Primavera Sound: A tale of two cities


Written for Clash Magazine, June 2014

The night I arrive in Barcelona, riots riff across the city. A 5000-strong group have taken to the main boulevards, leaving a trail of anti-capitalist graffiti in their wake. Last week, the local police force closed down one of the huge squats supporting the local community here. The site, near Sants Estacio, was a beacon for local people – giving them a creative space to explore culture, to meet their neighbours, and share the burdens and responsibilities of local issues. All over the city, messages are littered with the mood of social discomfort – “GUERRA SOCIAL” (“social war”) screams one.

Over the other side of the city, hundreds of music press are just arriving for Primavera – the festival, now in it’s 14th year, sees over 70,000 rush through it’s gates over the space of the weekend. Primavera, like many of the new enterprises emerging across Barcelona, has found it’s audience in a new creative elite amongst the Spanish locale. Full of hip fashionista, with new money, the festival site blooms with aspiration – a far contrast from the destitute state of the people I witnessed on that evening. 

The festival itself is set in a bay, right by the best beaches in the city. Attracting a crowd mainly tourists – branching from American to Scandinavian – Primavera is very much the ATP of the Mediterranean: a festival that mixes hugely eclectic bookings, with engaged people, in a hugely interesting space.

A few years ago, the site used to be in an old Franco built town – a town built to celebrate the iconography of the Spanish empire. But having since moved to the Parc Del Forum, it’s new home is a great machine of metal girders and high concrete walkways, set amongst huge suburban tower blocks that litter the skyline. Just two minutes from the seafront – most of the main stages overlook the sea, paired alongside it’s late programming policy, and lack of neighbours – it means Primavera, unique to many festivals, could go on 24hr a day if it wanted to.

The Primavera line-up is like no other this summer. Using the very best moments of the day, Primavera gives you a chance to explore the city, before hitting the site at 4 o’clock to bask in the last swathes of summer heat, before descending into a long night of hopping between sound systems and DJ’s across the site.

One of the highlights of the site are the gigs set in the remarkable Auditori Rockdelux – a Barbican-style concert hall, hidden at one end of the site. The 3,000 capacity hall hosts some of the most astonishing bookings of the weekend. Sun Ra Arkestra, a 15-strong crew of incredible jazz musicians, brings the music of the late composer to life – receiving huge standing ovations on numerous occasions throughout their set. Erased Tapes signees, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, also bring a hugely mellow vibe to the festival, astonishing the packed Auditori with incredible, soft compositions.

Remarkable too, is the sheer number of bands playing one-off slots at this weekend, too. Slowdive, on the Sony stage on Friday afternoon, are playing one of very few international live dates booked in recent years. Likewise, Dr John seems more than spritely to be playing an-irregular European date, as he casts his great nostalgic blues music out as the sun sets.

To fully describe to you the sheer immense experience of swapping between bands as you do at Primavera, I’d have to outline a standard evening. On Thursday, for example, within a three-hour slot, I watched an outstanding Neutral Milk Hotel, a rare performance from alt-punk band Shellac, and a blinding headline slot from Arcade Fire. Whilst the first of those three got a huge audience singing just about every word back, as if the Spanish natives had English as their first language, Shellac on the other hand stood their bitterly sarcastic lyrics to a super-dedicated audience, who’d side-lined anyone else to see them perform. Arcade Fire pull one of the biggest crowds of the weekend. Dressed in neon and white, Win and co run through five records worth of material – from Funeral to Reflektor, every single song has the entire audience crying their words back to them. Arcade Fire sound better than they’ve ever done before – it’s the first time, in four, where I’ve seen them fully step up to the plate as headliners.

At Primavera, evenings roll into entire nights out – on into beautiful mornings, and sweaty cab rides home to apartments on the other side of the city. 

Bowers and Wilkins’ collaboration with the Boiler Room becomes another crucial Primavera haunt. Built around a complete 360-degree dome, the sweet point in the centre of the complex projects a sound like no other sound system I’ve ever heard. Dirty beats, thumping techno and indie classics, become the soundtrack to the evenings of Primavera. John Talabut’s appearances across the weekend are crucial viewing. As is the closing set, by DJ Coco, out in the open air Rayban arena. Taking to the stage at 4:35 on Sunday morning, DJ Coco closes the festival with classics from Talking Heads, Michael Jackson and Arcade Fire. It’s full on cheese – but it’s still the most incredible indie disco sets I’ve ever experienced.

Primavera, in many ways, is the most stunning festival experience you’ll have all summer. The bands are remarkable, and the music selection is constantly exciting. But there are great downsides. Just as the Catalan government make movements to shut down the local squats on the other side of the city, they’ve pumped huge amounts of money into Primavera to attract an extended tourist season. Outside the Parc, huge great swathes of hagglers can be seen selling on beers at 1 euro a pop, but it’s sad when you come to realise this is their entire livelihood. Across Spain, there are huge, great swathing problems – 53% youth unemployment means a new generation of young Spaniards will ever get to experience anything like Primavera. This is no longer the festival it once was, for the local people, but a tourist’s retreat, where huge money is played with.

Gigs here feel more like massive shows that intimate moments. Where British festivals are intricate in every way, culture here, is almost non-existent. For once, yes, it’s nice to relax into a grown-up weekend, where an apartment replaces a shitty plastic tent, but the whole attitude of the place feels corporate and cold. And you can tell that lack of charisma to it has a huge effect on many of the bands. Many sound better, playing huge festival slots to massive open audiences, but Foals, for instance, play the one their flattest performances in five years. Likewise, Connan Mockasin, is plagued with leak from the stage next door, and fails to stand out without the confines of a tent to bring his music together.

Contrary to that though, if Glastonbury just isn’t your thing then Primavera could be the place for you. As a festival, it’s as an abject an experience I’ve ever had at a festival – but the music is outstanding, the city is beautiful, and for once in my life, it felt quite comfortable being a tourist here. But the price paid in return for it, well, I’m not sure. Primavera isn’t cracking itself with the right audience. Celebrating this culture with the local people seems like it would be a better move. Spain has always had an incredible, historic history, and the Catalans, no less, are hugely inspiring and creative people. So, lets celebrate them, and not just shroud the whole thing in huge corporate sponsorship. 

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