“Why don’t you let the people in the VIP area? There’s so much room there, it’s empty. C’mon, let the people in,” says Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker with his recognizable drawl, this time slightly despondent.
It’s a sensible request – after all, Mad Cool’s Madrid te abraza (Madrid hugs you) stage features a very large (think 3,000-4,000 capacity) “VIP only” area, set up virtually in front of the stage, to its left. While tens of thousands of fans are forced to lean against the heavy rails circling the VIP pit, only about several hundred people are allowed to come in, leaving a good portion of standing space right in front of the stage essentially empty. The organizers don’t give in and stick to their original plan, which is to let only those with the most expensive tickets in. Not even the journalists are allowed in, neither there nor on the stands facing both of Mad Cool’s largest stages, which, from July 12 to 14, host some of the world’s most relevant names in music, one after another, alternating between top-billed acts virtually within minutes, so as to hit the fans with as much music as logistically possible. Nevertheless, this isn’t an issue, after all, who’d want to wither on the stands while Eddie Vedder is sweating his soul out, chafing his bitter hands beneath the clouds? No, my friends, here we all cry and dance together, rails or no rails.
Otherwise, the day kicks off with scorching heat. Mad Cool, Madrid’s newest attempt at a major European music festival, is already a massive success and the talking point of the entire continent – 240,000 thousand tickets for the three festival days sold out effortlessly, which isn’t even a surprise if you consider Mad Cool’s, well, insane music ambition. The organizers knew from the get-go they would have to go all in if they were to make a name for themselves – which is exactly what they did. No less than five stages overflowing with music’s most desirable names for close to 12 hours each of those days (and nights), several supporting stages with up-and-coming names, dozens of food stands, well-organized, night-long transport, coordinated with the city officials, metro, buses, Uber and hundreds of taxis at everybody’s disposal. With names like Pearl Jam, Arctic Monkeys, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, Queens of the Stone Age, Tame Impala, Kasabian, Jack White and many others as headliners, Mad Cool sounds like a dream come true; luckily for all present, except for some minor mishaps, it truly is an event to relish.
Pebbles in Our Shoes
The premises of Madrid’s vast Fair are miles away from the city center; it takes about 45 minutes to reach its bounds. While the subway journey itself is pleasant enough, unfortunately, once you get there, there is still about a mile to walk in scorching heat before one can enter. Given that most headlining acts play around or even after midnight (true story – headliners are off to bed only around 3:00 am), one would think you can avoid the crowds only if you go early enough. It’s the first day, around 7:00 pm, however, it seems as though all 80,000 visitors are well aware they will be flocking to Mad Cool for one reason – it’s Pearl Jam night. All of a sudden, more than 5,000 people are trapped in a dire strait between the fair and the designated festival entrance; apparently the crowd is too big and we can’t come in. Thousands boil while waiting to enter for more than an hour, with the masses whistling and cussing aimlessly. Finally we are allowed to pass, after stumbling across the road and eventually overcoming a long pebbled path. Some rocks across the uncemented land are as big as fists, and our ankles suffer greatly – however, the endless lawn of artificial grass is finally upon us and hundreds head straight for the bars and food stands. The rows end up being lengthy throughout the evening – 80,000 people are there, after all.
Lamentably, because of terrible crowds and some admittedly poor planning (after all, the crew knew they were expecting tens of thousands to rush in), we miss most of the Eels show, save for “Novocaine for the Soul”, “Fresh Blood”, and what I from the distance recognize as Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy”. Though it’s past 8:00 pm, less than 10,000 people are present at the show; this is by no means the fault of Mark Everett and his great band, rather, it’s still sunny and unbearably hot and the masses will not round up in large numbers until 9.40 pm, when Tame Impala erupt onstage with another beautiful psychedelic display.
In the meantime, Fleet Foxes occupy the Mad Cool stage, immediately perpendicular to the Madrid te abraza stage; the main acts on both stages follow one another after breaks which last no longer than five minutes. This certainly maximizes the value of one’s ticket, but is also outstandingly difficult to adapt to: if you really are a music fan who wishes to listen to their favorite bands, there is little time to go to the bathroom, let alone to order food or drinks, or to wander from one stage to another. On the Mad Cool stage, Fleet Foxes make a decent effort, but their music just isn’t appealing enough to a raucous rock crowd. Neither the youngsters idolizing Kevin Parker or Justice, nor the elders starving for Eddie Vedder’s howl, care much for indie folk rock. Songs like “White Winter Hymnal” sound elegant and somber, but the sparse crowd is clearly uninterested, chatting time away before one of their idols appears.
