[29 July 2012]
It’s nearly 2:00 a.m. and 10,000+ people are just steps from the Balearic Sea with the entire color spectrum flashing toward them. A row of towering office buildings and hotels looms in the background. M83 begins “Midnight City” and the collected mass screams in delight, followed by excited chatter in numerous languages. The band exchange smiles with each other as they see and hear the crowd go wild. It becomes clear immediately that only a grinch could dislike this moment. And it’s just one of many highlights from 2012’s edition of Primavera Sound.
This year’s festival brought 200+ bands and roughly 150,000 patrons together for five days. Its opening and closing nights near the Arc de Triomf were headlined by the Black Lips and Richard Hawley, respectively. The former put on their usual rollicking and chaotic performance amid a stream of beer cans (provided by the ever-present lateros) hurled toward the stage while the latter was much more calm (partly due to recovering from a broken leg) as he relied heavily on his latest album Standing at the Sky’s Edge and sprinkled in a few older cuts like a dazzling “The Ocean”. Opening night also featured the Walkmen, who came out on fire with “Heaven” and “Heartbreaker” but slowly lost momentum during a string of low-key songs that couldn’t keep the attention of much of a non-paying crowd. However, they picked it up to close with a rousing “All Hands and the Cook” when Hamilton Leithauser showed off the best of his vocals. The Wedding Present’s performance of Seamonsters followed by “Drive” and “Kennedy” found David Gedge in fine form, as well. For closing night, Gijonés singer Nacho Vegas put on a sterling show of hits and Brestois multi-instrumentalist Yann Tiersen wowed in the rain during a very synth-heavy set that also showcased his exquisite skill with a violin.
But the meat of Primavera Sound happens at the Parc del Forum where ten stages host most of the lineup over a three-day period. Thursday’s stacked schedule included recently reunited acts like Afghan Whigs, Mazzy Star and Refused. The Whigs, coming off of ATP’s ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ the previous week, sounded like they hadn’t missed any time despite a lengthy hiatus. The Greg Dulli-led band hit their stride early on and rolled through a set of fan favorites (I never knew how popular “Miles iz Ded” was until hearing thousands of people singing along) and a couple covers, including Frank Ocean’s “Lovecrimes” that caught those who noticed it off-guard. Down the pathway, Grimes and Field Music opposed each other on the Pitchfork and Vice stages separated by a hundred yards. Grimes started out with technical issues, which drove some people to Field Music. The poppy prog-rockers were inundated with unnecessary fog (a trend that many, notably Obits and Sharon Van Etten, complained about), but turned out a lean set of their complex tunes. The ladies of Bleached did their best Dum Dum Girls impersonation in patterned tights and mostly black attire. On the music side, their ear-worming melodies stood out underneath fuzzy garage rock. A dark-lit Mazzy Star set was uneventful with a relatively sparse crowd and absolutely no action on stage. A little further down the walkway, Mudhoney was creating havoc with a lively show highlighted by “Touch Me I’m Sick”, “Suck You Dry” and “In ‘n’ Out of Grace”. Mark Arm, even at 50, proved to have more energy than numerous performers half of his age.
One way that Primavera Sound differs from many other festivals is that headliners are not key. Most advertising, aside from a few billboards around Barcelona, simply listed acts alphabetically. That mindset extends into the festival where the most popular acts play midway through the night instead of at the end. That doesn’t mean headliners aren’t highly anticipated, though. Wilco’s strong regional fanbase showed up in full force for a 90-minute set that spanned their career, from jamming out on The Whole Love‘s “Art of Almost” to marveling at Nels Cline’s guitar solo on the well-received “Impossible Germany” to A.M.‘s “Too Far Apart” to a terrific “I’m Always in Love”. Jeff Tweedy encouraged a sing-along for the wildly popular “Jesus, Etc.” and people danced (not just shuffled their feet a little bit) to “Dawned on Me”.
