Primavera Sound is an overwhelming and vastly stimulating music pilgrimage made each year to Barcelona, Spain. Over two hundred bands across eleven stages and timetables that schedule sets well past five in the morning make the musical mecca a monstrous undertaking. Fortunately, 140,000 music lovers joined me over the course of the three main days and two satellite events to dance, sing, and even swim at the Parc del Fòrum and Poble Espanyol. The eclectic line-up saw everything from unabashed hip-hop to captivating folk ballads and electronic DJ sets. Though the scheduling and sheer volume of music can make it difficult, somehow we found time to sleep amid the madness.
Getting any rest was a predicament owing to the tension of anti-government protests consuming Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya over the course of the week. Demonstrators voiced their concerns over the political and economic situation in Spain emphasizing the growing problem of unemployment amongst youth in the country. Primavera Sound also overlapped with the UEFA Cup Champions League final between FC Barcelona and Manchester United. As a result, the Saturday night schedule saw a two-hour gap in music as fans flooded the Llevant stage to watch the match on enormous screens. Whether or not you were a football fan, Barcelona’s victory was instantly apparent as celebrations ripped through the streets and onto La Rambla well past the closing sets at Primavera that night.
Outside its musical aspects, Primavera held an array of meanings. The festival had its transformative qualities, for instance, the colour and amount of wristbands one donned was the founding rule of social hierarchies over the duration of the week. Wrist apparel, stickers, and swipe cards, clung, stuck, and hung off fans as they hustled across the festival grounds. The photo areas provided amusement by way of disgruntled Spanish photographers who complained of poor lighting throughout various sets. Ultimately, the true meaning dawned as I watched a communal dance break out during ‘Summertime Clothes’ by Animal Collective as they closed out the festival at 2AM on the San Miguel Stage. It is my hope that the following images, sounds, and commentary will help convey the innumerable untellable sentiments of Primavera Sound 2011 with you.
I spoke to a friend that had seen Emeralds play a show in Glasgow the week prior to the festival and learned that despite Emeralds minimalist electronica sound, the band played zealously on stage. However, their performance at Primavera was a marked difference from their hand-banging ways – the show was relaxing even. Most of the crowd sat back and I watched a girl in the front row sketch out graffiti designs on a notepad swaying her head throughout ‘Genetic’ with seemingly no desire to look up at the band. The sunshine and sea provided little impetus for mosh pits though the band noticeably picked up during ‘Double Helix’ and ‘Candy Shoppe’. Most of the material came from their latest record Does It Look Like I’m Here?. Mark McGuire posed throughout the set picking at his guitar while Steve Hauschildt would look over his shoulder as he played the keyboard. The keyboardist, John Elliott, scanned the crowd between songs, chuckling as fans yelled their praise. Emeralds launched Primavera to an easy-going, nonchalant start.
Cults took the stage and exclaimed, “We’re in Spain,” and after a short pause added, “this is weird!” The band played their brand of sweet and catchy sing-alongs to a sun-soaked crowd. Madeline Follin rocked gently during songs announcing that, “it’s okay to dance for this next one” as they played ‘Rave On’. The cheerful duo was at their best during crowd pleaser ‘Go Outside’. The innocent indie pop ballad had fans in distant stands bobbing their head as the tinkling glockenspiel cut through the charmingly lazy bassline. Cults joyous disposition was contagious and translated well into their songs, the duo befriended much of the crowd before they had even finished their set.
Sufjan’s popularity at Primavera was uncontested. His two elaborate performances took place at the indoor theatre Rockdelux Auditori, and each required an online pre-registration that was sold-out before the first night of the festival. Despite conflicts with Of Montreal, Big Boi, and Public Image Limited hundreds of fans lined-up for Sufjan hours before his scheduled performance despite having no guarantee of their entrance. Once I had passed through two additional ticket checkpoints and a ten-minute exchange with an only Spanish-speaking security guard, I had finally made it into the Rockdelux Auditori. I found solace in watching the National take their seats as well, assuming they had gone through the same process – perhaps their Spanish was better than mine was though. Sufjan came out with a prepared speech in Spanish announcing, “I get nervous when speaking in other languages.” Only the performance’s visual beauty contested the auditory beauty of Sufjan’s haunting vocals. Sufjan largely focused on Age of Adz though he opened with ‘Seven Swans’, and included a cover of R.E.M.’s ‘The One I Love’. The rest of the performance was a flurry of black lights, neon tape, and stunning backdrop projections.
