A lot had changed for the 13th edition of Primavera Sound, most notably that the festival was no longer “San Miguel Primavera Sound,” but “Heineken Primavera Sound.” The difference is relevant, because a lot of the local Spanish elements of the festival haven’t been as emphasized in more recent years (and the Primavera organization has been called out on it once or twice). Don’t get me wrong, Primavera Sound is an amazing music festival, but as this was my third year in attendance, it was hard not to notice (or realize) some things. Spanish groups rarely got set times later than 6 p.m., and the attendance of those sets reflected the low amount of exposure they were actually getting. Although it’s cool that additional concerts were organized for the entire month beforehand and most intensively during the festival week, it’s debatable whether or not that meant that groups were pushed out of the festival to play at a bar the week before. Primavera has become a veritable booking force in Spain–particularly in Barcelona. It organizes concerts for nationally touring bands and also for local groups, but during the time in Barcelona I had more than one band mention to me how hard it was to book a show without the Primavera stamp of approval.
Additional money-making schemes were also added to the festival, like the ferris wheel which cost €4 to ride. Festival goers also had to buy €2 tickets to see any band at the Rockdelux Auditorium (this means that it cost as much to get on the ferris wheel as it did to go see both Daniel Johnston and Christopher Owens). A new VIP section was also built between the Heinekin and ATP stages with pools and hammocks and raised viewing areas boxed in glass. The VIP section doesn’t bother me so much, because it was an optional ticket upgrade, but what does get me is that they had better food stands. There was a sushi bar, for example, and normal festival peons could basically only choose between hamburgers and hotdogs. This was also a change from previous years, as the food stands had a better variety and quality the year before. Maybe it was to accommodate all of the new faces that appeared in the crowd, most notably the bro-types: burning you with cigarettes, yelling inappropriate things during slow parts of songs, trying to turn everything into a group clap, falling over and hurting people out of drunkenness, pushing you mercilessly to get to the front of the stage, and stopping abruptly in front of you to take duck lips pictures.
Every night, the ground was strewn with plastic cups and garbage, however that can be chalked up living the Spanish experience, as it is customary to throw your napkins and sunflower seed shells and toothpicks and whatever else all over the floors of bars. Along with the larger attendance, one would think that the festival organizers would invest in larger garbage dumpsters instead of the comically small cardboard boxes that were here and there. There was also a rise in the amount of people that came right up to you and leaned awkwardly into your face to say the names of drugs in three languages (being: Spanish, American English, and British English). That too, however, is a very Spanish thing. Anyways, the change in sponsors might make for a nice article about how the Primavera Sound organization is selling out, if it weren’t for the fact that San Miguel, a beer that was founded in Spain and is still very common to find anywhere in the country, was sold to the Philippines a long, long time ago.
Despite all of this, Primavera Sound is a well organized festival, always with an amazing line-up and excellent sound quality. In the end, those are the only things that are really important for having an awesome time (that and enough porta-potties). Tons of stages were right on the sea and the sound was still impeccable; no interference from other stages and no weird echo rebound from the water. Other cool additions this year were free music documentaries screened daily, a free gallery exhibition called “This is Not a Love Song” at the Virreina, and a rock poster gallery set up near the record label stands. One thing I recommend to anyone that goes to Primavera is to talk to the record label people, because they are the nicest, most welcoming dudes and a lot of times the bands that play the festival are just hanging out there too. As for the weather, the whole weekend called for rain, but gracias a díos, it held off. The cold front was the only thing that remained and I talked to more than one Spanish speaker that really liked calling it “Invierno Sound.” I cannot underline enough the importance of dressing appropriately for outdoor festivals.
So here are the highlights from the star-studded lineup:
Thursday, May 23
Filed under the list of “Bands Who Should Play At Night,” because it was too early for the drugs to have kicked in yet were Tame Impala. However, it did really demonstrat how Tame Impala can be appreciated for both their psychedelic vibrations and their catchy pop hooks. They started out with “Solitude is Bliss” from Innerspeaker, and probably got the biggest crowd response from “Elephant,” off the latest record Lonerism. A few days before the festival, it was announced that bassist Nick Allbrook would be leaving the band for personal reasons. My heart stopped upon reading the headline, hoping that it meant the band wouldn’t cancel like so many other acts that fell through this year (Fiona Apple, Foxygen, DIIV, Band of Horses). They didn’t and the performance was the band’s first with their new bassist Cam Avery, who is also a member of Allbrook’s side project Pond. It couldn’t have gone smoother.