Following Wilco, Refused turned in one of Primavera Sound’s peaks with a raucous set of politically-motivated hardcore punk. Between swinging microphones and leaping all over the stage, Dennis Lyxzén commented how he was blown away how poignant their songs from two decades ago are now. In a time when Spain is in economic turmoil, it clearly wasn’t just the guitar hooks that resonated with the crowd. The only downside of their set was the false encore that drew hardly any applause because everyone knew that their hit “New Noise” was yet to come. Of course, there was mass hysteria once they got to it. An energetic Franz Ferdinand had the crowd in the palm of their hands with hit after hit, even though Alex Kapranos was slowly losing his voice. They tossed Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” into “Can’t Stop Feeling” and local Richter scales probably swung during “Take Me Out”.
Late in the evening, shoddy sound marred Japandroids at first, but that improved as the Vancouver noise-rock duo chugged along with doses of their new Celebration Rock. Past 3 a.m. with backs aching and senses nearly overloaded, Barcelona’s John Talabot (perhaps the most popular Catalonian on the lineup) provided a perfect opportunity for one of the largest crowds of the weekend to cool down from a busy day with his warm and organic electronic vibe.
Scottish singer/songwriter Nick Garrie kicked off Friday with a performance of his mostly unknown gem The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas. It’s difficult to not hear some Nick Drake in his symphonic folk approach. A rapturous audience ate it up; no doubt some waiting decades to hear the songs live.
Following his set in the forum’s auditorium was Laura Marling, dressed in a black dress and Nike sneakers. Her backing band seamed effortlessly with her powerful voice, even though by then the audience was slowly dispersing. (That’s the rub about having ten stages: there’s always something else to see and it’s tough to stand still thinking that you could be missing the band everyone’ll be talking about the next day.) Outside in the forum, Milk Music rocked hard with their do-not-care attitude that’s better suited for DIY spaces than stages set against the sea. But their riffs carried well to a small but intense crowd. Hours later, a similar crowd gathered for Trash Talk trying to incite a riot. The Chameleons played a late afternoon set full of hits for perhaps the oldest median age crowd of the weekend. Sevillan death metallers Orthodox, donned in black hoods and monk’s robes, were a bizarre sight in daylight. Rufus Wainwright was oddly short on songs from his new pop-oriented Out of the Game and a little underwhelming as he bounced around and didn’t seem entirely focused. A shoutout to Levon Helm with Want Two‘s “The One You Love” was a nice touch, though. Lower Dens sizzled but never bubbled over while drawing plenty from Nootropics.
Within the bubble of a large music festival at least one defining moment will occur, or at least one should. It’s a moment that transcends the music festival experience as a whole and makes that particular festival stand out. It can make you forget countless acts you have already taken in and it can even make you forget you are standing amongst thousands of other people when the moment finally hits. However, it is also this collective, or shared, experience which helps to enhance the moment. For this year’s Primavera Sound, that moment could be pinned down to the opening minute of the Cure’s “Plainsong”. If anyone had any doubts as to who the true headliner at this year’s fest was, they need only to have been witness to the throngs of festival goers pouring down towards the stage during that opening minute. Of course, leave it to the Cure to usher in a rock festivals defining moment with the sound of chimes. Prior to their performance I would have never dreamed of calling the Cure a festival band but after watching them captivate the largest audience of the weekend for 30-plus songs and close to three hours, what else could one call them.
From top to bottom the set was loaded. The band rolled out everything from the well worn “Just like Heaven” and “Close to Me”, to the lesser performed “Fight”, which apparently got its last live performance back in 1987. The biggest surprise was perhaps the band’s sound and performance. It would not have been enough to simply roll out the hits but any fears of a band going through the motions got put to rest early. Considering it was an outdoor festival and a stone’s throw from the sea, I would say the sound was near pristine. Lead singer Robert Smith was completely engaging and even downright charming, as he led the band throughout the night. Making the evening just a bit more special, it happened to be bassist Simon Gallup’s birthday, which prompted a rendition of “Happy Birthday” sung by Smith just as the band finished “A Forest”. It was a band that appears to be at the top of their game and enjoying every moment of it.
