Let’s get the ranting out of the way first, shall we?
Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe humanity is getting worse. Maybe both. I don’t know, but this year—more than any other—I’m finding my levels of irritation at the people who spend the whole time taking photos of the band—rather than actually watching and listening to the band—have reached an all-time high. Take this girl who rocks up during Mineral’s set on Thursday evening, stands right in front of me, and takes at least twenty shots of a band she’s probably never even heard of. And then just leaves. I mean, seriously. Why bother?
Another thing that really grinds my gears is how much people talk during the sets. Mostly Europeans, it has to be said, with Italians being the worst culprits. Yes, you speak a beautiful language and usually it’s a pleasure to listen to you parlare. And no, I’m not one for standing in complete silence for the entire performance, but if you don’t have any interest in what’s going on up there onstage, please: piss off and have your conversation elsewhere. By the bar, perhaps, or in that massive, empty expanse of land between the stages—anywhere, in fact, but right next to me, because I’m trying to dig on this guy’s music. This guy, who’s tearing it up like the bastard son of Chuck Berry and Jimmy Page, his name is Benjamin Booker: a Virginia-born rock ‘n’ roll wunderkind, whose attempts to get a round going during ‘L’il Liza Jane’ may fall disappointingly flat—“you guys can’t be cool all the time”—but whom nevertheless confirms his place on my list of this year’s essential acts.
But wait. Let’s back it up a sec. We’re at Primavera Sound. It’s a music festival, held in a huge, purpose-built leisure park just above the seafront in Barcelona. It is good. From the moment you pass through the turnstiles and saunter over toward the Ray-Ban stage, casting your eyes out over the horizon, where one impossible shade of blue meets another, you get a sense of being part of something special. This year marks the fifteenth edition of the event, and my fifth time attending. By the time it’s all over, I’ll be bordering on ecstatic. Why? Well, because for a start I’ll have seen Patti Smith. Twice. Once, performing her 1975 debut, Horses, in full, out on the main stage, and then again, inside the Auditori Rockdelux, where she will forget the lyrics to ‘A Perfect Day’ by Lou Reed, but deliver a set of such raw beauty and righteous fury I won’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ll have seen everyone from Sleater-Kinney to Sleaford Mods, Spiritualized, and Swans. I’ll have danced like a loon to Run The Jewels, stared in awe at Earthless’ guitar god, Isaiah Mitchell, and had my eardrums perforated by Sunn O))). I’ll have shed tears during José González’s set, and declared Fucked Up the best band I’ve ever seen… only to change my mind after Einstürzende Neubauten’s set an hour and a half later. I’ll have survived on a diet of Heineken, veggie burgers, coffee and Tex-Mex, and decided that The Strokes, The Black Keys and Interpol are all massively overrated. I’ll have missed the one band I really wanted to see—Battles—due to their performing on some stupid “hidden stage” for which you needed to purchase separate tickets. I’ll have soon forgotten about that though, along with a bunch of other, great moments… and so, before it all escapes into the mists of time, here are just a few of my highlights of Primavera Sound 2015…
1. José Gonzalez
“Well, it’s one thing to fall in love/ But it’s another to make it last…
Put your hand on your heart and tell me, it’s all over…”
So sings José González, on ‘Hand On Your Heart’. Well, José, as cheesy as it sounds, I can put my hand on my heart and say yours was a truly wonderful performance (Friday, Auditori Rockdelux). Your unmistakeable, haunting voice—fragile yet full-bodied—echoed all the way to the back where I was seated, bathing us all in the warmth of your wisdom as well as the pain of your suffering. I enjoyed every second of your sixty-minute set, which included a spine-tingling cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ and—of course—your version of ‘Heartbeats’, by The Knife. It was your own material, however, that induced an unexpected spillage of eye-juice from this otherwise cynical hack: on ‘Walking Lightly’, you manage to turn a simple refrain into a profoundly moving mantra with guitar notes that shimmer like drops of summer rain. Excellent work.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m all for taking children to festivals and exposing them to live music from a young age, but I’m not sure about making them sit through a set by Swans (Saturday, Auditori Rockdelux). And yet, lo and behold, as I settle into my seat down at the front, a quick glance to my right and there’s a woman sitting with a girl of about nine. A little boy, too. Woah! I mean, imagine trying to prepare them for it: “Well, sweetheart, you know those scary dreams you get—the ones you come into mummy and daddy’s room to escape, only to find us making strange noises from under the covers? Yes, well, it’ll be a bit like that. But louder. A lot louder. There’ll also be a guy with no shirt on playing the trombone and a huge gong—oh, and did I mention it’ll go on for over two hours?”