The Postal Service
Something changed in the personal life of Ben Gibbard that transmuted his sombre early 2000s Death Cab for Cutie performances into his current showy, happy-go-lucky, awkward hand gestures and silly dancing display. They played a few of the new B-Sides to the reissue of Give Up and those songs also follow a similar generic, crowd-pleasing form. Yet none of it stopped the set from transporting everyone back to when they were 16-years old and Give Up first came out. The performance was so heartwarming that the crowd almost radiated visible, swaying energy. The addition of Jenny Lewis to the band has definitely added to the showmanship of their live performances. She radiated her own energy, yet a much more sexual one, as she backed into Gibbard’s singing arms. The two put on a bit of theater for the group’s songs with dual gender vocals, like on “Nothing Better.”
Despite seeing Grizzly Bear a few times now with a variety of different sets, seeing the band’s songs live brings a sort of peace and meditation that never gets old. They played the same arrangement of songs, with “Knife” sneaking in there again from Yellow House, and culminating in the epic and astral blinding “Sun in Your Eyes” from Shields. They’re just talented musicians, playing simple pop songs with complex solo parts that all blends seamlessly and complimented well by a background of rows of floating, glowing jellyfish made out of glass jars and lights.
This was the second time that I saw Death Grips and the first time without a drum kit. Although the electro loops and beats sounded excellent, it did make the presence of actual instruments seem like a treat. I also noted how your proximity to the stage completely changes the Death Grips live experience. In the pit, there’s an energy of sweat and danger marching to the beat and shouted orders of a psychopath. Yet, my one criticism remains that the volume of the vocals was too low and for a band that has quite clever lyrics it was a shame to not be able to hear them.
Phoenix was one of those bands that if there was any conflict with set times, I probably would have skipped it. Yet, since there wasn’t, I was surprised to find out that I knew every single word to every single song that they played and it made their set fun, if only just for that. In the middle, they played “Love Like a Sunset” that blurred into “Bankrupt!” (which the internet has lovingly renamed “Sunskrupt!”). At the end of the mostly instrumental chaos of “Love Like a Sunset,” the crowd was blasted with what seemed like confetti, until it rained down into our eager hands. Phoenix had made it rain with “zero dollar bills,” which was an artistic currency designed by visual artist Richard Prince. Reportedly, the band shot 42,000 pieces into the crowd, only performing the stunt at Primavera Sound. Two other notable and incredible parts of their set were during the encore. Singer Thomas Mars went out deep into the crowd with a very long red microphone cord and played a slow, stripped down version of “Countdown” accompanied by only electric guitar. The other notable moment was when J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. came on stage for the most unexpected collaboration of the festival during the song “Entertainment.” Phoenix brought the big guns and put on a great show.
Animal Collective wins the medal for most disappointing set of the festival (to match their medal for most disappointing album of 2012). I don’t know what kind of horse tranquilizers the band members had taken before they went on stage, but all of their songs dragged with a strange lethargy. Even the toe-tapping crowd favorite “My Girls” was significantly altered to the point where I thought that the soundboard must have been broken and was canceling out half of the parts of the song. I’ve seen Animal Collective many times and they’ve been excellent many times, but it seems like they get a little bit worse each time I see them.
Friday, May 24
Kurt Vile had an early set that met the sunshine well. His two last albums Smoke Ring for My Halo and Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze were excellent pieces of catchy and experimental drug-free sedation and he gathered quite a decent crowd for such an early slot. Playing live, Vile lets loose more of his angst that one has to suspect is hiding under that wild nest of hair and behind those glassy eyes. It was more aggressive, with Vile shouting and the band getting lost in solo driven instrumentals. Yet, the band did clear off for Vile to play “Peeping Tomboy” alone, a personal favorite.