Letting It Happen
By the time Kevin Parker’s loveable quintet emerges amid a burst of lights, visuals, and confetti, more than 30,000 people cluster around the Madrid te abraza stage. Parker’s band benefits greatly from the gargantuan screens on both sides of both stages, which allow for the amorphous, intense visuals to fulfill their intended effect completely. Tame Impala kick their 90-minute set off with “Nangs” and by the time “Let It Happen” commences, the people are hypnotized. That makes perfect sense because Tame Impala set out to achieve exactly that – live, they are a potent rock band, in absolute command of their simple, yet mesmerizing melodies, which stretch out across the skies and evoke emotional responses. Be it the chilling synthesizer of “Let It Happen”, the playful bass of “The Less I Know The Better”, or Parker’s own longing vocals on “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”, year after year the band only sounds better live, with more and more people recognizing their allure and singing and dancing accordingly.
It’s impossible not to note how much Parker has developed his music over the past five years or so. What was once little less than a good idea in theory over time has grown into a potent string of melodies, suitable for a wide range of tastes and ages. Among the 18 tracks played, “Keep on Lying” proves to be a true fan-favorite, though it’s no stretch to say that the band may have made plenty of new fans among the Spaniards right there and then. There is lots of dancing and jumping, and Tame Impala commands attention throughout the show, proof enough that they are truly ready for the biggest of leagues.
“Pearl Jam reminds me of high school”
A friend said this to me dismissively a couple of days before the show. The big show. The biggest of the big rock shows. A crowd wider than the horizon itself congregates across the entire festival premises. The people are devoted and respectful, no pushing or shoving, only love and support for one another. Eddie Vedder knows this. As he quietly emerges on the stage and starts chanting “ooooooh oooooooh” to the intro to “Release”, the ground trembles. It takes less than three minutes for him to plead screamingly, “I’ll hold the pain, release me”, and thousands are already crying, voices cracked, souls most likely too. I think of what my friend had said to me about Pearl Jam being a band for the young and the rebellious, but all I see is the 30-, or 40-year-olds who are crying their hearts out.
By the time I start weeping to “Better Man”, thinking of a friend experiencing domestic violence with nobody being able to really help her, I know for a fact that this isn’t a song one can understand as a teenager. As the band got older, as their lives changed, so did their songs – Eddie Vedder has always appeared to be an old soul, wise beyond his years, but his songs move both 15- and 50-year-olds. In any case, people of all ages and profiles weep together, hugging one another throughout the show. It is a deeply moving, liberating experience; it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there is a religious quality to it.
“Given to Fly” elicits another massive singalong, and as “Lukin”, “Corduroy” and “Why Go” appear on a massive, 24-song set, Mike McCready demonstrates his prodigious skills yet again – his guitar arrangements and solos imbue Pearl Jam with qualities of hard rock, metal, punk, even country and blues bands. It is a delight to witness his interpretation of songs’ basic melodies, time after time. After old crowd favorites, “Animal” and “Even Flow”, “Mind Your Manners” is the brilliant, hardcore spitfire single that demonstrates just how relevant Pearl Jam still are. “What they’ve taken is more than a vow, they’ve taken your innocence, and then they throw them on a burning fire, all along they’re sayin’ mind your manners,” growls Vedder, while the masses go bonkers.
