Spanish festival returns...
The Strokes

Here we are again then, back in the world’s biggest musical car-park-by-the-sea. Has it been a year already? It has, and what have we achieved, eh? None of us has gotten any younger, that’s for sure. Even Primavera Sound is getting long in the tooth. This was the Barcelona festival’s 15th year. And it promised to be more monstrously massive than ever.

We were filled with dread – me and a fellow reptilian ‘writer’ – as we commenced proceedings on the Wednesday, the free Primavera opening party with bands no one really wants to see. Despite the already swelling crowds, such worries were nudged into the background by a pleasing Cinerama set. Lovable songs in the vein of classic indie pop led by David Gedge from The Wedding Present were enough to thaw even our cold hearts.

After that, Albert Hammond Jr showed up with a lot of songs along the lines of “This is what The Strokes should really sound like”, and we lizard-scribes slithered away for a beer.

Next came an enormously fun set courtesy of the legendary OMD. Aye, awareness of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark may have been swept away by the merciless winds of time, but you know pretty much every one of the Liverpudlian group’s electronic masterstrokes. Think I’m overdoing it? Line up 'Enola Gay', 'Electricity' or 'Joan of Arc' on Spoticry or whatever you use, and try not to bob around the room yelling ‘Oh yeah’ to the earworm synth lines and impassioned vocals.

And so came the first day of the festival proper. People, people everywhere, and multiplying like rabbits. Would the same gripes surface as last year? Of an event so packed that watching some bands could be like squinting at a caganer (Catalan figurine in the act of defecation) a mile away through an eyeglass? Of a festival oppressed by the gravitational pull of top-bill artists you don’t really care for? Of the clashes, the mind-scrambling clashes?

A new gripe surfaced when I tried to see Panda Bear in the Auditori Rockdelux at 5pm, day one. Not only did you need tickets (€2, but still) – you also had to start queuing for them at 2.30pm. “But we are gentlemen of the press!” lamented my lizard brother. In spite of this just assertion, they turned us away.

We tried to console ourselves with a bit of nostalgia via The Replacements, who reformed in 2012. But I found it a bit of a flat going-through-the-motions, and fled before the end to catch Mikal Cronin in my favourite Primavera venue, the Ray Ban stage, a concrete amphitheatre set back from the rest of the rabble.

I was looking forward to seeing the Merge Records indie rocker for the first time and was a tad overwhelmed at first, perhaps owing to the lack of personality in Cronin’s live vocals compared with studio recordings. But he was in his stride by the end with runaway numbers like Shout it Out from 2013’s MCII. He was for more rockin’ than indie than on record, which was no bad thing.

Next up was Tyler, The Creator – one of Primavera’s few, but welcome, concessions to hip-hop. The Odd Future whiz was full of energy and clearly up for it, engaging the crowd throughout – who responded by bouncing about with him until the very end. Given that most of the tracks were weird and wonderful with often incongruous, I can but doff my hat to Primavera-goers with great emphasis. After the joy of that set, we headed to Sunn O))), who were dressed in black robes and set every bone in our bodies trembling as their almighty onslaught of droning guitars began. Ten minutes in, we lost our nerve (unfortunately), and escaped to the dull realm of The Black Keys, if only to justify my opinion that they were boring. Mission accomplished.

Then we crossed to the opposite stage for James Blake. We’d arrived too late for such a popular act, and could but glimpse the Englishman quietly delivering his emotional blub-step amidst a vast crowd. There was a strange conflict between the intimacy of the songs and the stadium-like setting. Rather than moving me – emotionally or physically – some people were actually trying to rave to this – the likes of 'Limit To Your Love' and 'Overgrown' left me a bit cold.

The Friday started early with a wait for tickets to see Jose Gonzalez. I gather that by 3.30pm they had sold out; we got there an hour before. Later, in the smart auditorium, we were rewarded with a delicate, atmospheric set as the Swede conjured spell-binding, intricate realms with little more than an acoustic guitar (albeit exceptionally handled), light percussion and muttered vocals.

