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FESTIVALS 2011: PRIMAVERA SOUND DAYS 1 AND 2
:: Interpol :: The Flaming Lips :: The Walkmen :: Caribou :: Sufjan Stevens :: Factory Floor :: Toundra :: Moon Duo :: Emeralds :: ::
26 May 2011 / Forum Park / Barcelona
By David Edwards

In a little over two months, I turn 30. It’s not something I’m particularly bothered about; I’ve long grown weary of people trotting out apocalyptic predictions of sudden wrinkles, loss of libido and an inability to stay up past midnight (and I know way too many crackerjack dirty thirties to succumb to stereotype). But what it does do is make you reflect. Reflect on transition, old places, lost loves. Consider choices you took and those you didn’t take. Think about what made the age and time for you, and the places you found your niche in. And for me, that niche was festivals. Ever since I rolled up at T-in the Park as a 22 year old, late to the party, late to my personality; I found a connection with festivals. A pressure valve from the world; a release from stress. A reason to smile while thinking ahead during the cold of winter. And on top of that came an awareness of great music and the thrill of the festival moment. So many of the greatest moments of my twenties have come in the mud and thunder of a field, located in some nondescript part of the UK. Arcade Fire and Blur at Glastonbury, Hope of the States at Reading, Radiohead at Leeds, The Strokes and Brian Wilson at T-in the Park. I remember them now, I’ll remember them on the 15th of August. I’ll remember them when I’m firing off my last crackles of electricity from my synapses, hopefully many years from now.

So why am I bringing age into things? Well, because I always used to consider festivals as a place for young people. Young, stylish, eccentric, energetic folk who can stay up until the crack of dawn with a knife-edge knowledge of music. When I first entered into my love affair with festivals, what I assumed was that at the age of 30, I’d be unwelcome and ludicrously out of touch with contemporary music, sitting at home rocking away to my Radiohead records. Therefore, I threw myself into this world with gusto: a Logan’s Run-esque belief that sooner or later, someone from afar will shout out “COME IN MR EDWARDS, YOUR TIME IS UP”. But one of the things I’ve learnt over the years is that this belief is utter bollocks. It’s a necessary prodding, as it drives you on and keeps you involved in the deep end of life at the time you have all your strength and faculties. But ultimately, the inner child remains. What changes is that you learn what suits you. When you’ve spent a lifetime at forced, grimacing corporate festivals with bad beer, you somehow crave a little more. This was something that occurred to me at The Big Chill last year: this was different to the riots and RAWK of Reading/Leeds, the plastic-coated posing of V and the stark aggression that has gradually and sadly infiltrated the once-great T-in the Park. And so, festival goers never truly die: they just adapt and change. And that’s the wisdom of getting older. Don’t just accept the same old shit, broaden your horizons.

So in my case, the further rolling of my horizon arrived at 5am one Wednesday morning, boarding a plane to Barcelona (via a bizarre and surreal stopover in Brussels Airport) for my first abroad festival. I’d heard words and whispers about Primavera Sound for many years but had never seriously considered it, until I saw the line-up for the annual festival that has been located in or around Barcelona since 2001. A line-up which, quite frankly, dwarfed any in England, Europe and probably the entire world. And so, with a quick rustling up of companions, a brisk emptying of the bank account and an early start from a cold Manchester Airport, I find myself strolling through the streets of my favourite European city, heading towards the Palace of Montjuic towards the Poble Espanyol for the first night of the festival.

WEDNESDAY

This year Primavera is spread over two sites, with the Poble Espanyol bookending three days located at the Parc del Forum. But entry to the former is difficult tonight: clearly everyone has decided to come over tonight and as such, the queue to get in for Echo and the Bunnymen’s set is quite ridiculous. So we retire for food and beer before rejoining the (slightly) shorter queue. This takes a while to get moving, but is nicely lubricated by the cans of beer being sold on the street by vendors. We pass the time by attempting to strike several deals and bargains with the assorted vendors, meaning by the time we get into the Poble Espanyol, I am attempting to secrete several cans about my person (it’s a skill I’ve honed over the years…no fear!). And as soon as we get in, you start to realise why this place is a bit special. The Poble Espanyol is a gorgeous old-town square with balconies and sloping, tile-clad roofs overlapping the top of its yellowed, sun-bleached walls. And tonight, the square is full of happy, excited people.



