Live Reports: Primavera Sound 2014, Barcelona

Twin tales, contrasting stories…

Clash had not one but two correspondents at this year’s Barcelona-staged Primavera Sound, albeit more by accident than design. So we figure: let’s run both accounts of the three-day event, which saw the likes of Arcade Fire, Pixies, Metronomy, Kendrick Lamar and Shellac head to the Mediterranean coast for what is repeatedly considered one of the very best festivals on the continent.

Except, maybe not so much this year…

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This is the biggest Primavera Sound yet, at least in terms of turnout. Such are the crowds that it’s easy to lose your bearings. And your mind.

“The festival is happening in theory,” opines one of my friends on the second day, “but no-one knows where.” He is covering the festival for another publication, but became so anxious amidst the multitudes yesterday that he rashly dropped two tabs. Since then he hasn’t slept, and seems to have permanently assumed the voice of Orson Welles. His review is going to be a little different to mine.

Indeed, for the first half-hour of Neutral Milk Hotel it’s difficult to see or hear much – partly because I’m late, but mainly because it’s too busy. Slow advancements through the dense crowd finally yield a so-so vantage point for the likes of ‘Ghost’, which sounds far more rockin’ and fun than I remember, and ‘Holland 1945’. ‘Two Headed Boy Pt.2’ is particularly tender. But I dunno, the peeps around me don’t seem interested – so why don’t they leave, instead of blocking my view?

One of the main problems with Primavera 2014 is already emerging: if there are so many people for an early set like NMH’s, what will the big names be like? Running across this giant car park of a festival – which takes nearly 15 minutes – for the next big-‘un also means there’s little or no time for discovery. I think the only new band I hear is Majical Cloudz, whose spellbinding songs are made up of sincere, desperate vocals by man-on-the-edge Devon Walsh set against the fragile dreamscapes of producer Matthew Otto. So compelling is the performance that it makes me late for NMH. But let me be clear: “late” means not arriving at least an hour before the start of a show.

There’s a little time for CHVRCHES after NMH. I thought the Scottish trio pretty shallow on record, which there’s certainly a case for, but live it’s gleefully fun with Lauren Mayberry’s oh-so-lovely singing and the euphoric synths and cheesy electro-pop percussion. Someone’s finally got the party started.

CHVRCHES

Sadly, I leave before the end to ‘see’ Arcade Fire. A full 40 minutes is as much as I’m willing to wait for any band, especially this band, but it’s not nearly enough time. Everyone around me gets very excited when they come on, even though none of us can see a thing. In fairness, there seem to be interesting things going on a kilometre away on the stage – kaleidoscopic lights, colourful props, and stuff – at least from what I can tell from glimpses at the screen, but I could just as well watch it in on a live stream at home, right (or do anything else)?

Others are recording the theoretical show with iPhones held as high as possible. Pretty ironic given the sentiment of the excellent newish single ‘Reflektor’ – I mean, at what point is this just an exercise in ‘I woz there’? Hats off to the I-woz-theres, though: half way through AF’s excruciating three hours (THREE HOURS) of drivel I want to die and start hitting my hip-flask of rum hard. But at the end they’re all still swaying uh-uh-oh-ohhhing to ‘Wake Up’, the most insincere attempt at uplifting heartfelt togetherness in the history of music.

Look. Primavera 2014 isn’t all bad. I know I’m giving you that impression. Arcade Fire is the only real low-point. After them, at 3.15am, having just missed about 10 bands (I did make it in time to see Queens Of The Stone Age belting out ‘Go With The Flow’, which is about all I need to hear), Metronomy is the best thing ever.

Sure, that’s probably due in part to the colossal relief of Arcade Fire being finished, but the foursome’s slick, upbeat set is full of favourites like ‘The Look’ and ‘Corinne’, and those of us who have made it this far are having a good time. There are a few tracks from the decent new album, ‘Love Letters’, but the oldies are the most pleasing, especially super-cheeky rave set-closer ‘You Could Easily Have Me’, from eight-year-old debut LP ‘Pip Paine’.

PIXIES

The next day I decide to ride the soothing guitar waves of Slowdive instead of Sharon Van Etten, mainly because they are playing on the stage opposite Pixies, who are dire. Frank Black looks just like Breaking Bad’s Agent Schrader, only fatter and less likable. I mean, he just stands there with his eyes closed. The bassist replacing Kim Deal is a spit of Connie Corleone, and like the rest of the band she looks like she’d rather not be here. So do us a favour, like.

