I arrived in Barcelona by plane, checked into my squalid budget hotel and hurried to the metro, already crowded with hipsters. You know there’s a music festival in the city when fedoras and scarves outnumber baseball caps and gold chains. That’s not to say that Barcelona isn’t normally fashion-forward. The regular urbanites were ultra-stylish, much more so than in frumpy Yorkshire, England, where I’ve spent the last year. Everyone is friendly, everyone’s ready to party.
Within 15 minutes of my arrival at the venue, I am offered a buffet of illegal substances. At least, I think they’re illegal here. The Forum site is a sprawling, undulating landscape of concrete and stone. I assumed it would present acoustic problems, but no such difficulties were heard. Also, no mud! The six stages were carefully angled and placed at different heights such that the acts could perform on each stage simultaneously without cacophony. At one point, we could even make out the chirping of crickets during a performance at an adjacent stage.
The Gaudí, the Bands, and the (Not So) Muddy
Primavera Sound is in its eighth year, and appears to have consistently offered an excellent mix of established indie heroes along with newer bands. This year’s festival featured a few Spanish acts, the rest being almost entirely American or English.
I met a fellow named Manuel, who asked me where I was from. I explained I was covering the festival for an American music magazine. His eyes grew in faux astonishment and he excitedly relayed the information to his friends. I can’t say for sure, but it was something along the lines of, “Guys, guys! Did you realize that we are standing in the presence of a big-shot American music journalist?” They all “ooh’d” and laughed, and offered me some MDMA, which I declined (this is true, Mom). I made my way to the main stage, where Notwist was playing “Pilot”, enshrouded in a green glow. I only caught the last few minutes of the set, which translated surprisingly well to a live setting. I asked Manuel who he was most interested in seeing, and without a second thought, exclaimed, “Public Enemy!”
Photo: Inma Varandela
Public Enemy was scheduled to perform their debut album for a 20th anniversary celebration that evening. The Brothers Shocklee took the stage as the Bomb Squad, opening with a little dubstep. The crowd was largely uninterested, seemingly less tolerant of the hypeman’s ritual, which serves to whip the crowd into a frenzy before the main act hits the stage. Still, by the time Flava Flav and Chuck D made their entrance (Terminator X is retired and Professor Griff had passport troubles, according to Chuck), the audience was ready for the trademark, “Lemme hear you say ‘Yeah’” that opens It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. The S1W’s swarmed the stage in fatigues and admittedly silly samurai swords. Apple’s logo was as ubiquitous as the ‘guy with a beret in the crosshairs’ logo, with all the DJ’s sporting Powerbooks. Steve Jobs is a genius for making that logo glow in the dark.
The replacement DJ modified the original beats, which needed few updates in order to sound fresh. Flavor Flav mugged for the cameras, Chuck D did his hip-hop Farrakhan routine, and the S1W’s completed the nostalgia with stylized marching and salutes. I don’t think we could have asked for more.
It struck me then more than ever how timeless and universal the music of Public Enemy is. You rarely hear them repping their hometown or referencing era-specific subject matter (like Sega Genesis — I’m looking at you, Biggie). Their message, which deals specifically with the plight of the African American, is still immediately translatable to a Spanish audience: Fight the Power.
Photo: Inma Varandela
De La Soul
De La’s set stood in stark contrast to Public Enemy’s barrage of militaristic noise, taking the form of a street party. But then, that’s nothing new for De La Soul. The band was dynamic, with effortless flow. They even treated us to some silly De La Soul universe trivia, which didn’t sound too unlike some of those goofy gameshow skits from 3 Feet High and Rising. They could have toned down the hype, though (How many times do we need to hear, “Holaaaaa Barcelonaaaaaaa”?)
After catching Vampire Weekend, I made my way back to the hotel, accosted by a trio of prostitutes who grabbed my arm and would not let go. I shook them off and hurried back to my hotel around 5:00 am, only to find no one at the front desk. After pacing around the front door for a half hour, I just started yelling, at which point a fuzzy head appeared from behind the desk. That’s right, the security guard was sleeping. So glad I didn’t take Manuel up on his offer.