Like Phoenix, Daniel Johnston was a band that I almost passed up (because the two euro tickets sold out by five), but was glad I didn’t because I didn’t realize how familiar I was with the material and how much I enjoyed it. Somehow, Johnston managed to balance something like four bottles of water and three cans of cola on one stool to dribble on his superman T-shirt and maintain his signature tremble at the mic. It’s hard not to see Johnston as being exploited for his quirks, like the type of warped fandom that Henry Darger would probably gain as an outsider artist if he were still alive now. So, it was hard to tell that if when Johnston snapped at his band and at the crowd, it was a reflection of that or if he was just the grumpy grandfather type. Whatever it is, one can hope that people really do have a true appreciation for Johnston’s music, because he has written some lovely melodies and words that are just simple and sweet.
As the exact opposite of Animal Collective, James Blake seems to get better every single live performance. He definitely belongs at a slot late in the night, compared to when he played Primavera Sound in 2011 early in the day. Playing live, he has the perfect balance of something for everyone, mixing his soulful album tracks with his danceable EP tunes. He usually fits in “CMYK,” which always gets people going with the simple sampled lines that are the only words in the song, “Look, I found her / Damn! / Red Coat / Look, I found her.” The absolute best part about Blake live is the bass. Unlike other bass heavy live bands, his tunes have a slower tempo that lets you get lost in the vibrations that are infiltrating your body from a source that seemingly begins at your heart. There’s got to be some kind of science to it that keeps you from coming down and instead keeps you staring intensely at the musician whose songs now seem less sorrowful, but more textured, having built a literal physical environment that you can interact with.
Hands down, the best set of the festival was The Knife. I had read nothing about their live set in support of their last album, Shaking the Habitual, and I suggest that if you haven’t seen them either and are going to, stop reading now. Their new album is a challenging listen, but their live show contextualizes it perfectly. As artists, Karin Andersson and Olof Dreijer have become increasingly socially, economically, and politically conscious. They began as the type of band that might be incredibly popular on MTV and although their most recent album would probably be unlistenable to the same crowd, they return to the style by making a majority of their set a choreographed dance spectacular. Placing their tongues firmly in their cheeks, they perform absolutely no music at all on stage and instead have constructed an elaborate ruse with a backing track.
Anyone who saw them on previous tours would be familiar with the on-stage masks. When the band members come out, it is in a similarly theatrical fashion, with silver robes and heavy makeup. They start playing grandiose instruments that almost seem too fantastical to be real…because they are. After the second song, the instruments were abandoned altogether in lieu of mock glee club dancing. Among the six or seven people on stage, it’s not quite clear which people are the ones who wrote the music. Yet, it’s not just a trick for the sake of being cheeky, what they’re really trying to do is challenge your expectations, firstly for their own set and secondly for what a live performance should be in general. Simply by dancing, they raise questions about identity, gender, politics, and society that go further than any lyrics could. It could even be viewed as a lesson to be translated to our expectations within our own lives: our media, our jobs, our friends, our roles in society.
One might argue, maybe they were just dancing, because they like dancing…don’t read into it so much. Which would be plausible if it weren’t for a couple of significant parts of the set. During “Ready to Lose,” one of the dancers sits at a piano to pretend to play out the slow tune with all the others fawningly watching the stereotypical pop keyboard goddess. Additionally, the album’s first single is “Full of Fire” and where in pop music it might normally be the biggest, grand crowd pleasing live extravaganza, the troupe did the opposite of that by doing the opposite of dancing.
They stood still for almost the entire nine-and-a-half-minute song. The best part about the whole farce is that the set was actually really fun to dance to. It takes incredible skill to make something both entertaining and deeply meaningful. Listening to the album on headphones afterward leaves you yearning for the same deep punches and shrill rapture that you experienced in front of stacks of speakers.
I talked to several people after their set who said, “It was fun, but the music didn’t really seem to go with the dancing.” These were people who had no suspicions that what they had just seen was genuine and that is just another layer to the whole joke of the thing, to which one can only smile and shake one’s head.
