you there. It's a true 'I was there' moment.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds know how to put on a show. On the Mango stage on Thursday evening, they take us through a gamut of emotions. From tender and sad moments through to murder ballads via extreme rock posturing it's a show that has it all. Warren Ellis's efficiency at playing so many instruments so well doesn't fail to astonish. And when Nick drags a bereft fan from out of the crowd during an epic version of "Stagger Lee" you know you've seen another weekend highlight. Wondrous.
Other shows that got the audience buzzing (or at least talking) in the Mango/Seat space were put on by The Breeders, Car Seat Headrest, Lorde and Bjork. I saw bits of each and liked them all to varying degrees. It's a pure nostalgia trip when The Breeders competently play; an appreciation of solid songwriting and tight playing with Car Seat Headrest and a visual spectacle with both Lorde and Bjork. "There's too many flutes", says my grumbling gig buddy towards the end of Bjork's set and I concede he has a point.
There's disappointment in this area of the park on Friday when it's announced that trap pioneers, Migos, have missed their plane and won't be heading across from the States. Personally, I've never understood what the fuss is about and wouldn't have seen them anyway. Neither was I drawn to their replacement, Skepta, who also had trouble getting to the site but did play a closing show on these stages straight after ASAP Rocky on the Saturday night. Legends of the Spanish rock scene, Los Planetas, fill in for Migos when they were due to play. I wish I'd been there to see the confusion on the faces of the slightly out-of-it trap kids.
(3) PRIMAVERA SOUND - THE STAGES IN THE MIDDLE:-
The middle section of the Primavera site is where I spend the bulk of my time. The 'smaller' stages here can all hold quite a capacity and for a festival of this size are relatively close together. All sponsored by corporate brands, this is where we'll find the Primavera with Apple Music stage, the Heineken Hidden stage (now on a jutting out plank of concrete and grass opposite the Apple Music stage, it's a stretch to call it hidden), the Ray-Ban, the Warehouse, the Pitchfork and the Adidas Originals. There's also a fine food court area - more about that in a bit.
It's Belle and Sebastian who headline the free show for all on the Primavera with Apple Music show on Wednesday night. Word has clearly got around the city because it's a pretty packed space when Stuart Murdoch et al take to the stage. Some friends of mine who dawdled on entering can't get through the entrance gates. Belle and Sebastian do what they do best; the choreographed stage invasion still brings joy even though it's now such a staple that it doesn't surprise. Stuart uses the opportunity to tell all about the Boaty weekender, a celebration of the twenty year anniversary of the Bowlie weekender and a four day cruise leaving from Barcelona in 2019. Hmmm - what I'd do for a press pass for that!
Nils Frahm closes the Apple Music stage on the Thursday. I sit in a space a way back on the grass and let his mix of chilled, perfectly orchestrated electronica wash over me. 2AM in the morning and I'm in a soporific place which Nils is charmingly exploiting before it all goes a bit more upbeat and I get to my feet to sway. There are smiles all around and this is one happy place.
It's here on the Primavera with Apple Music stage that we get triumphant returns from bands that have seen decades of service. The crowd is rarely larger here all weekend than when Slowdive play and it's immediately clear to see why. The Primavera crowd love their Shoegaze and Slowdive thrust themselves forward as the premier exponents of the genre. The wall of sound that they make glistens, shimmers and sparkles whilst the quality of the songwriting comes to the fore. The whole is mightily impressive. Genre stablemates, Ride, are a surprise addition at the Hidden Heineken stage (though not that much of a surprise as it's announced to all a week before). Although never quite meeting the heights of Slowdive, they're still a clever supplement to the bill. I curse myself for being elsewhere when Mogwai play as it's the gig of the weekend according to a fine Finnish lad I met who has impeccable taste in live music. Charlotte Gainsbourg's take on pop impresses in parts but is rather put in the shadows by the wonder of her Mum's show the following day. Sparks are unbelievable; so much fun from the Mael brothers and so much energy from men who could be resting with their slippers whilst collecting their pensions. It's another of this weekend's many highlights.
I last saw Montero at the Shipping Forecast in Liverpool a few months ago. It was an absolute car-crash of a gig. For the first two numbers, Montero forgot to plug his keyboard in. He was a mess that night; it ranks as one of the most awkward gigs I've ever seen. I couldn't help but be surprised to see his name crop on the Primavera bill. Early Saturday afternoon on the Apple Music stage and now with a full (and pretty competent) band, he's a different proposition. The sheer exuberance of the psychedelic pop (think Polyphonic Spree or The Flaming Lips) comes to the fore and by the end of his set I've got the vibration. I'm waving my hand in the air like the bulk of the crowd. Fast forward 24 hours and I'm watching the same set at a free show in the Sala theatre in town. The sound in this hall is crisp, clear and nigh-on perfect. Montero wins my award for biggest surprise of the weekend.
The Ray-Ban stage is one of my favourites. Set in a stone amphitheatre, you can watch acts from sitting on steps at the back of the arena whilst looking out to the ocean. You're sure to lose your mates at Primavera as you go wandering off in separate directions and a pre-agreed place on the steps is as good as any to reconvene. The Catalan press conference had convinced me to head here early(ish) on Saturday for Nuria Graham's set. I'm glad I made the effort. Nuria's thing is a kind of windswept Americana, full of flourish and cute charm. She plays a mean guitar lick as well. The small(ish) crowd sing along to every word and I resolve to dig deep into her latest album when I get home. It's playing right now in fact. These are top tunes that won't fail to grow on you.
