Once again we find ourselves at the end of spring and once again it’s the time for the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, May 29th to 31st, arguably one of the very best (if not THE best) music festival in Europe, trying to mix the best of both worlds: The space of a big festival with a line-up that always looks for quality even though in the last years bigger and bigger names have been headlining it.
THURSDAY, MAY 29th
After the rain that soaked the attendees during the free gigs of Wednesday at the Parc del Fórum, Thursday had glimmers of sun and a more relaxed atmosphere. But that soon changed at the new Heineken Hidden Stage, with the first gig of the festival. Irish noise rockers Girl Band were a refreshing start and they’re a combo that gave some hints of the experimentation we would find along the festival. They’d been hailed as a mix between Nirvana and Queens of the Stone Age (see below) but the voice of singer Dara Kiely reminded of the finest The Fall’s Mark E. Smith (that is, when Smith is not drunk) and the labyrinthine nature of their music has few or nothing to do with their supposed influences. It goes well beyond.
After a quick stroll to meet and greet some old faces in the local music circuit, we headed off to watch Dutch punkers The Ex. New singer Arnold de Boer keeps trying to emulate the intensity of old frontman G. W. Sok but even though they keep sounding interesting at first, they fail to really explode onstage.
Back at the Heineken Stage we wanted to watch one of the best gigs of the festival: Peter Hook & The Light. Bearing in mind the festival mindset, the Englishmen were forced to play a shorter gig so Hooky went back to the original plan of playing an intro of three songs, the Unknown Pleasures record in its entirety and then some encores. After three years of gigging constantly, the band plays incredibly well and the entrance of Happy Mondays’ chorus girl Rowetta to sing Candidate and New Dawn Fades was a curious and surprising experiment.
There’s no doubt Hooky is vindicating the role of Joy Division in modern music while earning good money from it, but the best thing of this project is that he took it very seriously from minute one and that shows. As drummer Paul Kehoe told your correspondent after the gig, “We can’t reproduce all the sounds Martin Hannett created on record, but all of us in the band want give to the audience the same intensity JD had in that time. Of course we’re not copying and pasting the sound on record – that’s not what the live experience means – but we play from the admiration to a band that set an incredible benchmark to everyone that followed. And according to the reaction of the public, we’ve been successful.”
For us, the night ended with CHVRCHES, whose retro synth-pop was the perfect way to start dancing the night away; Chrome with a sort of noise-rock that brought us back to the time of the seminal punk of the dirtiest The Stooges… And to the most surprising gig of the whole festival: Bo Ningen. The Japanese quartet, resident in London and with friends such as Savages, displayed an incredible energetic set of rock noise, Can-nish landscapes and freaky folkie movements like they were mixing traditional Japanese dances with flamenco. Yeah, all very strange and shocking at first, but if you want some real clues of how they sound, think of a crash between Faust and, maybe, Fugazi. Really interesting.
Elsewhere, Queens of the Stone Age showed their most sophisticated side with a compact-sounding set in which they mixed goldie oldies and some of their most recent creations; Arcade Fire probably offered the biggest gig ever in the festival, an enormous carnival that, at least, never forgot the songs that made them what they are now such as “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)”, “Rebellion (Lies)” or “Joan of Arc”. Plus, the sort of lukewarm Reflektor’s tunes (for some, at least – QRO review) gained strength and didn’t dampen the party mood the whole concert had.
Finally, Neutral Milk Hotel gave a concert for posterity that started with “The King Of Carrot Flowers” and ended with, among others, “Ghost” transforming the ATP stage (formerly, the biggest in the festival) in a real celebration with no need for flashing suits, strange characters and an incredible montage, just like Arcade Fire did a while before.
FRIDAY, MAY 30th
Local band The Last 3 Lines opened the program on Friday at the Ray-Ban venue. Their interpretation of garage rock and American psychedelia produces grandiose tracks like “Undisclosed Paths” or slow-burners such as “Home” that could put them in no time in the rock circuit of gigs of the US. Worth a listen.
Right before the storm came (and indeed it came) Yamantaka//Sonic Titan were another of the innovative offerings of the PS 2014. The Canadian duo had their line-up increased up to five members with the inclusion of guitars, keyboard and another singer/percussionist/multi-something. They really surprised the attendees with their artsy/tribal/enigmatic set in which pieces like “Whalesong” looked like they were made to call for the storm we suffered minutes after they finished. Keep an eye on them.
Then the rain came and we couldn’t properly check Drive-by-Truckers and The Wedding Present (good by all accounts in spite the lack of attendance), and also John Grant, whose set under the rain became one with the storm and confirmed that his attitude and poise are not abundant in today’s music at all. Then we headed to check one of the most uncomfortable bands in the festival, Loop. No question their noisy shoegaze paved the way to an incredible amount of bands in the ‘90s, but at times they seemed to be confused between reiteration and boredom.
HAIM didn’t surprise at all. Yes, their set is the right one for a festival and their interaction with the audience makes things easier, but their spectre of music is so wide sometimes that even a couple of songs dangerously sounded like the most recognizable Miami Sound Machine of Gloria Estefan. So, thanks, but no thanks.
