There are many, many details about Spain’s Mad Cool festival, many, even headlining, shows, many anecdotes that we have not even mentioned in the reports. The monumental grinding from Alice in Chains, the swagging rock party thrown by Jet, the gargantuan, hypnotizing electro jams by Paul Kalkbrenner and Underworld, the absolutely berserk rave from Richie Hawtin (the final headliner in the Loop), astonishing low key gigs by Post Malone, Sofi Tukker, and many more. There is the gigantic Ferris wheel, the amazing food from all corners of the world, and the exuberant, utterly engrossing atmosphere of a large-scale celebration. There is all that and still much more, but there is also the catch – Mad Cool is so abundant with content, musical or otherwise, that one or two people cannot possibly cover everything, especially given many late-night headlining slots and our reporter-photographer combo duties.
After some greatly needed extended rest, with sore muscles, swollen feet and distressed lower back (it’s not the old age, it’s the 10-plus miles of walking around the festival every day, the countless hours of standing or running around, the blistering heat), we head back for the final time. The decision to make Mad Cool a three-day event is adequate – with the festival being so removed from the city, featuring dozens of headlining act who play back-to-back across several stages, there’s only so much festivity a person can take. This time around we are too late to see Jack Johnson, but we stop by the Loop to check out the Dutch electro duo, Weval. Live they sound intense, like a well thought out amalgamation of Trentemøller and Amon Tobin. The modest crowd consisting of several hundred people is reactive and ready to rumble on a Saturday night, though the majority of early birds stretch out across the boundless artificial grass lawn, casually sipping on beer and chatting the night away.
All casual frolicking ceases at 9.35 PM, once A Clockwork Orange title music starts blasting from the speaker at the Mad Cool stage. The audience on the first day was eclectic, with several generations in attendance, while the second day saw countless teenagers in floral shirts and dresses rush in – tonight, it’s all about rock and roll, and most attendees are wearing Queens of the Stone Age or Nine Inch Nails t-shirts, supported by many a despondent goth, waiting for David Gahan to take their pain away. First things first, though – it appears as though the third night saw fewer people present than the first two nights, but that didn’t stop some 40,000-plus folks to lose it and dance maniacally to Josh Homme’s commanding swagger.
With sleeves rolled up, in a shirt featuring a pattern possibly taken from a curtain weaving in the Middle East, Homme is a towering presence, all smiles and mischief. As is customary on the Villains tour, the Desert quintet kick off with “If I Had a Tail”; fans and offhand listeners alike are instantly smitten. For all their stoner rock heaviness, Queens of the Stone Age are an exquisitely entertaining bunch, assisting the crowd to a kinetic ecstasy far more effective than many overly poppy acts. They know this well, too, and balance their setlist masterfully – after launching into “My God Is the Sun”, they immediately proceed to “Feet Don’t Fail Me” and “The Way You Used to Do”, the latter announced with Homme cheekily staring at the masses, proclaiming, “I want you fuckers to daaaance”. The fiercer members of the rocking crowd are pleased to growl to “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, but I Feel Like a Millionaire”, but that’s where the fun stops for a bit.
The right side in front of the stage is more than half-empty, the space reserved for VIP attendees only never quite filling up. This has already irked some of the headliners, namely Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, who begged the security to let the people in, an utterly understandable request if you take into account that any of the bands on the two main stages feel like they’re playing to a half-empty space. However, Homme is not the one to beg. After a couple of offhand warnings to the security to let the people in the VIP area, he stops playing midway through “No One Knows” and tells the organizers off the way only he can. “Let those people in – let them all in, I won’t play until you do… Listen to me, I mean what I’m saying. Look at my face. Let them all in, or I’ll come down and let them in myself. You work for me tonight,” were some of the things the Bigmouth announced before the security finally conceded and opened the space up for several hundred Queens of the Stone Age fans. I’m a betting woman, and now I’m sorry I didn’t bet on the headliner who would snap and finally reorganize the space – I knew it was going be them.
The show goes on even more fervently than in the beginning, and the masses only get to catch a brief break when Homme dedicates “Make It Wit Chu” to his heroes, Depeche Mode. Ferocious jumping turns into slow-mo squeeze fest, and then everyone’s ready for the big finale. “Little Sister” sets the tone with its manic cowbell and a deafeningly thick chorus, and “Go With the Flow” is a modern classic, a rollercoaster of emotion and the ultimate catharsis. Finally, after Homme compliments the career of his old friend, one Trent Reznor, Jon Theodore rages into “A Song for the Dead” with impossible vigor. The masses are exhausted, and we’re not even halfway through.
Again, not minutes pass and the Madrid te abraza stage goes dark; the crowd barely has time to turn around and there, amid smoke and dimmed, deep blue lights, awaits the Devil himself, the Entertainer Extraordinaire, the one who’s been healing wounds and opening new ones since, in his own words “before many of us were even born”. It takes one look at David Gahan, always dressed in simple black suit trousers and a vest (this time with silky burgundy red back) to know he will devour the stage and part the clouds with his maniacal, glottal delivery. Even after 37 years onstage, he is as animated and potent as ever, engaging the crowds with old and new material alike.
The show kicks off with “Going Backwards”, the lead single off of 2017’s Spirit; Martin Gore, customarily dressed all in white and with glitter on his face, takes the left side of the stage, while Andy Fletcher comfortably stands in the back, behind keyboards we’re never sure are even on. Not that it matters, looks like he’s having fun there at least. From the first song on, it’s epic singles and little else, making for a thunderous, albeit compact, 90-minute show (15 songs total). As Gahan slides through “It’s No Good”, slithering on a stage like a caricature, constantly gesticulating the narrative toward the audience, the band moves on to a rearranged, even more guitar-heavy version of “A Pain That I’m Used To”. Regardless of which career stage a single comes from, every song of theirs is a spellbinding listen; there is no denying that Depeche Mode are as potent, as good as ever. There are as many 20-year-old as there are 50-year-olds in the audience, singing their hearts out, a testament to the band’s enduring relevance and legendary status.