Although it was a pleasant mindfuck, at first I thought that Andersson and Dreijer weren’t on stage at all, but backstage pushing buttons. After reading reviews of the show, it completely makes sense why they decided to go with a backing track. Yet, it’s hard to not feel robbed by not actually seeing them create their bizarre sounds right in front of you. Although, I guess I can start saving my money for their next tour. And I plan to write a long, long article taking a deeper look at what they’re trying to pull off. Stay tuned.
Saturday, May 25
Mount Eerie’s set probably would’ve gone just as well in the sun as it would’ve with the festival’s full moon, considering the songs are very nature oriented. The great thing about Primavera Sound this year is that since it’s such a good showcase for bands, many of the groups pulled out all the stops and performed with a full band or additional musicians that they might not normally play with. Main songwriter for Mount Eerie, Phil Elverum, was backed by three female musicians who lended their harmonies, keys, and guitars. Elverum also mentioned something about it being his first time playing at a festival like Primavera Sound, which seemed odd considering how long he’s been playing as both Mount Eerie and The Microphones. Where they didn’t play too many songs, they did surprise by playing a Microphones’ track, “Ice.” It was something about their tunes being given Barcelona as a backdrop that highlighted the parts of European culture that are more organic and in touch with the natural world. Especially the historical parts of Spain, all its glory and barbarism and fury condensed into a short, black, midday set on the dirt by the sea.
Melody’s Echo Chamber
Melody’s Echo Chamber was one of the better discoveries made at this year’s Primavera Sound. They have this lucid yet bleary catchy/drone balance that could commonly be referred to as “dream pop.” The songs have unique digital decorations that become driving melodies in a very interesting way. There are even a few tunes in French, sung by the adorable Melody Prochet who constantly embraces the microphone in prayer. It wasn’t until later that I found out the band’s connection with Tame Impala, as singer and guitarist Kevin Parker produced and recorded their record.
Phosphorescent is a unique band, because the sound from tour to tour will change them into completely different bands depending on what musicians songwriter Matthew Houck has to play with. The band’s previous record, Muchacho, saw the mostly folk act experimenting with digital elements for the first time and it was nice to see that “Song for Zula” held up as pleasingly as it does on the record. There’s something magical about Phosphorescent’s music that lends itself to being the type of albums that you will nostalgically remember falling asleep to as they spun on your record player.
My Bloody Valentine
When I saw My Bloody Valentine in 2009 at Coachella, the band played nonsense noise for 15 minutes straight. Literally strumming up and down on their guitars with no changes whatsoever. Fifteen minutes. I timed it. And I was blown away. Their schtick has always been as the “fathers of drone music,” burying the vocals behind waves of pleasing noise. Yet, this year the vocals weren’t buried, they were nonexistent. It seemed as if all of the treble parts of the songs had been stripped away, effectively removing any catchy element. The result was that the crowd slowly peeled away with meager remains. The lineup this year had a lot of bands from past decades on the comeback trail. My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds… Blur… Wu-Tang Clan… Yet, each of those sets lacked the kind of vitality that kept you from eyeing the hot dog stand from the corner of your eye.
Sunday, May 26
A rapidly growing nightclub called Apolo hosted Deerhunter and Merchandise at their Sala 1 stage on Sunday night. Deerhunter played three sets at Primavera Sound, which is almost unheard of. First, they played their normal slot on Thursday. Then, they played Saturday when Band of Horses canceled last minute. They were also pre-scheduled to play a concert that was open to the public at Apolo on Sunday, possibly because Deerhunter’s hard-rock vibe gels quite well with the hardcore loving masses in Spain. And they delivered every single night. Most of their material on the newest record, Monomania, is a bit more intense and guitar fuzz-laden. So, it lends itself a bit to the aforementioned My Bloody Valentine mud of noise and volume. However, Deerhunter has more upbeat tempos that force you to move your body. At Apolo, singer and guitarist Bradford Cox explained how much they loved the festival. He’s been playing it nearly every year for years now as either Deerhunter or his solo project Atlas Sound. Deerhunter’s sets also always have moments of trippy experimental sound collage. On Saturday night, they manipulated squealing guitars into what they said was their version of a Euro trash discotheque song. On Sunday night, they just created waves of tones and melodies that washed you out slowly into the streets. It was a nice way to end the festival.