Primavera Sound 2015
Parc Del Forum, Barcelona
An empty stage on the first night of Primavera
I went to bed too early. I never saw the sunrise over the Barcelonian indie-rock skyline. I missed Underworld and Shellac, but Primavera still remains the best music festival I’ve ever experienced. For a start it’s the only one I’ve been to not in the UK, which means instead of shivering your tits off in the freezing cold and crying because you’re covered in mud and have convinced yourself you’ve developed pneumonia, it’s warm and sunny in the day and only just about not t-shirt weather at night. I know it’s so very English to talk about the weather, but for me this is a real game changer. When you enter the enormous outdoor Parc del Forum and descend down the hill, you can see the sea behind the stages and I actually felt like I was on holiday as opposed to being there to prove my devotion to various musical acts. I was there for that too of course. There were no queues for wristbands and everything was just ten million times better organised than any other festival I’ve been to. Also the atmosphere feels way less bro-ey than Leeds Festival or like a party for drunk art students than All Tomorrow’s Parties. I don’t know if this is because there are less English people (there are still a lot) or because the average festival-goer’s age is a bit older. Obviously it’s still a corporate rock festival dominated by white guitar acts sponsored by Heineken, H & M and Ray Bans (ray bans? is it 1982?) and probably paying its staff minimum wage, so let's not get carried away. But as those things go…
We arrive in time to catch The Thurston Moore Band who are disappointingly pretty good in a hypnotic My Bloody Valentine/Sonic Youth dirgey kind of way. In fact the bass player is Debbie Googe from My Bloody Valentine. I say disappointingly because it means I can’t legitimately refer to them as ‘The Thurston Snore Band’ in this review but that is what we call them privately all weekend. Still team Kim all the way.
The first of many festival highlights comes with Antony and the Johnsons. Antony is backed by a full orchestra consisting of members of the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and Catalonia National Orchestra and his voice sounds powerful and bassy enough to send shivers right through the enormous crowds -even me, and I’m standing pretty far away- without losing any of the heart-stopping subtleties. Good job soundpeople. The sun sets as Antony plays against a backdrop of a huge gothic fairytale screen whilst singing songs mourning the destruction of the earth by human hands and evoking powerful feminine energy. Unfortunately straight people keep making out in front of me and partially obscuring my view, a theme of the festival. I have to keep dodging my head to the side to avoid their Kath n Kim-esque face-slurping obscuring the view of one of my queer/trans icons. Straights to the back! (I know, I know I’m being binary and technically some of the people I make out with at gigs might put me in the ‘straight’ camp, but I offer myself up now for the scorn and disdain of any reviewers who would like to slag me off online for doing so. Particularly if I block their view. It’s the circle of life.)
I have no idea what Sun O))) will be like, knowing only that theirs is a name bandied around by musos as if it were gold. I watch them from the hill and they are incredible, coming on to a stage flooded with smoke and lights, dressed in black robes, indecipherable disturbing incantations building as if performing an ancient ritual, their wall of sound shaking the entire Parc del Forum. It’s so intense and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, it’s actually kind of upsetting to watch and that’s why it’s so wonderful.
After Sun O))) and Antony, Electric Wizard can only be a disappointment. Their hair metal feels uber blokey and derivative by comparison. They have a screen up showing retro S/M porn movie visuals. I have nothing against S/M porn and I find it hard to take their backdrop seriously with the B-movie aesthetic, but given it’s always a maiden getting whipped by a bunch of dudes and the fact we’re surrounded by straight white dudes fisting the air with devotion it feels kind of uncomfortable. Electric Wizards songs themselves are fun in a kind-of-like-Black-Sabbath-but-not-as-good way but once you’ve heard three you’ve heard them all, so we leave after three songs.
