There are many different ways of achieving greatness when playing live. Of course you have to have great songs, but that is not the only variable to take into account for real stage success. You have to have the right attitude, the guts, the interest, the passion, and the willingness to be able to translate your own recorded material into something bigger; something that will be performed/translated into frequencies and sounds during a particular and unique moment in time. You also have to do it in front of an excited crowd, and you have to be able to ‘read’ the feedback that the crowd may start to send you and establish a fruitful dialogue throughout. So it isn’t easy, and that is why we should not be too hard on the acts I write about in the first part of this article; all of them, for different reasons, may have not had a good night. And that’s all.
For the same reason, the chance that the gig you go to ends up being quite historical is also maybe a question of luck. And so, one of the great things about attending a music festival is that you’re instantly given a lot of ‘tickets’ for that special ‘contest’: every act has the chance to do something extraordinary. And there are many acts at a festival. So it’s just a question of making the right decisions when choosing what to see at any time, because you may end up being impressed by the incredible set of some unbelievable local band that you didn’t expect at all, or heavily disappointed by the careless attitude or incredible boredom of a sacred cow that you were looking forward to watching.
Brilliance and Boredom in Barcelona
That was my mental MacGuffin for the whole duration of Primavera Sound. This document is the result of such an idiotic plan, divided into the two consequent categories: the failures and the megahits, analyzed back to back. Of course, I’ve heard about some other highlights (Les Savy Fav’s incredible gig), and flops (the better-on-record tag ascribed to MGMT), whom I missed. But unfortunately, I lack the gift of ubiquity.
So, yeah, everything they always say about Cat Power is true: she’s a live animal show woman and her band is amazing. She delivers a constant impression of tender despair (I kept asking myself whether she might be drunk or not and, if so, whether she may end the show abruptly anytime) and her continuous catwalking (for once, an artist that really deserves her nickname…) is so hypnotic and erotic that my imagination couldn’t help but create images of us alone in a hotel room. All this was there, of course, when she performed an hour-long set composed of songs from her latest effort, Jukebox, along with a couple of tracks from the previous album, The Greatest, but there was an unfortunate conclusion I couldn’t avoid coming to during her set: Gosh, this is so boring! She used the same quiet, almost inaudible phrasing all the way through. I almost started to consider hers an instrumental show. This wasn’t due to ‘technical’ dificulties, but rather a reality we tend to forget: Hidden under the many sides that Chan Marshall has shown us through the years, from her troubled past to her collaborations with luxury brands, her voice is beautiful but not very powerful. It always gets thrown into the background of the mix when she uses a ‘proper’ band (drums and guitars). I wish she would return to her old format; alone with a guitar or keyboard.
CAT POWER [Photo: Dani Canto]
The exact opposite could be said about another inspired singer who played in Barcelona the next day. His name is Rufus Wainwright. The Canadian came back (he’s been touring Spain extensively for the last couple of years) with the same format as last time. Still, he is always so great, so perfect. His voice is powerful and full of different colors that there’s no space for mistakes, much less humanity, at least not while he sings. In between the songs he makes unfunny and sometimes embarrassing comments on whatever comes into his mind. That’s when I like Rufus more; when he wonders if the solar panel platform above the venue may be about to take off and how alien he feels here. Of course, his performance was itself an alien proposal. Even if you’ve seen the guy performing “The Art Teacher” alone with his piano before, it’s hard to get emotional in the open air, surrounded by noise seeping in from the other stages. As opposed to the aforementioned Marshall, at least Rufus’ delivery carries an impressive way of being boring.
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT [Photo: Inma Varandela]
To avoid this predicament, Rufus should have played the Auditorium, the intimate indoor space for which Primavera Sound is famous. What other music event in the world gives you the chance to leave the open air and sit for a while on one of 3,000 seats in an air-conditioned venue without leaving the site? This is where I saw Scout Niblet, just a couple of hours before Rufus played on the Estrella Damm stage. I have to say that I was only capable of listening to her first two songs before I started to feel that I was really wasting my time. I don’t know if it got any better—actually, thanks to some people that stayed and told me later and to the reviews that have already been posted on the net, I know that it didn’t. Unfortunately, Scout Niblet, with just her guitar and a drummer, came across as a second-class PJ Harvey.
SEBADOH [Photo: Inma Varandela]
What else was wrong during the festival? The aging old-school indie rock acts, for example. Sebadoh, Buffalo Tom and Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks (yeah, he’s in this category now), were more like mere ambient music, halfheartedly playing something nice to get you through some beers and early evening conversation. There was no rocking vibe or frenetic impulse coming from any of them (the worst case being Malkmus’ offering, with an indifferent lead singer and a bass player too worried about the loudness of her instrument to give it some soul). However, it was great to see the guys from Sebadoh still exchanging their instruments between songs.
THE SONICS [Photo: Inma Varandela]
On the revival/reforming side (one important trend in the universe of music festivals), the most deceptive gig came from The Sonics. I had hopes that they would be one of the highlights of the weekend, but their offering didn’t warrant such anticipation. They played to one of the largest audiences (probably thanks to a lucky gap in the program) but were merely a nice bunch of old guys enjoying the Primavera Sound atmosphere. Their happy-go-lucky stage banter reminded me of Karen Allen’s constant smile in the recent disappointing Indiana Jones flick.
To end the dark side of the festival, one single case of very bad luck: Six Organs of Admittance. You could see that they were ready to rock because Ben Chasny was already climbing onto the drum kit from the moment he shot the first riff with his guitar. Unfortunately, before striking a single note, the female guitar player had problems with her amplifier. The problems lasted for too long-long enough to destroy all possibility of any magic.