It was quite a contrast to Julian Casablancas + The Voidz. Months on, I am still trying to decide whether last year’s album 'Tyranny' is the worst or best thing I’ve ever heard. This concert brought me no closer to a decision. It was so gloriously awful, a carefully planned car-crash that delights and palls at every turn. That there are almost as many people at the end of the 10-minute-long Human Sadness as at the start is a testament to the Primavera crowd. Of course, they may have just been trying to figure out if Julian would be wearing the same half-red-dyed, half-shorn Nathan Barley-esque hairdo come The Strokes’ set the next day.

Such banalities were cast aside as soon as Patti Smith stepped up to perform 'Horses'. That I’ve never been a fan became a point of excruciating shame as the set unfolded, for this was Primavera 2015’s crowning moment. More than a show, it was an experience – words a cynical reptile doesn’t use lightly. Some artists, like Casablancas, seize the mantle of a generation. Others are timeless performers who become more than people when they take the stage. Patti jumped around, ripped the strings from a guitar, earnestly lectured us with divine-like charisma. By the end, she was moved to tears by the crowd response on what was the first night of the 'Horses' tour. It was one of the best shows I have ever seen.

Belle And Sebastian afterwards was jolly good fun, fans pulled on stage for 'Boy With The Arab Strap', and highlights such as 'Electronic Renaissance' making me grin like a schoolboy. But Murdoch and co couldn’t help being a bit lightweight after Patti.

I managed to recover in time for Run the Jewels, an exhilarating cacophony of shouty rap and soul-crunching bass that convinced me to give last year’s much-acclaimed album another go.

As for Ariel Pink, he was probably the biggest disappointment of the festival. I loved last year’s 'Pom Pom', but here the cabaret-style jaunt through the songs sounded like one painful mess. 'Bad Ballerina' was a notable exception, with the drummer getting to his feet in nothing but women’s underwear to do the weird talky bit. Boy, does the sleaze king of indie get creepier by the day.

By Saturday, we needed new legs, livers and scales, but being True Professionals, we marched on. Mac DeMarco was a fun set to boozily see out the sunshine, with a magical version of Chamber of Reflection, the requisite crowd surf by Mr Mac to 'Still Together', and Primavera’s classiest moment when the bassist filled the time while Mac replaced a string by singing Coldplay’s 'Yellow'.

Foxygen performed, a chaotic rock’n’roll extravaganza with about ten band members, including three Go-go-style backing singers. But this was only ever going to be a prelude to Interpol. Monumental though the songs sounded, I can’t say they made me want to revisit the days I listened to the angular gloom-rockers on repeat. Nevertheless, age seems to have done nothing to cramp their peculiar style (which is more than I can say for certain lizardfolk).

Then it was time for The Strokes to find out if JC had changed his hair. He hadn’t, although I couldn’t really see what was going from where I stood. Despite the swarm, everyone seemed to be having fun dancing to the hits – everyone except The Strokes, who looked a bit sombre on stage. Apparently, this was the first time three Strokes-related projects have played at the same festival. Far from ignoring this fact, Julian Casablancas + Voidz played a cover of The Strokes the day before, which turned Albert Hammond’s face to disgust. By now, all was forgotten. Right, guys?

On our last legs, we trawled ourselves off to Dan Deacon, which gave us tub-thumping synth-pop pogo times for the couple of songs we saw, before bracing ourselves for HEALTH, whose thunderous percussion and thrashy guitar segued nicely into an exhilarating finale from the spectacular Hookworms, who even at this late hour of Primavera (3am), took us somewhere new and unexpected. Did we make it to the Apollo venue for the official finale the next evening? Somehow, yes.

Thee Oh Sees and Fucked Up tore through rip-roaring sets to a riotous crowd, who had been so compliant for the ambient Jimbanai beforehand – a unique fusion of traditional Korean instrumentation, metal and electronica. There was crowdsurfing, there was jumping around, there were stage invasions. But halfway through Fucked Up we called our reptile-masters to say we were done.

What of the gripes? Sure, the capacity-threatening crowds were fear inducing, the tickets for the auditorium were enraging, and the vows to avoid the big acts were broken yet again. But Primavera made me excited by a lot of acts I hadn’t previously bothered with, which has to be a good thing. And then there’s Patti.

Words: Darren Loucaides

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