Running across Parc del Fòrum from Sufjan I made it just in time to catch Glasser open with ‘Plane Temp’ on the seaside Pitchfork stage. Cameron Mesirow’s voice rang out long before I had reached the stage, and by the time I had snuck into view, the various acoustics and layered electronics chimed distinctly. Glasser drew a lesser crowd as many fans overlooked the performance in favour of other acts playing in the same timeslot. While listeners wrote-off Glasser at Primavera, her performance of her recently released record Ring was both masterful and gracious. The marked percussion of ‘Apply’ inspired cheers from the crowd as Mesirow crooned, “Out in the thunder, opens my eyes wide / There is something in my mind, keeps me up at night.”
Caribou outdid himself at Primavera. The Swim-heavy set commanded extra percussion as Snaith and company waged war on bass drums, snares, and hi-hats. The band played in a tight circle in the center of the stage with billowing smoke hiding them from view as only drumsticks peeked out of the chaos from time to time. ‘Odessa’ came near the end of the set and brought with it a group of fans that climbed upon one another’s shoulders to form a makeshift human-tower, the guy at the top smiling from ear-to-ear waved at Snaith and high-fived all those around him. Caribou closed with an extended version of ‘Sun’ as plumes of yellowy smoke filtered out into the crowd and a shape-shifting projection spun behind the band. I left elated at two in the morning with the echoes of ‘Kaili’ still firmly rooted in mind.
The Flaming Lips
Wayne Coyne came on stage with a Spanish translator before the Flaming Lips began their set to give the audience two warnings. He noted that one; they would be using very strong strobe lights, “So if you feel like you’re having a bad reaction, don’t look at them” said Coyne. And two, he announced he would be using his space bubble to roll into the Spanish horizon during the first track, to which there was great excitement. The band emerged in psychedelic fashion from a giant eye (see image for reference) as Coyne’s space bubble began to inflate and security discussed how they would get the lead singer back on stage. It’s easy to overlook the actual music amidst dozens of dancers in Wizard of Oz attire, including a Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and plenty of Dorothy’s, as well as flares, confetti, giant balloons, and megaphones. However, throughout the frenzy, which would have been entertainment enough, the Flaming Lips played through two encores and several favourites such as ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1’ and ‘Do You Realize??’ leaving the audience dazed. The day following the show, I was speaking to fan about their highlights from the first day and they said, “I loved the man with a beard that sang about machines.”
Baths, the moniker of 21-year-old Will Wiesenfeld, unleashed a barrage of electronic stutters, glitch, and ghostly instrumentals as he took the Pitchfork Stage just past three in the morning. Despite the late hour, Wiesenfeld came out with more energy than any act that day; dressed to suit, he thrashed around in a pair of gym shorts and sneakers between drops. The set simultaneously ripped apart and rebuilt Baths debut record Cerulean, remixing tracks with a hail of delays, distort, and loops. The tracks bled into one another blissfully as Wiesenfeld’s hands bounced impulsively from dials to buttons. Baths music was simultaneously recognizable and distinct as the young DJ mastered an infectious hold over an all-too-willing audience. “Guys, it’s nearly four in the morning, this is awesome” shouted Wiesenfeld between songs. Baths delivered a variety of new material and memorable dance moves throughout the night playing well into the early hours of Friday morning, at which point he could have continued into Saturday morning and no one would have noticed.
I started day two of Primavera running late to James Blake and as I rushed across Parc del Fòrum, I was hopeful that perhaps Blake was running late too since I couldn’t hear his familiar downtempo bassline as I sprinted across the festival grounds. My optimism was soon shattered as I came in view of the stage. Playing on the Pitchfork Stage just over twelve hours after Girl Talk had finished his set the previous day, Blake drew a crowd that was seemingly endless. Anywhere you could find a view of the stage, there were fans watching. James Blake played two sets at Primavera, one with his live band performing material from his self-titled record, and the other, a solo DJ-set. Blake, playing his first festival, was humble as he introduced his band mates and began playing ‘The Wilhelm Scream’. The live set was a combination of Blake’s shiver-inducing vocals and dreamy synthesizers all wrapped in a blanket of earth-shaking bass. Upon announcing his last song, the audience booed in disappointment to which Blake replied, “Oh, so you like us?”