Of course, there’s every chance that little girl was Michael Gira’s own daughter, who sang on the band’s 2010 album… in which case I shall shut my mouth. Either way, heavy music doesn’t get much better than this. My God. There are many words to describe how you feel after leaving a Swans show: purged… liberated… cleansed… deaf. Most of all, however, you feel grateful—grateful that Michael Gira exists and is still making music of such bone-rattling power and savage emotion. Utterly astonishing.
3. Death From Above 1979
The big sexy beast that is Sebastien Grainger—singer and tub-thumper extraordinaire for Death From Above 1979—is dressed in a pair of white dungarees y nada más, by the looks of it. “We’re here to destroy your stages,” he announces, three songs into their set down on the Ray-Ban Stage (Friday). “I hope that’s okay…” The remarkably sizeable crowd indicates that that is very much okay by going a dozen different strains of doolally to the Canadian duo’s dirty bass riffs. It’s quite a sight to behold. Mind you, material from last year’s The Physical World still doesn’t sound a patch on the colossal cuts from You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine—especially ‘Romantic Rights’, which as an absolute choon.
4. The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger
One of the unwritten rules of Primavera Sound is that when a girl asks if you want to go with her and watch The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, you say yes. Even if you’ve no idea who they are, or what they sound like, or if you think their name is slightly preposterous. You just go. You go, and you watch and you get a bit drunk and you have a good time, because it turns out TGOASTT is Sean Lennon’s band (I think his dad was famous back in Sixties or something) and because the dude can shred, and because their swirling, psychedelic pop makes perfect sense in the baking sunshine on a Saturday evening in Barcelona.
5. Fucked Up
Did Fucked Up play this festival last year, or the one before? Were there always so many people in the band? Why hasn’t anyone noticed that Father Damian’s mic isn’t working? And how can a song whose chorus consists of a cry of “dying on the inside” sound so uplifting? These are just some of the questions that go though my head as I catch the last twenty minutes of the hardcore-progsters’ slot on the Pitchfork stage on Saturday evening. The answer to all the above is, of course, a massive “Who cares?” Especially after seeing Damian squat-walk across the stage with his shirt over his head, or hear him declare that he’s lost “like a hundred and twenty pounds over the last year” solely by smoking weed.
6. Einstürzende Neubauten
Einstürzende Neubauten not only have a name very few people can pronounce properly, they are, surely, the only group who’ve brought along a metal trough, filled it with strips of metal and suspended it above the back of the stage. Famed for creating and building their own instruments, and making use of all manner of industrial materials, Neubauten deliver, hands down, the most captivating set of the weekend—even the group of Italians next to me is silenced. Fifty-something frontman, Blixa Bargeld—resplendent in a three-piece suit of charcoal grey and no shoes—is a model of German stoicism and creepy, gothic attitude, veering between dark, softly-spoken monologues, and screams so high-pitched they almost defy belief; bassist Alex Hacke, meanwhile, is a dead ringer for forgotten Steve Coogan character, Tony Ferrino.
Earthless’ From The Ages, released back in 2013, is an album that’s never too far from my CD player: four tracks of mind-melting psych-jamming led by Isaiah Mitchell’s Hendrixian guitar shreddage, with a rhythm section that features Mike Eginton (Electric Nazarene) and Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, OFF!). When first I take my place for the San Diegan trio’s midnight set on the adidas Originals stage, the audience comprises just a few savvy punters. By the time first track, ‘Uluru Rock’, is finished, the crowd has quadrupled in size—Mr Mitchell clearly being a modern day Pied Piper of Hamelin, drawing children from all corners of the park. The fact that some band called The Strokes is shambling through their headline slot at the other end may have something to do with it, but whatever led them to arrive here, no-one leaves Earthless feeling anything less than exultant.
I finish this year’s festival by treating myself to a taxi back into the city and walking up La Rambla back to my hostel. It’s three o’clock on Sunday morning, and this is when everything you’ve ever heard about Barcelona is happening, all at once. Police vans and handcuffed street thieves, Pakistanis selling cans of beer for one euro, leathered tourists from Russia, Spain and England, and hookers of all shapes and sizes, plying their wares on the corners of every carrer. Drunk, tired and elated, the dazzling light from the street-lamps that line the entire stretch rendering the whole scene a little more surreal, I smile, drinking it all in, feeling cool and invisible—right up until the moment someone makes a grab for my phone (or possibly my crotch) after which point, naturally, I pick up the pace slightly…
Buenas noches, Primavera! Until next time…