But there is a lot more to Vedder’s acute sense of social injustice than just the lyrics – midway through the show, a prerecorded message from Vedder’s friend, Javier Bardem, and Luis Tosar, another great of the Spanish cinema, hits us over the head like a mallet. “No matter if she’s smiling, no matter how much fun the night was, if she says ‘no’, that means ‘no’.” The sexual harassment awareness video goes on as the crowd cheers. It’s deeply disturbing to know that in 2018 we still need a PSA appealing to one’s common sense, but we do – and Pearl Jam know it. After one more thundering singalong to “Jeremy”, Vedder addresses the crowd to say that he wishes to dedicate a song to all the women, women who make the world go round, and “Can’t Deny Me” begins. It’s Pearl Jam’s first single since their 10th studio album, Lightning Bolt, came out in 2013 and it is yet another protest song, a song of great anger and yet hope, mirroring the majority of band’s most potent songs. While almost certainly a stab aimed at Donald Trump, the song also hits close to home for most women, who feel oppressed by the society at large, not just influential politicians.
“Do the Evolution” allows drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Jeff Ament to have some fun, before Vedder grabs the acoustic guitar for a devastating rendition of “Better Man”. An hour and a half in, a seven-minute version of “Porch” is one more reason to cry and lose breath to loud singing. Vedder speaks emotionally between songs, reading notes written for him in Spanish. He is an emotional, honest man and tonight his words resonate with a particular vulnerability, the quality that made him and Pearl Jam such powerhouses in an otherwise hyper-masculine genre. Perhaps they rings this way every night – maybe the wounds never heal, or maybe he just does a phenomenal job. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, the end result is equally poignant in both cases.
Encore commences on a brighter note, as Vedder reminisces about the wedding of his “dear friends”, Spaniards Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. Speaking about the “great love”, the love that moves mountains, love greater than the oceans and the sky itself, he declares he expects the two actors to stay married for “a long, long time”, before launching “Just Breathe”. Tears are noticeable on many faces again, but if the entirety of the show was packed with intense emotion, the rest of the encore smashes us to smithereens. “Black” and “State of Love and Trust” completely exhaust the last ounces of feels. As Vedder wails “Lo siento” (I’m sorry) toward the end of “Black”, drops of liquid stream down his cheeks. Could be sweat, could be tears as well. Among the great qualities of Pearl Jam is that live their performances lose nothing of the intimacy and personal appeal, despite habitually taking place in stadia, with nearly 100,000 people present every time.
“Rearviewmirror” and “Alive” are the stellar closers one can only wish for, angry yet hopeful, eliciting more enormous singalongs, and leaving us all with cracked, raspy voices. Neil Young’s “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World” is merely an adequate coda to Vedder’s story about overcoming racism, homophobia and class differences. “I want you to know that you’re old and you’re dying, and your ideas are gonna die with you, fuckers. Your ideas are dying,” said Vedder to nobody in particular during a speech about discrimination and social abuse.
The Heat Goes On
One would think that, at 2:00 am and after hours of intense rock jams, the people would be incapable to stomach anything else – but one would be wrong. Despite Mad Cool’s fury and magnitude, 40,000 stay put for Kasabian, and the moment Tom Meighan, Sergio Pizzorno and the lot take to the stage, you better know they’re not just a footnote for the night of great music.
I will admit straight away, the more I age, the more I grow to love the Leicester bunch. Lewd, unpretentious, and never less than wildly amusing, Pizzorno and Meighan don’t take themselves too seriously, despite providing us with several of the better albums of the 21st-century rock. It takes seeing them live to understand their core value, their remarkable ability to, say, follow up an act such as Pearl Jam, and still win the crowd over. They can laugh to “You’re in Love with a Psycho” or throw around verses like “You’ve got problems, well so have I” as much as they please, still, nobody is impervious to their charm. Both their new and old tunes are welcomed with singalongs and plenty of enthusiasm, and Day 1 is finally complete with “Fire”, always a shoo-in for the most berserk, inarticulate crowd swaying singalong of the night.
As we slowly move back toward the subway over a field of sharp pebbles, the French electro powerhouse duo, Justice, make the air thick with sweat at the Loop, a massive steel construction accommodating thousands of fans of sharper, electronic sound. Just when you think that a single festival day cannot possibly have a two-digit number of highlights, a mercilessly rave-ish version of “We Are Your Friends” starts and the screams of the crowd are heard literally a mile away. After such a day, most people would be too tired and overjoyed even to consider coming back for more, but Day 2 will see Arctic Monkeys, Jack White, Massive Attack and plenty others dazzle another 80,000 lucky festival-goers, so it goes without saying that we’ll be back for more, pebbles and heat and tears and all.