Matt Berninger came out on the Llevant Stage clutching a glass of red wine as a massive Barcelonan crowd roared to greet the National. The band opened with ‘Start A War’, which had fans belting the words, “We expected something, something better than before, we expected something more” louder than the National themselves. The trend continued throughout the set as the audience clung onto every word like gospel. The National, who had attended Sufjan’s performance the day before, brought him on stage to provide guest vocals for ‘Afraid of Everyone’ and ‘Terrible Love’. Berninger coiled himself around the microphone joined by Sufjan Stevens and sang, “With my kid on my shoulders I try not to hurt anybody I like, but I don’t have the drugs to sort, I don’t have the drugs to sort it out, sort it out.”
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
I hadn’t listened to very much Ariel Pink prior to hearing their set at Primavera Sound, and while I had presumptions regarding their sort of experimental lo-fi, their performance was a refreshing surprise. Ariel Pink, wearing a pair of aviators and a blue canvas jacket boldly grabbed the microphone and said grinning, “We’re going to play songs that will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.” In short, they did just that. Ariel Pink was impressively impassioned and poignant on stage despite the emotionally inward and contemplative quality of his music. Pink’s cult following was quickly apparent in the audience as several fans danced around jovially and yelled professions of love between songs.
Belle & Sebastian
After spending several months living in Glasgow, Belle and Sebastian were the first real local band I saw, and while they didn’t perform in Glasgow’s Oran Mor or King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, it was a pleasure watching them on a grand stage in Barcelona. The bands setlist was a mix of cheerful and bouncy twee with songs like, ‘Suki in the Graveyard’, ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’, and ‘The Stars of Track and Field’. Stuart Murdoch, knowing how to please, asked the audience if anyone had makeup before playing ‘Lord Anthony’, and after a short search he let a girl apply mascara to his eyelashes. The band played along with Murdoch excitedly and often approached the crowd, adding a personal touch to their massive festival performance.
Twin Shadow was one of my favourite acts at Primavera. He didn’t use any elaborate stage props, there were no smoke machines, a distinct lack of confetti, and no mesmerizing visuals, yet George Lewis Jr. put on a show like no other. Just a guitar and some synths were all that was necessary. Twin Shadow sounded even better live than on his studio debut Forget. The vocals were silkier, the synths were more haunting, the percussion rocked you more hypnotically, and even Lewis’ moustache looked better. Twin Shadow needed little more than one song to encourage dancing as far back as the secluded food stands. The burning build-up to ‘Slow’ climaxed as symbols crashed and Lewis’ voice rang out in refrain, “I don’t wanna, be, believing in love.” At that moment, waves crashed along the Spanish coast, strangers spontaneously began making-out, flowers bloomed, and all the world’s warmth and goodness radiated from Lewis as he ascended into the sky*. Twin Shadow left the stage wishing the crowd freedom from their troubles, as cheers and applause carried on.
*I may have exaggerated about strangers making-out with one another.
With my head still high in the clouds after Twin Shadow’s set, I began the long walk to the out-of-the-way Llevant stage. Fortunately, the mass exodus to Llevant came with some amusing conversation amongst fans. “I’ve got beer, I’ve got MDMA, I’ve got an erection, and I’m going to Deerhunter!” exclaimed one friend, to which his buddy replied, “What more could one ask for?” The stylish Bradford Cox came on stage wearing pleated pants as the band opened with ‘Desire Lines’ from Halcyon Digest. I can summarise the remainder of the set in a single impression: ‘Nothing Ever Happened’ lasted nearly 15 minutes. Cox and Pundt teased out guitar riffs tirelessly, the refrains melted into one another, and the volume progressively increased with each round. One really could not ask for more.
The Tallest Man on Earth
Maybe it was the lack of sleep or the overwhelming euphoria of another sunny day at Primavera, or even the sentimentality of sweet-sounding folk that pushed me to the brink of tears as Kristian Matsson sang. It wasn’t a fleeting moment either, there was no song or verse that had my eyes welling, instead the entirety of the set was ‘I’m-going-to-start-bawling-beautiful’. “I’m going to play a quieter song,” Matsson said, announcing ‘The Dreamer’ overtop furious drumming coming from another stage, “even though something is going on over there.” Perhaps my favourite moment of the performance – and festival – was watching Matsson play ‘King of Spain’. He drew out the pauses between riffs, which incited the crowd to finish the song’s verses. I still find it difficult to communicate the sensation at the San Miguel Stage as Matsson sung, “Still I am not from Barcelona, I am not even from Madrid.” I believe the best description is still the one I had scribbled down at the time, which reads, “King of Spain = screaming + fucking magic”. The Tallest Man on Earth was incredibly humble, thanking the audience for listening and leaving the stage with the words, “Be nice to each other, okay?”