Slowcore pioneers Codeine played for an attentive and respectful crowd, but there was little to gain from their performance and it was a no-brainer to head over to the aforementioned M83 at a nearby stage where they thrilled through a set bookended by “Teen Angst” and “Couleurs”. On the opposite side of the forum, the Rapture put on a stripped-down show (compared to similar acts) that didn’t get moving until a sped-up “Pieces of the People We Love”. But Araabmuzik was even more stripped down with just fingers, samplers and screens. His sets aren’t much aside from hand-eye coordination clinics, but it’s quite a spectacle. (One of his sets toppled mid-set. I guess that’s why there were two mirroring each other.) To close out the night, New York’s Obits churned out their blistering garage/surf hybrid at a mile a minute to manic moshers and pogoers. Even a new song, “Suez Canal”, garnered some raging.
Saturday’s first act, Father John Misty, played in the auditorium in a sort of awkward manner with an acoustic guitar propped on his perched right leg. From self-referential tunes to one about oil consumption in record packaging to a Waylon Jennings cover, the ex-Fleet Foxes member’s voice shone over the guitar accompaniment. At one point, he commented that some of his songs “don’t go over well in America anymore.” He may have been giving himself too much credit, as they were of the run-of-the-mill protest-related variety. Shortly after his set, Veronica Falls pounded out their jangly indie-rock that improved after a tough start and the Vasco post-hardcore band Lisabö pummeled a small but fervent crowd, aided by two drummers and jackhammer-like guitars. Following that aural assault, Kings of Convenience played a brilliant set on the San Miguel stage. For 40 minutes, Erlend Øye and Eirik Bøe played guitars and relied on rhythm from the audience snapping fingers or clapping along through cool and low-key arrangements. But things ticked up a few notches once a full band joined them. “Mrs. Cold” sent chills through the crowd and a closing trifecta of an uptempo “Rule My World”, “Misread” and “I’d Rather Dance with You” was the most carefree fun anyone had had all day.
Across the forum (lots of miles logged at this festival), Beach House performed as though they didn’t want to be seen with fog obscuring them on the back half of a dimly lit stage. Their sound tends to evaporate outdoors, but they hit a handful of majestic moments. Victoria Legrand dug deep into the back of her throat for the “ha, ha, ha” introduction to “Norway” and many tunes (especially “10 Mile Stereo”) were altered from how they’re recorded. Technical issues included a malfunctioning starry background and a random clicking noise, but it didn’t really seem to bother the many people smoking weed or blissing out.
Saint Etienne (as a trio, with Sarah Cracknell looking superb in a white dress and feather boa) drew a strangely sparse crowd and mined heavily from their latest love letter to music, Words And Music By Saint Etienne, while sprinkling in older favorites such as “Spring”, “Who Do You Think You Are” and “Nothing Can Stop Us” for the dance-prone crowd. Closer to the water, the Chromatics (presumably stealing a chunk of Saint Etienne’s demographic) played to an enormous crowd but didn’t do anything striking and, like Beach House, spent most of their time in a haze.
Dream-pop indie-rockers Wild Beasts had pristine sound and took advantage of a crowd larger than what they’d normally play for. Singer Hayden Thorpe’s vocals carried extremely well, especially on an epic “We Still Got the Taste Dancing on Our Tongues”. A fuzzy Yo La Tengo was gracious in mentioning Primavera Sound as their “favorite festival in the world.” They acted as sort of a point for many to chill out in an area with plenty of space to sit and played to the laid-back crowd with well-received tunes like “Mr. Tough” and “Autumn Sweater”.
Catalonian garage rockers Mujeres (it’s four guys) were rambunctious in front of a local crowd. It was one of the best instances of a crowd and band amping each other up and constantly pushing the needle. (Their reception at SXSW this past year makes me hopeful that they’ll break from their niche and into US audiences’ minds.) At the San Miguel stage, Justice remixed the hell out\ of their songs and put on a memorable light show, but came off as style far over substance. It was sure fun to watch from a distance, though.
Washed Out made the most as an alternative to Justice for those looking to maybe not be engulfed by people. Their cool electro sound was more masculine than the chillwave label they often get and Ernest Greene’s voice was in prime condition. A few hundred yards away, Neon Indian (with a full band) took the late night electronic slot at the Ray-Ban stage - a place that was crowded past 3 a.m. each night. Alan Palomo was initially overwhelmed by the response, but came through with a fine set that peaked on a bouncy “Polish Girl”. Not a bad way to wind down yet another successful year of music by the Mediterranean, with thousands dancing and another few thousand lounging in perfect weather and not a frown to be seen.