By this point, I’ve been up for nearly 20 hours but it’s impossible to ignore quite how good Caribou are live, as my fatigue and lead-leggedness is shaken off by a truly remarkable performance of live music. I confess to being not familiar with their work and at times, the songs do appear nondescript but as a reproduction of dance music live, their performance is as good as anything I’ve seen. They have a magnificent ability to combine the taut bass and drums with exquisitely blended samples and a sense of dramatic, ethereal hedonism which makes dance music so intense, sexual and immediate. There are points in the set where their folds, blends and switches resemble the best moments of Carl Cox’s techno mixes. Which for a live band is quite extraordinary. I’ve seen sample based, floating electronic music done live well before, I’ve never seen the dirty side done with such exceptional precision. Stood in the middle of an ancient square, it’s a perfect precursor to the weekend. You get the feeling that everything is just starting, that things are going to continue getting weird and wonderful from here. After leaving, we catch up with some randoms over frosted beers in a nearby bar, discussing music and media for hours (and me and my friend Martin manage to have our obligatory musical debate…all friendly and respectful though. Sort-of) before crawling back to the hotel at 6am. There is something about Barcelona that makes you never want to sleep. This static electricity reverberating from the Catalan soil is going to be fully absorbed over the next few days…


THURSDAY

Thursday dawns with sun and promise as we make a leisurely way to the Parc del Forum through the city. On entry to the site, it’s impossible not to be amazed at the bizarre, futuristic skyline and setup. Located in the south-east corner of the city, it sits between tower blocks and power stations like some weirdly considered expo park where man meets nature: multi-coloured brick floors with seats and banks that appear from nowhere split by trees, bushes and the blue of the sea framing the background. The stark, odd, futuristic beauty of the site is tempered by the sobering realisation that until the 1960s, opponents of the Franco regime were shot on the site: another reminder of the deep-seated disgust of mainstream Spain that exists under the friendly, placid nature of the Catalans. The most remarkable thing about Spain for me is that, though simple and beautiful on the surface, it seethes with mistrust, division and long-held grudges. It is a country with many axes, blades and grudges to grind.

Forgive me for lurching from the deathly serious to the trivial, but upon arriving at the site, the (literal) sobering realisation for many is that, put simply, there is nowhere to buy drinks. In the run-up to the festival, I had spent many hours pouring over the mildly complex, but potentially brilliant ‘Portal’ system, whereby you charged your card with Euros and simply had it swiped at the bar when you wanted a drink. Marvellous concept, sure. But it failed. And when I say failed, I’m being kind. The whole thing is a total and utter disaster: people scampering from bar to bar after Chinese Whispers of “they’re serving over there”. The poor bar staff attempt to be sweet, but gradually get fed up with the continual questioning and start to become quite fraught. It’s an inconsequential start to proceedings, but (despite popular belief) I can manage without drink so I head across to the Pitchfork Stage, located at the seat of an enormous, banking solar panel structure, shading the steps and stage like a staggering Martian space vehicle.

Toundra are the first band on, playing a surprisingly heavy-yet-coherent torrent of dense rock atmosphere, which works curiously well despite being delivered in the blazing sun of the late afternoon. They are followed by Emeralds: the understated samples and guitar based act so beloved by many people I know. The thing with Emeralds is, there’s no question what they do is interesting. The way they combine electronica and Mark McGuire’s subtle guitar playing is clever, and on record, it acts like a musical lullaby for adults with discerning taste.



The problem is that live, in the sun, with a crowd wanting to be lifted off their feet at the start of a festival; it simply comes across as dull and over-considered. You can appreciate the quality; the thoughts; the ideas; the talent. But there isn’t enough going on to sustain the interest and in the end, it becomes mildly irritating. You just want something to happen, anything to happen. But it doesn’t. Emeralds may be an excellent studio band but through a combination of time-slot, sunshine and tiptoeing around their ideas, it simply doesn’t work. So instead, I wander across to see Moon Duo (Ripley Johnson of Wooden Shjips side project) who are a lot of fun: chunky fuzz riffs and insistent bleeps. But I can’t stay for too long. Pressing matters are at hand just outside the main arena.

So much of the run-up to Primavera for me (apart from that sodding ash cloud of course: Hooray for northerly winds and geography!) was spent desperately trying to get reservations for the incomparably wonderful Sufjan Stevens at the massive blue iceberg slab venue that was the Rockdelux Auditori. Thankfully, my ongoing ticket luck continued and I got two tickets, so I meet up friends to nestle in the elegant splendour of the concert hall: a truly marvellous and monumental 3000 seat wedge of ruffled blue at the entrance to the festival. As the lights dim, Sufjan emerges to rapturous applause, then utter silence to deliver a ghostly, beautiful ‘Seven Swans’. What follows is one of the most profound and moving gig experiences of my life. Essentially, the gig is almost entirely comprised of his latest album ‘The Age of Adz’, which on listening, is a difficult beast to wrestle with. Set in context, with stage performers, dancers and costumes, the whole thing grows wings and flies for the sun in the sky. It is a dazzlingly beautiful theatrical conception, albeit one that partly belongs in Mardi Gras and partly at the Rio Carnival as towards the end, the band don assorted costumes and Sufjan moves from wearing fluorescent, glow-in-the-dark attire to appear on the piano in a headdress and a pair of angel wings. And within that, the themes of the album: love, ageing, magic, the universe are framed with deft precision and unearthly wonder. It is simply extraordinary: a transition of music beyond the normal world and into the spiritual plane. And there is one moment of magic that seals everything. Coming back on for an encore, the band swirl deftly into ‘Chicago’ from his 2005 album Illinois, prompting a rush down the stairs down the front by so many people and a sense of near-ecstasy from everyone in the room. As balloons bounce around and the hall fills with the sound of angels trapped on earth, a tear rolls down my cheek past my unstoppable smile. Two hours of absolute wonder, this was the sort of gig that transcends everything and anything. There really aren’t enough superlatives available in the English language to fully quantify the magic filling the space between us and a truly astounding musical soul.

