With The Cure, Radiohead and... Sum 41
The Cure - Bilbao BBK Live 2012

“Dos minutos!” pleads Robert Smith, sin his band, looking seriously lonely on a vast empty stage in front of umpteen thousand increasingly expectant souls.

Everything happens a little later in Spain (although admittedly this is the Basque country where the climate is milder so they arguably don’t actually need the afternoon siesta that pushes life back a few hours elsewhere in the country, but, hey, no-one turns down a nap). Even so, The Cure are pushing it a bit. The festival’s other stages have been shut down in due deference to the kohl-eyed goth legends, and it’s a bit awkward when they take an eternity to mount the stage.

Clearly Smith thinks so, and so to nip the first buds of tension he plods on in person to apologise for the delay, then pops back for a three-song acoustic burst before the full band eventually emerge. The pressure’s on but, thankfully, they’re magnificent: a perfectly judged, hit-strewn three hours that makes even the most pessimistic of onlookers resolve to dig out the Greatest Hits the minute they get home.

That set is the highlight of a glorious three days up a mountain overlooking Bilbao, the infinitely visit-worthy Basque capital. Yes there’s a slightly hairy coach ride along a tight, punter-laden mountain path to the site but then who needs Ecstasy when you can begin a festival gushing with the natural euphoria that comes from not having just plummeted down a sheer drop?

Having survived that same journey The Maccabees also seem pretty happy to be here, playing an ebullient set to a hefty, knowledgeable crowd as Thursday evening gets underway. “Two years ago we played this stage to about 50 people,” beams frontman Orlando Weeks. “So this feels great.”

This is the sixth year of Bilbao BBK Live and they’ve got it pretty well honed - occasional technical issues aside - with a star-packed and nicely balanced programme. Snow Patrol keep the main-stagers happy with their sun-coming-down anthems, for instance, while we troop off to catch some leather-kecked shag-rock from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. They’ve still got it.

By the time The Cure come on it’s almost Friday, and with the other stages running to schedule the end of their set ends up as an intriguing soundclash with Bloc Party, apparently (by this point we were off trying to use up a heap of those annoying pre-paid, one-day-only tokens). If they end up remixing each other, you heard it here first.

Day two, and Mumford and Sons prove to be as sing-along popular here - where English is often the third language - as they seem to be everywhere else on the planet, even when one of the lesser Mumfords congratulates the audience on Spain’s Euro 2012 win, which a lot of Basques couldn’t give a rat’s arse about. On the other stages, We Are Augustines belt out their riotous rustic rock with characteristic vigour, while The Kooks’ well-received set earns a band-of-the-night accolade from one Spanish paper the next day, which is good going, given tonight’s headliners.

Ah, Radiohead, you contrary buggers. Unsurprisingly their set is as anthem-filled and accessible as their most recent album, ‘The King of Limbs’, i.e. not very. “One we’ve heard of!” yelps a gleeful girl nearby, as after an initial burst of interesting but not particularly whistleable numbers that even ardent fans can’t recall the names of, they surge into ‘Pyramid Song’.

The ‘In Rainbows’ tracks still sound great, but this once-expectant field is a forest of furrowed brows during the long periods of more Warp-influenced fare, this after their old associate Four Tet had spent the previous hour pummelling main-stage punters with some uncompromising techno, presumably at Radiohead’s behest. A chap dressed as Elvis storms off in high dudgeon during a lengthy mid-set intermission, while a North American lass deep in the throng has something of an epiphany. “This is Radiohead? Oh, I hate them.”

Still, one thing about such a hit-free two hours: you really appreciate a ‘Karma Police’, ‘Paranoid Android’ or ‘Everything in its Right Place’ when it eventually arrives. Thom is also sporting a little ponytail, which is slightly troubling. When they finally take their leave – earlier than billed – the entire crowd immediately rush to Stage Two for an agreeable Spanish band called Vetusta Morla, who clearly play the hits and bring the house down. Were they just waiting for them all along?

Saturday has a very different, much blander flavour (although to be fair, the tickets are cheaper), with occasional hints of spice. Montreal riffmeisters PS I Love You are a welcome oasis of spunk before the likes of The View and Keane turn up, then Garbage liven things up with a clutch of semi-classics and some decent newer ones. But the most memorable bit of their set is the full minute during which the stage goes completely silent while Shirley Manson continues to strut and holler, blissfully unaware that nobody can hear her. You wouldn’t want to be the chap who had to tell her afterwards.

And finally it’s time for Sum 41, now best known for a song on the American Pie soundtrack, and sadly the sound stays on throughout. Ho! Just kidding – actually the assembled throng – many of whom were camped at the front of the stage while Manson was on mute round the corner - clearly have an absolute whale of a time, as has been the case for most of the three days.

It’s hard not to get carried away by the Basque craic, in truth. Even if you’re unmoved by the main stages you can always find a quiet spot (the urinals offer a particularly advantageous vantage point) and gaze off at the scenery, a mountain range in the distance or the picturesque city below. That view versus The View? No contest.

Words by Si Hawkins
Photo by Music Snapper

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