Next up, The National turn out to be Primavera’s surprise highlight. I thought most of their catalogue to be too dark and melancholic to make them a good festival band, but the likes of ‘Sea Of Love’ and ‘This Is The Last Time’ have us all bouncing around. Even a trembling old number full of heartbreak like the 10-year-old ‘About Today’ is made stellar thanks to a cacophonous ending, and a welcome brass section, while members of The Walkmen take to the stage to make ‘Mr. November’ all the more spectacular.

The National’s suited frontman Matt Berninger is the only star tonight, screaming his vocals as almost never heard on record, and smacking his head with the mic until it breaks – the mic, not his head. At which point he shrugs and plunges into the crowd. What a contrast from Pixies’ performance.

THE NATIONAL

By the final day of Primavera, I’m feeling a little worse for wear. Dum Dum Girls make little impression on me, I’m afraid, and I can’t remember much about Earl Sweatshirt except “I’ll f*ck the freckles off your face, bitch,” and that his hypeman played for too long. I am trying to conjure some excitement as Godspeed You! Black Emperor take to the stage, but am so far back, and the volume’s so inexplicably low, that I’d rather take a break: watch the sun setting over Primavera’s seafront venue, or something. Rejecting this suggestion, Orson Welles offers me a revitalising dose of… advice, let’s say. And then we’re off to Kendrick Lamar

Armed with a live band, plenty of “How y’all doing, Primavera?”, and the exhilarating hits ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ and ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’, Kendrick’s here to please. The audience loves it, and so do I. But by the end, everything’s a bit of a blur. I catch a bit of Blood Orange, dimly aware of ‘On The Line’ caressing my heartstrings, before finding myself in front of an impressive Mogwai. I long for their post-rock to wrap itself around me like a blanket and take me to bed. But there’s still Foals, who seem big and brash and potentially invigorating, if I wasn’t ready by now to collapse in a heap. Alas, beneath me lies concrete, not grass.

Primavera celebrates its 15th birthday next year – annoying adverts remind me of this before every show. My advice to the organisers would be to, y’know, scale it down a bit, but truth is it’s likely to be even bigger. Which quite frankly terrifies me. The trouble is the big bands are like forces of gravity, drawing you away from the smaller artists like celestial bodies – just because maybe you liked them a bit when you were 15. Sure, I’ve seen some great shows here, but I suspect that those a little more ruthless about avoiding the so-called stars like Pixies and Arcade Fire had a better time than me.

Words: Darren Loucaides

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KENDRICK LAMAR

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The night I arrive in Barcelona, riots riff across the city. A 5,000-strong group has taken to its main boulevards, leaving a trail of anti-capital graffiti in its wake. Last week, the local police closed down one of the huge squats supporting the community here. The site, near Sants Estació, was a beacon, giving people a creative space to explore culture, to meet their neighbours, and share the burdens and responsibilities of local issues. All over the city, messages are littered with a mood of social discomfort – “GUERRA SOCIAL” (“social war”) screams one.

Over the other side of the city, hundreds of people from the international music press are just arriving for Primavera – a festival now in its 14th year, which sees over 70,000 rush through its gates in one weekend. Like many of the new enterprises emerging across Barcelona, the event has found its audience in a new creative elite amongst the domestic population. Full of hip fashionistas, with new money, the site blooms with aspiration – a far contrast from the destitute state of the people I witnessed just a little earlier.

The festival itself is set in a bay, right by the best beaches in the city. Attracting a crowd mainly comprised of tourists – calling everywhere from America to Scandinavia home – Primavera is very much the ATP of the Mediterranean: a festival that mixes hugely eclectic bookings and engaged people in a hugely interesting space.

Some years ago, the site used to be in an old Franco-built town – a town to celebrate the iconography of the Spanish empire. But having since moved to the Parc Del Forum, its more recent home is a great machine of metal girders and high concrete walkways, set amongst a backdrop of huge suburban tower blocks. Just two minutes from the seafront, most of its main stages overlook the water, and alongside its late programming policy and lack of neighbours, that means Primavera could go on for 24 hours a day, if it wanted to.

Its line-up is like no other this summer. Using the very best moments of the day, Primavera gives you a chance to explore the city, before hitting the site at 4 o’clock to bask in the last swathes of summer heat, before then descending into a long, long night spent hopping between sound systems and DJs across the site.