Walking out of the Auditori, weak at the knees, it’s difficult to know what to see or do next. Following something of such brilliance is difficult but there’s a perfect tempering of moods with the sheer visceral anger of The Walkmen. Hamilton Leithauser still sounds like he is railing against the world but its coherent, intelligent railing; wracked with tautness, tension and sheer spit ‘n’ blood.



As usual, they’re brilliant, with the confined Pitchfork stage being small enough to resonate and amplify their sound. Opener ‘On The Water’ carries a beautiful romance and understated depth, ‘Angela Surf City’ explodes like dirty popcorn and ‘The Rat’ still sounds like one of the very best singles of the last 20 years. There’s even a new song, comprising of a chorus where Leithauser proclaims that he is going to “sing myself sick” It’s still a shame that the whole world hasn’t woken up to quite how brilliant they are, but you get the impression that the world isn’t quite ready for such exquisite fury.

Speaking of bands the world may or may not be ready for, it’s becoming increasingly clear that poor reviews of their self-titled album are certainly not putting Interpol off. Quite the opposite: tonight’s Levant stage show sees them as sharp, focused and determined as I’ve ever seen them. There’s little time for stage banter and they almost seem determined to fit as many songs as they can into their set, meaning that tracks like ‘Say Hello To The Angels’ are ratcheted through with a visceral intensity. If Interpol could have such a thing, it’s almost a greatest hits collection (though still no ‘Stella’), where the highlights are a spectral ‘Hands Away’, a gleeful ‘Evil’ and a quite brilliant ‘The Heimlich Manouver’ which quickly seems to be becoming their favourite live track. They say little, they don’t have any tricks or projections. In all honesty, it’s typical Interpol. But what they do, they still do extraordinarily well. Despite the copyists and detractors, there’s still no-one quite like them.

The Flaming Lips on the other hand, seem to relatively hard work of what should really have been an open goal. 2am with an ebullient crowd on the San Miguel stage, feeding off the first-day euphoria; they should have owned it. But the set is oddly sequenced and spaced; with many drops in tempo while they jam around many of their odder, more interesting tracks. Which in itself isn’t a bad thing, but so much of the Lips live experience is the belief that you’re in some wonderful, fucked up houseparty at the end of the universe and it’s either party or supernova. In contrast, tonight is just another gig.



Having said that, an average Flaming Lips gig is still superior to most bands greatest ever show, and the version of ‘The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’ is quite magnificent, as I raise my hands to the sky and bellow across Catalonia. ‘Race for the Prize’ and ‘Do You Realize??’ are as glorious as they’ve always been but it’s the slowed down, eked out and simply beautiful version of ‘Yoshimi’ that captures everyone tonight as mass sing-alongs break out and chills spill up and down your spine. Wayne Coyne stops singing for a moment with the massive fisheye lens projecting his mouth onto the screen and then breaks into a huge smile. It’s a beautiful moment. And despite it not being a gig showing them at the peak of their powers, it’s still a reminder of some of the shining gold and silver lining so many pages of their back catalogue.

I somehow forgot to mention that the bars had started working again sometime after Sufjan (cash only though…I never got to use my bloody card all weekend!) and so come 3.45 a.m., I’m slightly worse for wear at Factory Floor. This is a bit of a shame as they’re remarkable, even more remarkable than the chaotic, mental crowd with so much energy for such a late hour. They are absolutely barnstorming: furious 4/4 beats and bass whipping at your backside, while a whole plethora of disturbing yet brilliant samples assail your ears and senses. It’s almost a shame that they’re on as late as it’s one of the most striking and stunning things I’ve seen in ages. Having said that, it’s music for freaks and it’s the freaks that are still out at this hour. After a while though, Sensible David overpowers Freak David and I stumble to the metro just as it opens; thousands of refreshed festival goers piling onto the underground alongside those suited and booted for a day at the office and a nose to the grind. I arrive back at the hotel just as the sun begins to rise over Barcelona. There’s always something magical about arriving home as the sun rises. And especially when you know that more than likely, the next day will bring more magic into your world. I think I’m starting to fall for Primavera. But for now, time to sleep.


Caribou, Emeralds and Flaming Lips pictures by Martin Sharman, with thanks. Walkmen picture by Cath Aubergine.


Resources:
Flaming Lips
Sufjan Stevens
Factory Floor
Cath Aubergine was also there, reporting for MM's continental cousins Incendiary. Read Cath's Part One here...
Martin Sharman Photography

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