I managed to wake up in time to do a little sightseeing around Catalonia. I checked out some of the Gaudí architecture, walked along the beach, down Las Ramblas and peeked into a few markets to catch a glimpse of pickled piglets and chicken heads. I visited some churches as well, one of which, Santa Maria del Mar was holding a wedding, ostensibly of the ‘celebrity’ variety. I grabbed a baguette, a glass of horchata, and hopped on the Metro back to the Forum.
MV & EE with the Golden Road
I caught this band’s excellent stoner rock showcase first, which surprised me with one J Mascis behind one of the drum kits. This is summer sun, grungy blues music, perfect for this afternoon, sitting in what little grass manages to peak through these cement dunes. Matt Valentine and Erika Elder blend Appalachian folk with Ragged Glory-era Neil Young, buoyed into the stratosphere by hypnotizing guitar freak-outs.
Pissed Jeans immediately set about wiping away any vestiges of pie-eyed hippy love with a selection of songs that all sounded like variations on Black Flag’s “Damaged 1”. Frontman Matt Korvette bellowed, gasped, and thrashed around the stage while drummer Sean McGuinness glared at the audience with an autistic, menacing glare reminiscent of rock’s most heralded provocateurs like Iggy, Rotten, and Vega. I can say with confidence that the Allentown band’s sonic miasma accurately sums up what it feels like to grow up in semi-rural Pennsylvania.
I don’t have much to say about Bishop Allen, other than that they seem like a less-interesting version of the Shins. Lacking bombastic melodies and relying too much on expected song structures, they are yet another white, guitar based indie pop band; forgettable.
Photo: Inma Varandela
Devo—a little grayer, a little pudgier, dared to be stupid as night fell over Barcelona. They cycled through their greatest hits, adorned in their trademark red pyramid hats and yellow industrial jumpsuits. The badass guitar riff driving “Girl U Want” ripped it up, betraying their nerdy aesthetic, while the epic “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” found Mark Mothersbaugh ripping apart his jumpsuit, revealing the short shorts beneath. Things got a little too silly when Boogie Boy showed up to sing “Beautiful World”, so I headed over to catch Cat Power, who was just beginning her sultry set.
El Guincho & Holy Fuck
I was eager to see El Guincho, the one Spanish musician who seems to have gotten any stateside attention in as long as I can remember, but I was disappointed. He drummed along to his repetitive collage of tropical sound effects and African percussion. He reminded me of a more dancefloor-oriented Panda Bear, but his sound system did not do him justice. Maybe I just wasn’t feeling it, but maybe he was more interested in pleasing the five guys in front of me who had just done lines of coke. They didn’t seem to mind the repetition.
Holy Fuck, four dudes from Toronto (two synths, drums and guitar), was much more interesting. An electrifying mix of unrelenting beats and anthemic riffs, their show was fascinating for a largely electronic band. One guy appeared to be manipulating the sounds of his synthesizer with a roll of film. Instead of rolling and scratching a record, he would yank this roll of film at different speeds to produce different tempos and sound effects. Their fist-pumping sound filled the Forum as the sun began to rise over the glittering ocean.
I slept in until 4:00 PM, leaving me enough time to do a little more sightseeing before concerts began. I stopped by the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, which had an almost eerie pagan quality to it, magnified by a woman having some sort of epileptic fit at the base of the church’s front facade. Gaudí uses organic imagery (bones, leaves, branches), sculpting the shapes in stone, which gives them a lifelike, almost breathing quality…back to the Forum.
Bradford Cox was setting up his synthesizer when I approached his stage. Fog rolled in from the ocean surface. As a light drizzle covered the concrete and the smell of wet stone filled our nostrils, Cox wove ‘60s soul, dub psychedelics, and Eno atmospherics into a low-key ambience that perfectly matched the weather. He bore likeness to Panda Bear, albeit less Ritalin-fueled. This similarity was confirmed when he admitted to have received some studio help from Noah Lennox (Panda Bear).