At the scream of ‘Halle-fu**ng-luja,’ Slowdive were greeted by an anxious audience at the Sony Stage. The British band suddenly reunited in late 2013 and in Barcelona they were the most atmospheric and emotional group in the whole PS 2014. Some of the most spacious songs clearly paved the way to some of their solo projects, like Neil Halstead’s Black Hearted Brother. Overwhelmed by the reception, the band dusted off classic of their repertoire like “Slowdive”, “Avalyn”, “Crazy For You”, “Catch the Breeze”, or “Machine Gun”. The grand finale with “Golden Hair”, which started with just Rachel Goswell’s voice, sealed a concert that will be long remembered for those who saw it, even though this may sound overblown…
Did they really check into a mental hospital after they split? It seems it was a legend but Slint, reunited to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their final EP and the re-edition of Spiderland, showed time never seem to pass by for them. It all sounded true, with no unnecessary effects or tricks or subterfuges. Terrifying at times, tense all the way through, if one thing we all seemed to feel was the sheer melancholy and angst in all their songs, like they realized long ago resistance is futile.
In record, at least his first, Lee Ranaldo was very good. But live he seems he’s playing songs that could’ve been in any of the Sonic Youth records since A Thousand Leaves and that means tunes that mostly sound like b-sides. A real pity to see one of the two best guitarists in the world (according to some pubs) do just that.
In other gigs, The National offered what it was according to all accounts, an explosive set backed by great visuals that helped them take off the label of not being energetic enough; Deafheaven proved they’re a sonic steamroller even though their live set takes the subtlety out of their tunes; Pixies were good… again; and Doctor John was just correct.
SATURDAY, MAY 31st
The day started with Vivian Girls bassist Katy Goodman, now immersed in her project La Sera. In it, Goodman keeps on exploring the immediacy of pop, the ambient of early ‘80s punk and Californian rock. But this time, we could feel she’s on a turning point, on the verge of making her music much more mature and complex at the same time as she seems to be relying more and more on external influences. The next few months, now that she has released her third record in this project, will confirm this.
Then, Television (with Jimmy Rip on guitars duties since Christopher Lloyd’s departure, several years ago) played Marquee Moon in its entirety but not in its running order. The repertoire lacked that genuine, ground-zero music, spark in some moments (basically on “Friction” and the solo section of “Marquee Moon”), but the rest of the gig was excellent and curiously for yours truly, the songs of the second side of the record (“Elevation”, “Guiding Light”, “Prove It” and “Torn Curtain”) were the melodies that held everything together and that revealed the complexity and timelessness of this record. In Marquee Moon, Television have an eternal piece of art, just like Peter Hook has it with Joy Division’s creations. And they both know it.
Then when we made the only visit to the auditorium of this year to watch the one and only Mark Eitzel, who gave the best gig of the festival by really far. Helped by a drummer, bassist and pianist, the American gave a lesson to the less than 200 hundred people who attended the gig (most of the audience was watching either Spoon or Caetano Veloso, good by all accounts but not for us, the former due to sheer mediocrity, the latter as she visits Spain from time to time). A lesson in humour, in proximity, in pain, in irony, sarcasm, savoir-faire and so forth. With Eitzel there are no tricks and no non-sense. Eitzel is a brave artist, either with or without his band and he can prove it easily, almost effortlessly, putting a knot on the audience’s throats since the very first minute.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor may work better in a smaller environment than the notably big ATP Stage but their sheer intensity, introspection and, overall, endless skill to link all the songs in their setlist constituted the bridge between the quirky and bad-tempered post-rock of Slint and the intense, electric yet more accessible songs by Mogwai. The latters played right after (well, after an hour-gap, actually) Godspeed in the same stage and knowing they were in a festival, they made the necessary modifications to their setlist, discarding the slowest numbers of Rave Tapes (QRO review) and including the show-stopper “Mogwai Fear Satan” and the rocky “We’re No Here”. In the end, both bands offered the best of their respective points of view, becoming a real alternative to Trent Reznor and co.
Nine Inch Nails were by far the best band on the Sony Stage and all accounts tell their first 15 minutes, the most electronic of their set, were some of the very best in the PS ’14; Cloud Nothings seem to have stopped being some The Smiths copycats, hallelujah!; Volcano Choir impressed with extremely precise execution that, on the other hand, lacked some emotion; Chromeo transformed the Ray-Ban Stage into a big party; and Black Lips have grown up and while they may not be as fresh as before, they gained depth and strength.
Once again Primavera Sound mixed the new with the veteran, the innovative with the roots, the groundbreaking with the classic, and got away with it. Every year you can find a train of thought that has two sides: On the one hand you may find a bunch of bands that continuously push their boundaries and fall bored easily and keep offering new details, new perspectives; and on the other you’ll find artists that still investigate and delve into their style but also want to reach as much people as possible. Sometimes, the mix doesn’t work, like in the 2010 edition but next year the festival celebrates its 15th anniversary. And it does so in excellent shape.
-words: Abel Cruz
-photos: Jayne Yong and Abel Cruz