Kathleen Hanna on TV
I keep thinking it’s Saturday as I cannot get my head around festivals running from Thursday – Saturday instead of Friday – Sunday. So much to unlearn. We get there for five in an unsuccessful attempt to see C86 jangly indie legends The Pastels. We discover that they are in a special venue and you have to queue to get special tickets for them. We fail to do this so just go and wait for Ex Hex who are on at six. At six a band comes on who are not Ex Hex. I don’t know who they are but unfortunately they don’t stand a chance of receiving anything other than vitriol from me as they are not Mary Timony & co who eventually come on at seven. Ex Hex are super fun rock n roll, theirs being one of the few records in my collection I can appropriately put on when I need cheering up (ironically because that is probably about 90% of the time) and the fun rock n rollness is reproduced pleasingly onstage. One thing that is not so pleasing is we spot the arsehole who tried to push my friend around and call her a cunt at the London Sleater-Kinney show in the audience. He has a disturbing number of friends and is wearing about thirty wristbands from other indie festivals where he doubtless went and saw all the feminist bands and called other women cunts and tried to push them around. We hate on him from across the crowd.
Then on to Patti Smith performing ‘Horses’ (I hear a bit of The New Pornographers doing ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno’, which they surely must have ended with, as we pass the ATP stage, they sound great). I just watch up until ‘Break It Up’ because I want to get a good place for Julie Ruin but Patti is predictably on great form and ‘Kimberley’ is a highlight for me, although I kind of prefer seeing her in more intimate settings.
Julie Ruin. Kathleen’s voice is going a little (which she attributes to an almond being stuck in her throat) but then she just sings in her Bikini Kill voice. Bonus. She and the band all look a little nervous playing to the enormous Primaveran crowd (apart from Kathi Wilcox who never looks anything other than flawlessly composed) and I’m sure the throat issues can’t help, but they give their all anyway and Kathleen closes with a cartwheel for extra awesomeness.
I make the heteronormative decision to go and see Belle and Sebastian rather than Perfume Genius as I saw PG last year and haven’t seen B & S in about twelve years. Like most heteronormative decisions it is the wrong one. Belle and Sebastian are pleasant but not mind-blowing. I watch most of their set in the toilet queue which has been excellently set out so the queuers get a good view of the main stage. I squat over a toilet rejected by the three people ahead of me, but I don’t care. Sitting on the toilet is bad for your bowels, they must not have gotten the memo.
Sleater-Kinney. They are wonderful and this is one of my favourite times seeing them. There’s something special about an open-air Sleater-Kinney show with the moon high above. Plus I’m actually in a place where I get a clear view of them and don’t have to spend the entire gig fighting over-entitled dickheads as I did at the most recent London show. Some of their songs I feel as if I’m hearing for the first time, and lyrics jump out at me as they hadn’t before. It’s a good mix of old and new material (nothing off ‘Call the Doctor’ I don’t think, but you can’t play everything). I like the latest album more and more every time I hear them play tracks off it live. My back is aching throughout because I’m an old man who’s been standing up all day but they are totally worth every second of agonising pain.
Not only does my back ache, one of my friends has hurt her foot and is limping and I’m sure my other friend has some kind of injury too. Nonetheless she runs to see Pharmakon on the other side of the Parc Del Forum but is too late and we all haul our aching bones over to catch Run the Jewels on the ATP stage. They bring the party with Public Enemy-esque alternative hip hop and an attitude that at once manages to be both bravado-ey and humble to the audience. I’m a little underwhelmed by them for some reason but this might just be because I’m sprawled out watching them far away from the hillside.
On our way home on the metro a gross drunken expat in a suit slumps around the carriage before asking loudly in English, ‘Do I have to go to Berlin to find all the cute girls?’ I call him a prick as we get off and limp back to our apartment. Another day done and we round off our night by Instagram-stalking our favourite bands of the day and discovering what they’ve been doing in Barcelona. If, like me, you don’t have Instagram, here is what you missed. Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss = lots of sight-seeing + hanging with Kathi Wilcox. Kim Gordon wasn’t there but she commented on their Instagram thread about how it was bringing back memories. Mary Timony went to the beach. Carrie Brownstein posed in front of a big arch which I think is probably a famous Barcelona site about which I am ignorant. Kathleen Hanna packed her suitcase.