Later that evening on the Ray-Ban stage, Deerhunter display to all why they're a regular Primavera booking. Difficult to pigeonhole, Bradford Cox and his band take us on a trip through subtle and quirky variations of American Indie Rock. "What other festival gives you the chance to see Jane Birkin perform like that? ", asks Cox when stressing his love for Primavera. And you know he's right.
It's Friday evening and I'm taking a chance with Sevdaliza on the Pitchfork stage. I've heard bits of her record but I'm attending because I've been tipped off that this modern take on trip hop has an accompanying show that's a visual treat. How true that is? We stand in awe as Sevdaliza takes to the stage dressed like a blacksmith in leather bondage. She hides behind a large spread of flowers and sings her first number from there. Meanwhile, a drummer thrashes from behind a glass screen whilst a DJ lays down the beats. A black, male dancer takes to the stage. He contorts his body into possessed shapes whilst raising the sexual tension that's in the air. Sevdaliza unleashes herself from behind the bouquet and bends in perfect unison with her dancer. Time flies watching this set; it's a spectacle of the highest order and a show I'd urge all to see should you get the chance.
Sadly I can't say the same for the R&B of Abra that took place on the Pitchfork stage the night after Sevdaliza captured hearts and minds. Abra takes to a bare stage with just a microphone. She's so bad at miming along to her vocal that's being blasted out from a backing tape that I do wonder for a minute if this is an elaborate joke. Surely the Primavera crowd , diligent music lovers, are not going to fall for this? Abra does start live singing in song 2 and I wish she'd return to the miming. Realising that there's very little talent on display here I head off in search of something more to my taste. There are plenty of options.
Much has already been written about the live prowess of Idles - sometimes within these very pages. The Bristolian punks are delighted to be at Primavera. It's a festival that they've been going to as punters so to now play it is a dream come true. I doubt that this'll be the last chance they get judging by the strength of the new material from their forthcoming album that they preview to a rapturous response. Inevitably though, it's the songs from the first album that resonate even more. To hear random punters shouting 'why don't you get a job?' at their mates the day after the set shows the way that Idles have broken through. Few would bet against a more prominent billing in future years on larger stages than the Adidas Original.
(4) PRIMAVERA BITS:-
It's impossible to be everywhere. And it's one of my regrets about Primavera 2018 that I didn't spend enough time in the 'bits' area. Accessed by crossing a bridge from which you can look down on a harbour below, this is essentially the dance area of the festival. That's not to say that you won't hear dance music elsewhere on site but here you'll get the best of DJs and electronica. Sonar, happening later in June, might traditionally be recognised as the 'electronic music festival' of Barcelona but they'd better watch out because very soon Primavera will be challenging for that title - that's if they haven't already claimed it.
There are two stages in this area - the Bacardi Live and the Desperados Club. Both offer pretty much non-stop music throughout the night. There's also the beach area (Xiringuito Aperol) that opens early in the day for epic six hour sets from the likes of Floating Points and Four Tet.
Friday night and I've lost my friends. We crossed the bridge together but then I needed the loo and, after a bit of a queue, I'm now disorientated and can't recall where I left them waiting. My phone is dead and the crowds forming to watch Chromeo are insane. But I feel no anxiety. Everyone here is friendly and I strike up a conversation with a group that generously take me under their wing. "It doesn't matter that you've lost your mates - we're your mates now", they observe as Chromeo take to the stage. Described in the programme as 'promising a night when for the first time sweating will be glamorous', I duly attempt to stake my claim. My new friends keep their distance.
(5) PRIMAVERA - THE OTHER BITS:-
This is a big festival; it'd perhaps only be fair to expect bar queues and toilet queues given the numbers in attendance. With no camping, there's always going to be a mass exodus of people leaving the site at similar times. And that will undoubtedly lead to all sorts of logistical travel problems. Imagine if everybody had to leave Glastonbury after every night. That would cause all sorts of havoc.
I find myself wondering on more than one occasion how much effort must have gone into making this feel so seamless. Yes, there are queues but rarely do they seem monstrous and they never really get in the way of the fun we're having. I queue for a cocktail in the 'bits' area for maybe ten minutes. The bars and staff on site are so plentiful that, for the most part, service is instant. It all makes a mockery of the theory that you've got to go 'cashless' or 'token-based' to handle queues. At Primavera, you hand over your cash (5 euros for a large beer) and you get your pint. Simple. The bars are well stocked as well and some of them even serve cider in bottles this year if you want variety from Heineken. Women inevitably have to wait longer in their toilet queues than us chaps but I'm reliably informed that it's far less prohibitive than at some other large festivals. There are some security queues to get in but access and bag searches are all dealt with remarkably efficiently.
There are food vans (interesting street food places) dotted all around but the main food area sits undercover right in the middle of the site. Stalls are positioned around the outside of tons of tables. There's always space to be found on which to eat your poke-ball, your tapas, your vegan delight or your South East Asian curry. Primavera clearly prides itself on the choice of food offered. Dishes sell at about the 8 euro mark. You can tell you're eating quality.
But you wouldn't expect anything else than quality at Primavera. It oozes out of every pore at this festival. Even when risks might not absolutely pay off, you can see why such risks were taken. I could go on and on about the many great things I experienced; I gave my two euro ticket for a Spiritualized set away to a fan who'd appreciate it more but all reports suggest that this was a splendid show; the after-parties at the Apolo club are wonderfully intense but they offer yet more opportunity to fill your boots by watching acts of interest.
Expertly curated and precisely managed, the team behind this stunner deserve much praise for what they've just achieved. Those bands know a thing or two when they say that this is probably the best festival in the world at the moment.
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Primavera Sound 2018 review
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