Although David Berman’s creamy baritone sounded as rich as ever, he didn’t seem too excited to be in Barcelona. He wandered around the stage, staring at the floor as he sang, bereft of charisma. I hate to knock on a guy whose struggles with depression and crippling shyness have been well documented, but he doesn’t come off as a natural performer. His excellent backing band, which featured his wife Cassie on bass, almost made up for his indifference to the audience, but the only thing that would have redeemed this mediocre performance would have been a surprise appearance from former bandmate Steve Malkmus, which sadly never materialized.
Photo: Marta Moreiras
After briefly catching the Dirty Projectors’ final few songs, I was ready to either see Deerhunter, Clipse, Dinosaur Jr or Mission of Burma. How can one choose! Pablo made the decision for me when he recommended that I catch Morente Omega, whom he dubbed the ‘Johnny Cash of Flamenco’. Having already witnessed over a dozen American rock bands, I figured it might be an engaging cultural experience to expose myself to some local flavor. Enrique Morente approached the stage to little fanfare, along with almost twenty musicians and backup singers. He began the set with an a cappella dirge, wherein he and each of his male backing vocalists took turns singing over the others’ low-pitched drones. It was an absolutely hypnotizing opening to a short set of traditional flamenco tunes.
Morente is well known for breaking open the world of traditional Spanish music to Western pop styles, most notably in his 1996 album Omega, a fusion album that included several Leonard Cohen covers from I’m Your Man. This performance was in promotion of the newly re-mastered version of the album. The highlight of the evening was a flamenco version of “Take this Waltz”. It may be difficult to imagine an American pop song influenced by traditional Viennese waltz music performed by a Jewish folk rocker as interpreted by a Spanish flamenco legend, but it worked. Like Johnny Cash’s interpretation of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt”, Morente claimed the song as his own, so uniquely that you’d never expect that it was ever anything but a Spanish classic. Morente’s heart-rending take was a highlight of the weekend, one that was sadly missed by the rest of the festival’s American and English attendees.
I managed to catch Clipse for a few minutes before heading over to Shellac’s stage for my final show of the night. Why do rappers always have to shout everything live? One of Pusha T and Ab Liva’s core competencies is their rollicking flow. Why sacrifice this excess of personality for the sake of volume? Nearly every hip hop artist I’ve ever seen live does this, and it just confounds me. Where’s the flow? Where’s the dynamics?
Photo: Inma Varandela
Shellac are known for their reluctance to play live, and when they do, they often insist on smaller venues. Thus, I felt fortunate to hear the band at a festival, which honestly isn’t much different than hearing them on record. This makes sense, due to Steve Albini’s recording philosophy by which he strives as an engineer to document the band’s live performance to record; no muss, no fuss. Bassist Bob Weston bobbed and grinned, arms outstretched (look, I’ve got wings! I’ve got wings, look!), while drummer Todd Trainer spent as much time on his feet, stalking the stage with a single snare drum, as behind the kit. Albini’s vitriolic delivery offered all the bile for which we’ve come to love him.
“The End of Radio”, which has to be an all-time live classic by now, has the minimalist rock trio pounding away through the nervous voice of the world’s last radio announcer (“We’d like to thank our sponsor / We don’t have a sponsor!”). Shellac tore through their oeuvre, finishing the set with an acrobatic cymbal smashing triangle, formed when the band disassembled the drum kit during the final song, reassembling in a way that each could play on two cymbals. Still, it was as far as you can get from a hippy drum circle.
It depressed me beyond comprehension to walk away from the festival as Animal Collective set up their equipment, but my early flight necessitated a few hours of sleep. Primavera Sound was at once an immersive cultural experience, a primo festival, and a great sightseeing opportunity. Because the concerts were mostly held after dark, we avoided sunburn and dehydration (the bane of so many festivals) and partied till the break of dawn instead. I slept in late and discovered Barcelona during the day. Why can’t every festival be this way?
// Notes from the Road
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