Primavera Sound 2009: A Diary

British festivals may be disappearing faster than cold beer on a warm day, but the recession seems to have left the foreign festival craze unaffected. Spain has been at the forefront of this boom, with the likes of Benicassim and Summercase already ensconced in many a Brit's summer holiday plans. But could Primavera, an event that attracts 40,000 music fans to the Parc del Forum on the Barcelona seafront, upstage both and lay claim to be ‘El Rey’ of Spanish music fiestas? <b>Nick Mitchell</b> jumped on a plane to find out.

Feature by Nick Mitchell | 05 Jun 2009

Thursday 28 May - Day One

The setting is perfect for Magik Markers’ early evening set at the ATP stage, with the stepped seating providing a sweeping panorama of the twinkling Mediterranean. But you could be forgiven for gazing anywhere but the stage as the Connecticut trio take half an hour to crank into any kind of gear, wallowing instead in half-songs and nebulous organ. So maybe the setting isn’t quite perfect; this would be more suited to a sun-starved basement club, especially when they finally kick into their pulsating noise rock.

On the same stage a short while later, Lightning Bolt show their predecessors how it’s done. The Rhode Island bass/drums duo are renowned for riotous guerilla gigs, with the audience stationed in a ring around them, but this is logistically impossible tonight. It matters little, because their no-bullshit, searing clatter is jaw-dropping from any angle. Brian Gibson plays his bass like Clapton on speed, while drummer Brian Chippendale is a human tornado, smashing every cymbal in sight and screaming incoherently into a microphone planted in his multicoloured mask. It’s about as visceral as rock’n’roll gets these days, and is already a surefire highlight of the festival.

The ATP stage is evidently the place to be. The Jesus Lizard have a hard act to follow, but the crowd has swelled in anticipation of the freshly reformed noise rock veterans. To his credit, David Yow does his best to upstage Lightning Bolt. The infamous frontman is like a (slightly) younger Iggy Pop, spitting at every opportunity, stripping to his waist (although he doesn’t perform any scrotum trickery on this occasion, thankfully) and taking several huge leaps into the first row of the crowd. It’s great to see such a wilfully rebellious band back on stage, but their punchy, homogenous grunge fails to quite match the bravado.

At this point the momentum of the night takes a downward turn, as we encounter a series of non-starters. An Andrew Bird solo set should have been spellbinding. But again, it’s a problem of context: his ornate, impressive multi-instrumental talents lose much of their magic at the large, open Vice stage. Over at the larger still Rockdelux arena, French band Phoenix have no difficulty appealing to the masses with their grand, bombastic chamber pop. But after the anti-melodic thrash of Lightning Bolt and The Jesus Lizard it’s just a little too sweet for our lacerated tastebuds. So we make our way to the main stage for My Bloody Valentine’s headline show. But it soon becomes clear that even their cacophonous roar is lacking some of its ferocity from our far-off vantage point. I resolve to cut my losses and watch their special indoor show tomorrow instead.

With unexpected free time, I pay my first visit to the Pitchfork stage for Ponytail, a Baltimore group who take the evening in another new direction with their joyous, deranged alt-rock. There are obvious nods to Deerhoof and Animal Collective in their wide-eyed experimentalism, but it’s their diminutive, boyish singer Molly Sieger who sets them apart with her wordless yowling and ceaseless on-stage energy. It’s an enjoyable live introduction to a bright young band.

In hindsight I may have enjoyed a little schadenfreude at the intensely cringe-worthy and much blogged-about on-stage meltdown of Wavves, but instead I opted for Aphex Twin at Rockdelux. At the front of the crowd the bass levels are shattering (imagine your skeleton has taken on the form of a cattle grid and is being driven over by a tractor - repeatedly) but from a little further back it’s possible to appreciate the astounding technical genius of Richard D. James in all its glitched-out glory. Almost as arresting as the organic electro and thundering jungle are the visuals, which include innocuous portrait photos morphing out of their frames into myriad versions of James’ menacing self-caricature. It’s enough to give the audience nightmares as they trudge toward the exits.