Babes and babes and babes
Noooo. The last day. And again time to see Patti Smith. Yes, you heard right. But this time she’s not doing ‘Horses’ and we’re in a sit-down auditorium for which you have to queue an hour before her performance to get a decent seat. We do and we get a good place. I really prefer this set. Amazing as ‘Horses’ is there was something about her performing that album to such huge crowds which seemed almost contrived comparative to this one and like I said, I prefer intimacy. ‘Pissing in a River’ is incredible, every line rawly conveying brutal, murky loss. ‘Because the Night’ gets everyone standing up. The boy from the London Sleater-Kinney show is sat very near us again but Patti is so enthralling we don’t even notice until the gap between her set and Swans who play in the auditorium after her. Swans give a hypnotic performance. You could lose yourself in the million layers of percussion and the fact that they look all like extras from the set of Conan the Barbarian.
Multi-gendered Canadian hardcore band Fucked Up are next on the list. They’re joyous and eschew punk clichés, their keyboardist at one point getting out a flute. OK, so frontman Damian Abraham does stage dive at the end but not in a macho jerk way as can happen with guys in the hardcore world. He also gives big props to Babes in Toyland which can only be a good thing. The set feels like positive aggression which the world needs more of.
Next for something completely different. Tori Amos. I have never particularly been a Tori Amos fan and some of my least favourite people are big Tori Amos fans. I’m sure some people I really like are too, but they don’t talk about it. It’s great to come to a show with no expectations and it’s a happy experience. I forgot how much I liked that line ‘So you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts/What’s so amazing about really deep thoughts?’ and I smile at it and then I feel old and then I don’t care. The best thing about Tori Amos’s set is seeing all the gay boys watching her down the front on the big screen, crying their eyes out and singing along to every single word. I’ve seen so few queers this whole festival compared with the endless parades of happy straight couples who like to stand in front of me and make out whenever a band I wanna watch is on.
German pioneer industrial experimentalists Einstürzende Neubauten play the ATP stage after darkness. During their first song one of their members plays a sheet of shiny ripped up paper and progresses throughout the set to eventually ‘play’ a makeshift skip, emptying out metal rods onto the stage whilst the drummer drums with what look like a set of drainpipes, but don’t worry, Stomp! it ain’t. It’s not even a challenge to listen to as one may expect of an experimental band who use an entire arsenal of Blue Peter props to make a noise. The sound is still cold but their show is surprisingly warm. Lead singer Blixa Bargeld has a bit of a count Dracula look to him these days but is actually very sweet. ‘You know we love playing here, don’t you?’ he says quietly and sincerely, like a father telling his child, ‘You know I love you, don’t you?’
Babes in Toyland end the festival, for me at least, I didn’t have the energy to party till dawn this year, which I kind of regret now, but what can you do? BiT are wonderful, emotionally-involving and intense. Kat Bjelland freaks out and looks upset for the first few songs due to technical/guitar issues. It’s actually a bit uncomfortable to watch her to begin with, yet BiT still manage to be captivating, the sense of urgency to the music coming out possibly more in Kat’s state of anxiety. I still can’t help but grin from ear to ear as they play a storming set. I feel bad for Kat nonetheless - she’s not having the awesome time her fans are. Drummer Lori Barbero holds things together by telling jokes between songs when it gets awkward. Then Kat’s guitar problems get fixed and she is like a child at Christmas, the whole atmosphere changing. I can see that she is still somewhat ill at ease but surely ill-at-easeness is where Babes in Toyland’s music comes from. Their riffs and Kat’s powerful vocals reverberate through my ears and into my heart where they shall remain. I miss Shellac and Underworld but no one would top Babes in Toyland for a festival closer. The rest of life was a disappointment from thereon in. Good night.