PORTISHEAD [Photo: Inma Varandela]
It’s tough when you go to a festival and the second act you see is Portishead. (The first one, Public Enemy, wasn’t bad either.) Only a couple of songs into their set, you know that it’s something that’s going to be hard to top. Yes, it was that great. Theirs is probably the best ticket that anyone passionate about music could find right now in the world. In Barcelona, they gave a master class on how to create moody, different atmospheres with each new song. They pulled from multiple albums, including their new effort Third, creating all the sounds live and avoiding the use of samples. From the point of view of techie interest, it was really amazing to watch Geoff Barrow, Adrian Utley, and the three other musicians translate the Portishead material using actual instruments and effectively make it breathe. On top all of the human-engineered soundscapes there was Beth Gibbons’ impeccable, haunting voice. Not content to give the audience as much as they did, they went for a gag that rounded out the show. During “Machine Gun”, a track from the new album, they invited Chuck D to improv some freestyle rap verses over the song’s krautrock rhythm. How great is that? That happened on Thursday night, in the open air, at the biggest stage. And they were able to repeat it on Friday, in the Auditorium, where Beth gave way to a proper stage invasion. I wasn’t there, but I really wish I had been.
So, as you can see, it was hard to top all that. But some bands almost did it. Like Bon Iver, whose album For Emma, Forever Ago is this season’s great surprise. They played the Auditorium as well, on Saturday (the final day of the festival) at mid-day, but it might as well have been dusk. From their first song, my skin started to change and I was filled with emotion from beginning to end. Seated on chairs for the entire show, the three guys’ voices blended like angels. With just enough percussive and distorted sounds coming from their instruments, their set became an almost religious experience. When they encouraged the audience to join our voices with theirs, chanting the words “What Might’ve Been Lost…” again and again, louder and louder, I caught many people around me almost in tears. It was pure emotion.
Same place, same time, the day before, I saw legendary new-wave mentor and Elvis Costello producer, Nick Lowe, perform the most soothing and elegant country-tinged set of beautifully crafted songs in the English pop tradition—think Prefab Sprout or The Blue Nile. These songs were played by a bunch of middle-aged guys that seemed more energized and happy to be alive than any of us youngsters in front of them. Lowe, alone with his acoustic guitar, ended the show with a beloved rendition of “(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”, the song Costello popularized in the ‘80s. I wish all the gigs were like this.
YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS [Photo: Dani Canto]
Ending the list of astonishing acts that I saw in the excellent Auditorium venue, was a cozy set by the mythical Young Marble Giants, performing their famous (and only) album Colossal Youth. I suddenly understood where Spoon’s mastery at leaving air in between their instruments comes from. These Cardiff guys were into minimalism way back in the ‘80s. Despite their drummer playing with an injured back, they offered a very peculiar and different sonic proposal amidst so many guitar bands.
Guitars… lots of them… When it came to Explosions in the Sky (a well earned name), it was incredible how one couldn’t tell the difference between them playing with three guitars or with just two six-strings and a bass. The songs always sounded incredibly crisp, yet powerful. The band must have a really great sound engineer. What this four-piece do is kind of amazing: during a single show, they might come up with an hour-long instrumental piece made up of different tracks from their various albums with each individual track ending with a sonic climax. That makes between twelve and fifteen climaxes throughout their set. And so when they are just building—let’s say the third one for example—you kind of think they’re not going to make it; they’re not going to be able to maintain the intensity of ten more crescendos. But they do, incredibly they do. But theirs is a proposal, similar to what bands like Mogwai or Sigur Rós do, that you either like or dislike from the start. I really like progressive stuff, so I really enjoyed this show on the ATP live stage on Thursday evening. I would just say that next time I would prefer to see them at a theater, perhaps with background projections. For as abstract as they might be, the overall effect would surely be really impressive.
VAMPIRE WEEKEND [Photo: Dani Canto]
Right after that, I went to check Vampire Weekend, whose album is one of my favorites right now. They didn’t disappoint. In fact, right from the minute their gig was over, my passion for them grew because they played their stuff greatly, with passion and funny stage movements. By the way, their bass player wore white trousers—the first time in years that I had seen any rock musicians dressed like that with dignity.
It wasn’t the exact same feeling I got two days later when I saw Okkervil River, but I really liked them too. Even if they were playing in the early evening, and it was their guitar player’s last gig ever, they seem to enjoy being together. That vibe was delivered to the audience when the bass player started throwing badges at us. I didn’t catch any of them, but he threw a lot of them during the set. They played much of their latest album The Stage Names, and it was just a really playful and inspired gig.
There were also some very good Spanish acts included in the line up at Primavera Sound who surpassed expectations. Madee, a local, mainstream-sounding band, came on stage on Saturday with two female vocalists, a couple of brass musicians, and a trio of strings. This backed up a well-equipped electric set-up comprising three guitar players, bass, drums, and keyboards, which sounded great; better than many of the famous international acts. Also performing were the guys from The Right Ons, who play an excellent mix of funk and soul that nobody would expect from Latin people.
All in all, Primavera Sound produced great balance. The acts that did ok, made me want to listen to their albums as soon as I got home; the not so good ones gave me the chance to develop my ironic criticism and argue with other attendants. Music aside, the weather was fine, the site was spacious, and there was no mud at all. So long live the Primavera Sound; meet you again next year! If only I hadn’t bought my return plane ticket to Madrid so early on Sunday morning… I might not have missed it, and may not have had to buy another…