Friday 29 May – Day Two

Queuing for a My Bloody Valentine ticket (rather annoyingly, you have to pay a further €2 to reserve your seat) means that I miss the start of this evening’s main stage opener, Bat For Lashes. Doubly annoying when I’m told that she started with Glass, the thrilling first track on new album Two Suns. But Natasha Khan, dressed in a black and white jump suit, soon banishes any angst with a set that alternates between slinky, rhythmic pop like Pearl’s Dream and demure ballads like Tahiti. Flanked by an equally glam backing band that includes ex-Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley, Khan seems to be enjoying herself immensely, and her ambitious but accessible pop makes for a perfect start to the night.

A full year on from the release of their comeback album Songs in A&E, Spritualized are still touring. Having seem them play an identical set last year, this is all déjà vu for myself, but of course that’s not an objective criticism. Backed by two powerful gospel singers, Jason Pierce and his heavy blues specialists intersperse tracks from last year’s album with fan favourites like Ladies and Gentlemen, I Think I’m In Love, Good Dope/Good Fun, and Come Together – the latter, as ever, the one that sets heads nodding in unison.

Now it’s time for a second shot at My Bloody Valentine – in the ‘Auditori’ this time, a large concert hall located just outside the festival gates. After a half hour delay to let everyone in, Kevin Shields lightly strums his guitar to check it’s amped up. My God it is. Readied, the Irish band launch straight into Loveless opener Only Shallow, followed by I Only Said, and the dreamlike vocals are swallowed in an avalanche of wavering reverb and those distinctive sonic Sine waves. Shields speaks only once between tracks, to say “this is a J Mascis guitar,” and there is little pomp or ceremony in the dark auditorium. The sheer volume inflicted by the pioneering shoegazers would be unbearable were it not for the pop classicism underpinning it all. But any structure evaporates in the so-called ‘holocaust’, the 20-minute passage of white noise that ends You Made Me Realise – and can only spell the end of the show. For a minute or so you can still hear remnants of guitar, but soon it becomes an unstoppable surge, burrowing deep into the walls, into the floor, into your brain, inhabiting everything. It may be an endurance test, especially without the earplugs provided, but it’s also an artistic statement in itself. Just don’t ask me what it means.

Whereas Spiritualized and MBV stand static on stage in studied concentration of their music, over at the Pitchfork stage the Dan Deacon Ensemble is showmanship of the wackiest order. The American experimentalist arrives with a ridiculously oversized 14-member band, which includes three drummers and four synth prodders. Any remaining stage space is taken up by random dancers or Deacon’s own cluttered table of FX gadgets. When his attempt to part the crowd into a circle for a dance-off doesn’t work, the excitable frontman throws himself over the heads of the front row and instigates a ‘dance tunnel’, like some kind of deranged children’s party entertainer. Having just released one of the year’s best albums so far in Bromst, it has to be said that the music does get overshadowed by the sheer fun of it all. But really, that’s not much of a complaint is it?

Strangely enough, it’s not until after 2am that arguably the festival’s most commercial band play the main stage. But with party spirits hitting their peak, Bloc Party’s late, late show turns out to be an inspired piece of programming. Everyone’s too far gone for chin-stroking; what the people demand is instantly recognisable, thrilling riffage – with added lightshow. And although Kele Okerere and band may have failed to deliver the goods in the studio of late, they give us exactly what we want tonight. The Londoners blitz their way through an FX-heavy set that hits its heights – unsurprisingly – on Silent Alarm hits like So Here We Are and Banquet. An unashamedly hands-in-the-air end to Friday night.

Day Three - Saturday 30 May

Where Friday ended with carefree abandon, Saturday begins with polite applause. Shearwater are an impressive bunch, but this stems more from their obvious talents than it does their performance. The quintet, led by former Okkervil River man Jonathan Meibur, swap between guitars, keys, upright bass, violin, clarinet and cornet throughout a reserved, composed show. It’s indicative of the fact that Shearwater were always a vehicle for Meiburg’s quieter compositions that a highlight of their set is a glockenspiel duet. It’s brilliant, if only a little smug.