About halfway through the show, Gore takes central stage for a soulful rendition of “Somebody”, a 33-year-old ballad fromSome Great Reward. Gore always takes the opportunity to perform at least one of his more tender tunes during the shows, but Gahan has none of it. “Well, wasn’t that love-ly???” he snickers mercilessly as he spreads his hands in a Jesus Christ pose for another epic performance of “In Your Room”. Listening to Depeche Mode live, especially with their now habitual, guitar-driven rearrangements of the songs, you know there is no other band in music history which has combined electronica with rock so deftly, remaining both playful and hard throughout their incredible career. “Everything Counts” invites a massive singalong, “Stripped” is a showcase for Gahan’s thundering vocals, while the combined power of “Personal Jesus” and “Never Let Me Down Again” leaves little to be desired, with old and new fans in a trance.
The encore is greatest hits only, this time with an added socially engaged twist. The visuals for “Walking in My Shoes” show us the story of a transgender person who puts on makeup and walks out in high heels, walking around the city with pride and fear. This literal interpretation of a song originally intended to present the story of a sinner refusing to repent is quite welcome in this day and age. As the most pervasive element of contemporary culture, popular music does have the power to change and shape the way people think and seeing an old song take on a new meaning as a plea for social tolerance, is greeted with approval. “Enjoy the Silence” is, well, you know what it is, but saving “Just Can’t Get Enough” for dessert is a smart move, and the endless stream of people is left panting but also smiling. Depeche Mode can be a difficult band to digest – this way, everything ends on a happy note so that the Saturday night fever can continue.
Well, that’s if you count Trent Reznor’s rage as a party starter. It’s nearly 1 AM, and the crowd in front of the Mad Cool stage is considerably smaller than on the first two nights. That is unsurprising: Nine Inch Nails is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, save for Metallica, never in the history of hard rock has there been a “harder” top of the bill headliner for the world’s largest (non-exclusively rock) music festivals. Reznor knows this, so he thanks the 40,000 people or so with a smile for sticking around. After all, that’s one humongous crowd for an essentially metal band (though we can debate that on some other occasion).
A lot can be said about the way Academy Award Winner Trent Reznor handles his career. He’s one of the rare legendary acts to have never compromised his artistic integrity and choices. Always dedicated to nothing more than making music to the best of his ability, at 53 he is still hard as nails, his new trio of EPs ( Not the Actual Events, Add Violence and Bad Witch) possibly the most aggressive work he’s produced since 1992’s seminal Broken. Ever the one to complain vocally about the state of affairs in his and many other countries, Reznor is now completely politically engaged, most of his new narratives revolving around the issues the US society is facing. With phrases such as “celebration of ignorance” and “knuckle-dragging animal”, he pulls no punches when criticizing both the political establishment and the citizens compliant with their behaviors.
But of course, there’s also plenty of the self-effacing force of annihilation, Reznor’s signature spiel. The show kicks off with “Somewhat Damaged” and “The Day the World Went Away”, somewhat obscure but phenomenal fan-favorites. Reznor makes no compromises with the setlists, either; he plays whatever he wants to play and hardly takes note of what would be, on paper, “appropriate” to play at a festival. “Wish” is always an invitation to lose it, but the crowd, most of whom do not appear to be NIN fans, pass on the opportunity, looking somewhat baffled, most likely due to the amount of brutal energy in front of them. Fortunately, Reznor is a good enough performer to know how to turn things around. Once he dives into “Closer”, everyone is back on their feet, twisting and moaning to one of the few ubiquitously known tunes in which sex is compared to a desecration.
The latter part of the show, filled with more melodically coherent hits, such as “Copy of A”, “The Hand That Feeds”, and “Head Like a Hole”, sees almost everyone jumping around, and Reznor is in a good mood. “This is a great festival; we get to play alongside our friends and idols, Depeche Mode, Queens of the Stone Age, Underworld, stick around later on to hear them. I’ve got nothing bad to say – I’ll think of something, give me time… I’ve been thrown off my game here,” he says jokingly with a sly smile while a growing crowd cheers.
“This is our last show in Europe for… I don’t know, maybe ever,” he proclaims before kicking off the last part of the show. While I doubt this is true, one can’t help but feel a pang of anxiety at hearing these words. Reznor is an absolute legend, an artist of marvelous potency and social impact – it would be devastating to lose him now to whatever else, including but not limited to more Academy Awards for film scores.
After Reznor departs with “Hurt”, another enormous crowd flocks to see Dua Lipa, pop’s newest face of feminism. “Be who you want to be, right here, lose all your inhibitions” blasts from the speakers before Lipa appears, in sequined sweatpants and a minimalistic top. Unfortunately, we’re too tired to stick around; three days of indescribable madness have taken their toll. As much as we want to listen to her and Underworld, there’s not an ounce of energy left, and we say goodbye to this phenomenal edition of what will certainly become one of Europe’s biggest festivals, with even more sore muscles, but with wide smiles on our faces. In the distance, Richie Hawtin is all business with an intense rave set and all who intend on taking full advantage of their weekend dance ferociously. It’s been a phenomenal adventure – we’re hoping Mad Cool is here to stay.