I was convinced I wanted to see Warpaint at Primavera solely because of one friend and her unyielding passion for the song ‘Undertow’. While I had heard her sing and dance interpretatively to this particular song on many occasions this infectious effect was rife in the audience as Warpaint performed on day three of Primavera Sound. The crowd’s enthusiasm, much like my friend’s, was anything but superficial; fans chanted each line from first to last back at Emily Kokal and Jenny Lee Lindberg with unwavering confidence. The sprawling songs and ethereal vocals felt implausibly intimate for a festival show with such a large assemblage of people.
tUnE-yArDs opened with a whirlwind of off-balance drums, twang-y ukulele, and a fully formed band, all with no intentions of slowing down. Merrill Garbus adorned herself with vibrant mesh shoulderpads, an assortment of colourful necklaces, and her characteristic neon face paint. The set was lush with percussion and Garbus’ resonant vocals. tUnE-yArDs was at her strongest on ‘Bizness’ as Garbus started with a single vocal loop and continued adding echoed layers until a final dose of percussion brought the track to climax. tUnE-yArDs set had a marked primal aesthetic driving each song as the drumstick wielding Garbus unleashed her fury on two drums by her side. The set demonstrated how well tUnE-yArDs sophomore record w h o k i l l flourished live, with songs such as ‘Es-so’ and ‘Gangsta’ succeeding their studio counterparts in scope and sound.
I had seen Fleet Foxes once before, but in an environment wholly different from the behemoth San Miguel Stage and the concrete jungle of Parc del Fòrum. Now with their second full-length LP Helplessness Blues Fleet Foxes were anything but short on material for the brief time they had on stage, as Robin Pecknold commented, “I’m not going to talk much, we’ll just play as many songs as we can instead.” The last time I had seen the band their encore consisted of taking cover requests from audience members since they had played through all their records. Alas, one constant remained since the last time I had seen Fleet Foxes play live – they sounded flawless. The bands harmonies rang throughout Catalonia as they opened with ‘The Cascades”. I stood in a far-off corner from the stage surrounded by mothers and young children and as Fleet Foxes broke into the chorus of ‘White Winter Hymnal’ three toddlers broke out in dance. Fleet Foxes can do no wrong.
Gang Gang Dance
Of all the bands at the festival, I was most familiar with Gang Gang Dance’s latest material since I had been revelling in Eye Contact for several weeks leading up to Primavera Sound. Gang Gang Dance’s sprawling epic ‘Glass Jar’ developed gradually with Liz Bougatsos scampering amidst drums and Josh Diamond intently focused on guitar. This continued peacefully until the three-minute mark, at which point a tempest of energy beset Gang Gang. A dancer waving streamers shuffled across the Pitchfork Stage that was glowing in blue-green light and thick with smoke, Taka Imamura whirled a garbage bag around frantically, and the sound of steel drums rang maddeningly. The pace of things never slowed as Gang Gang transitioned into songs such as ‘Mindkilla’ and ‘Thru and Thru’. I left feeling contently satisfied as the storm of sound passed.
I was glad that Animal Collective was one of the last groups closing out Primavera Sound 2011. While a frustrating band to watch live in many ways, they were uniquely rewarding as well. Though the band has over half a dozen studio releases, their setlist only included four familiar songs – the rest were new recordings that ultimately felt more like an extended jam session than a cohesive performance. However, I say this with caution as much of Animal Collective’s work takes time to grow and blossom; the new material was lush with organic percussion and vocals that came from Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Deakin. The silver-lining to Animal Collective’s enigmatic performance was the reactions they provoked upon playing, ‘Did You See the Words?’, ‘Brother Sport’, ‘We Tigers’, and ‘Summertime Clothes’. The well-versed tracks brought waves of bliss and spontaneous joy to fans in a way that was exclusive to Animal Collective. Fans, while most of them visibly exhausted, danced without reservation after three busy days – and even busier nights – at Primavera, and the extended songs gave them plenty of reason to continue long past two in the morning.
Thank you to all the friends that helped make Primavera a great time, your support, sense of humour, and dance moves throughout the week kept me in good spirits while exhausted and overwhelmed. A special thank you to Brenton Douglas who so graciously shared his photography equipment and expertise throughout the week.
Tags: Animal Collective, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Baths, Belle & Sebastian, Caribou, Cults, Deerhunter, Emeralds, Fleet Foxes, Gang Gang Dance, Glasser, James Blake, Primavera Sound, Sufjan Stevens, The Flaming Lips, The National, The Tallest Man on Earth, tUnE-yArDs, Twin Shadow, warpaint