It would be all too easy to contrast Shearwater with Plants & Animals – their immediate successors on the Pitchfork stage – as opposite ends of the indie rock spectrum. But although at first sight the Montreal trio appear to be your meat-and-two-veg, guitar-bass-drums rock band, they produce surprisingly expansive music, from rootsy garage rock to soaring afro-beat without pausing for breath. Parc Avenue was one of the best debut albums of last year, and the untitled new material previewed here promises much more to come.

From one Canadian act at the start of its career to one entering its twilight. But what a recording career Neil Young has forged over the past 43 years, encompassing Buffalo Springfield, the inspired series of solo albums in the 70s, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, his long-standing collaboration with Crazy Horse and his revived relevance for the grunge generation. A huge roar greets the wispy-haired legend on the main stage, and his distinctively ragged electric guitar is first heard on opener Mansion on the Hill. The following 16 songs take us on a journey from 1969 to 2009, and although it’s Rockin’ in the Free World that elicits the loudest reaction, it’s hearing Young, backed by his impeccable country-rock band, turn his piercing tenor to classics like Heart of Gold, The Needle and the Damage Done, and especially Old Man (where the singalong has added meaning these days) that really inspire the greatest appreciation. He switches between piano, organ and guitar, reminding us on songs like Cortez the Killer and Hey Hey, My My of his extraordinary blues guitar solos. After donning an FC Barcelona scarf to the delight of the massed Catalonians, Young returns for a one-song encore, for which he picks The Beatles’ A Day in the Life. This may be an unusual decision by a man who was voted second best songwriter ever, but Young still leaves Primavera to endless chants of 'Olé!' from the ecstatic fans.

Over at the ATP stage, Angus Andrew, singer in New York avant-rockers Liars, is in a playful mood: "I'd like to thank Neil Young for opening up for us." Of course it’s just the nature of this all-nighter that a few thousand fans have trekked from the main stage for something altogether different. Half-obscured by a swirling fog of dry ice, Andrew struts from one side of the stage to the other, striking pose after tortured pose, while his cohorts pummel our senses with their heady, psychedelic brew. On exit Andrew shouts “You blew my mind Barcelona!” Judging by the flailing of limbs and primitive dancing around us, he wasn’t the only one.

By this point it seems almost absurd to expect another legendary modern rock act, but that’s exactly what we get on the main stage with the arrival of Sonic Youth at 1am. Like Young before them, the New Yorkers have refused to compromise their artistic integrity with age, and if you don’t strain your eyes too hard then Thurston, Kim and Lee seem to have hardly changed since they first dragged punk music into the 1980s. And it’s their late 80s/early 90s albums – from EVOL to Dirty - that dominate this show, with highlights like Hey Joni, Créme Brûlèe and a rousing encore of Expressway To Yr Skull. As for the few tracks they preview from new album The Eternal, it seems Sonic Youth have no intentions of selling out yet.

Primavera doesn’t quite end there. There’s still time for a blinding, euphoric electro set from Simian Mobile Disco at the Rockdelux arena that draws the revellers by the thousand, while the energetic among us stay even later for a spot of turntablism at Pitchfork with A-Trak. The journey back to Plaça de Catalunya is a blurry memory, but I’m fairly sure it involved a metro train and a carriage full of happy musos.

The Verdict

It’s unfortunate that the Wavves debacle seems to have become the only Primavera story picked up by the international media, because this festival, now in its fifth year, deserves to be known for the right reasons. If you wanted to pick it apart you could argue that the Primavera organisers were too slavish in their attention to elitist American indie, you could moan about the queuing and extra fee involved in watching MBV, or you could point to the all-too-frequent timetable clashes that called for some painful last-minute decisions of who to miss. But these are minor grievances, and the latter is always countered by the assertion that it must have been a pretty damn good line-up. Which it was, spanning experimental rock, punk, electronica, hip-hop, and some of the most influential artists of modern music. The location was easily accessible and picturesque, the people like-minded and the weather impeccable. So is it ‘El Rey’? For me, the answer is a resounding ‘Sí!’