Several highlights take place in the remarkable Auditori Rockdelux – a Barbican-style concert hall, hidden at one end of the site. The 3,000-capacity hall hosts some of the most astonishing bookings of the weekend. Sun Ra Arkestra, a 15-strong crew of jazz musicians, brings the music of the late composer to life – managing huge standing ovations on numerous occasions throughout their set. Erased Tapes signees A Winged Victory For The Sullen also bring a hugely mellow vibe to the festival, astonishing the packed Auditori with incredible, soft compositions.

GUESS WHO

Remarkable too, is the sheer number of bands playing one-off slots at this weekend. Slowdive, on the Sony Stage on Friday afternoon, are playing one of very few international live dates. Likewise, Dr John seems more than happy to be playing an irregular European date, as he casts his great nostalgic blues music out, as the sun sets.

To fully describe the immense experience of swapping between bands as you do at Primavera, I’d have to outline a standard evening. On Thursday, for example, within a three-hour slot, I watched an outstanding Neutral Milk Hotel, a rare performance (albeit not so rare at Primavera) from alt-punk band Shellac, and a blinding headline slot from Arcade Fire. While the first of those three got a huge audience singing just about every word back, as if the Spanish natives had English as their first language, Shellac stood their bitterly sarcastic lyrics up to a super-dedicated audience, who’d almost come exclusively to see them play.

Arcade Fire pull one of the biggest crowds of the weekend. Dressed in neon and white, Win Butler and company run through five records worth of material – from ‘Funeral’ to ‘Reflektor’, every single song has the entire audience crying their words back to them. Arcade Fire sound better than they’ve ever done before – it’s the first time, in four, where I’ve seen them fully step up to the plate as headliners.

At Primavera, evenings roll into entire nights out – and on into beautiful mornings, and sweaty cab rides home to apartments on the other side of the city.

JOHN TALABOT

Bowers and Wilkins’ collaboration with the Boiler Room becomes another crucial Primavera haunt. Built around a complete 360-degree dome, the sweet point in the centre of the complex projects a sound like no other sound system I’ve ever heard. Dirty beats, thumping techno and indie classics become the soundtrack to the evenings of Primavera. John Talabot’s appearances across the weekend are crucial viewing. As is the closing set, by DJ Coco, out in the open-air Ray-Ban Arena. Taking to the stage at 4:35 on Sunday morning, he closes the festival with classics from Talking Heads, Michael Jackson and Arcade Fire. It’s full-on cheese, but it’s still the most incredible indie disco set I’ve ever experienced.

Primavera, in many ways, is the most stunning festival experience you’ll have all summer. The bands are remarkable, and the music selection is constantly exciting. But there are great downsides. Just as the Catalan government makes movements to shut down the local squats on the other side of the city, they’ve pumped huge amounts of money into Primavera to engineer an extended tourist season.

Outside the Parc, great swathes of hagglers can be seen selling on beers at a euro a pop, but it’s sad when you come to realise this is their entire livelihood. Across Spain, there are problems – 53% youth unemployment means a new generation are unlikely to experience anything like Primavera. This is no longer the festival it once was, for the local people. Instead, it’s a tourist’s retreat, where huge money is played with.

CONNAN MOCKASIN

Gigs here feel more like massive shows that intimate moments. Where British festivals are intricate in every way, culture on the Primavera site is almost non-existent. For once, yes, it’s nice to relax into a grown-up weekend, where an apartment replaces a shitty plastic tent, but the whole attitude of the place feels corporate and cold. And you can tell that lack of charisma has an effect on some bands. Many sound better, playing huge festival slots to massive open audiences; but Foals, for instance, play one of their flattest performances in years. Likewise, Connan Mockasin is plagued by sound leaking from the next-nearest stage, and fails to stand out without the confines of a tent to bring his music together.

But if Glastonbury just isn’t your thing, Primavera could be the place for you. As a festival, it’s as an abject an experience as I’ve ever had – but the music is outstanding, the city is beautiful, and for once in my life, it felt quite comfortable being a tourist here. But the price paid in return for it, of that I’m not sure. Celebrating this culture with the locals feels like it would be a better move. Spain has an incredible history, and the Catalans, no less, are hugely inspiring and creative people. So, let’s celebrate them, and not just shroud the whole thing in huge corporate sponsorship. 

Words: Robbie Wojciechowski

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FOALS

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Photo credits

Arcade Fire, Foals, Kendrick Lamar: Dani Canto
CHVRCHES: Santi Periel
Pixies, Slowdive, John Talabot, The National: Eric Pamies
Connan Mockasin: Xarlene

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