The first half of Siobhán Kane’s epic roundup of this year’s Primavera Sound festival – Walkmen, Wilco, Friends, Iceage, Grimes, Afghan Whigs, Mazzy Star, Thee Oh Sees, Danny Brown, A$AP Rocky & Refused
Upon returning to Primavera Sound for the third year in a row, I was struck by how it now seems like an old friend; a familiar, yet welcome respite from home and all its associations. As we made our way to La Barcelonata, we hired bicycles once more for our five day stay (www.barcelonarentabike.com), had a tipple at Absenta (Sant Carles 36) and turned the key in the door of our very sweet apartment. I suppose it must read like Groundhog Day, but it felt warm and comforting, rather than grey and dull.
WEDNESDAY 30TH MAY In some ways, having those few little anchors provided a soft landing for the rest of the break. For example, having got an early evening flight, we made it just in time for the majestic Walkmen at the Arc de Triomf (Passeig de Lluís Companys 20), which was part of a series of events Primavera Sound were providing around the city from 8th May until the end of the festival – 3rd June. The concert was free for everyone, and the stage had previously seen The Wedding Present playing Seamonsters in its entirety, as well as Beach Fossils, Black Lips and several other artists.
I firmly believe The Walkmen to be one of the best bands in the world (and probably my favourite of the last decade), with their brilliant musicianship, loose, fluid creativity, and radiant passion blasting out of a body of work that is as inspiring as it is full of wonder. Part of their potent charm lies in the fact that they are just as excited about music as any obsessive fan, filtering influences like Harry Nilsson (seek out their 2006 homage to Nilsson’s Pussy Cats, replete with sleeve artwork of The Walkmen in fancy dress in their old studio Marcata Recording) and Bob Dylan, with an original but old-fashioned approach to music, mixed with an almost whimsical innocence.
On this balmy night, they take to the stage, like an F. Scott Fitzgerald community come to life, stretching their legs off the page and into an amazing band that have seven (including the Nilsson record) records behind them. Their latest – Heaven – (recently released) is a beam of light amid their restless collage of albums. Their early records were full of fight and mess, blood and tears, whereas 2010’s Lisbon sounded like a calm (ish) missive from the seaside – “oh hazy, lazy days,/I could dream of you forever,/Under the shade of a Juniper tree,/ I sing a sad song of you and me”, but that’s the thing, even when The Walkmen are on “holiday”, they are still, naturally reflective, searching for grace through the emotional rubble.
Grace is a word that for me, is synonymous with this band – it seems as much part of their make-up as Washington D.C. – and yet they wear it lightly – perhaps it’s their wry humour. In any case, they set the Arc de Triomf alight with songs from their new record, such as the title track which is all urgent beauty, the jangly melodic “The Love You Love”, and “Heartbreaker”, which is a scuzzed up, pretty gem, with frontman Hamilton Leithauser claiming “it’s not the singer, it’s the song” – whereas it’s probably a mixture of the two; because while The Walkmen are clearly equal collaborators, Leithauser is one of the most charismatic singers alive, grasping onto the microphone as if he would fall apart without it, possessing an air of crumpled elegance as he sings about heartbreak and disappointment, friendship, dreams, and children. Heaven has a distinctly contented sound about itself, and the band obviously want to pay that feeling forward, to us. Their set is a lovely mixture of this contented sound, and older songs such as “Angela Surf City”, “The Rat” and “In the New Year” which aches and writhes in agony and hope, instability and open wounds, but as they sing on “Heaven” – “Remember, remember/ all we fight for”. It’s a good start to the festival, and a reminder to book tickets for their imminent Vicar Street concert (Monday 29th October), especially because they are to be supported by the dreamy sounds of the wonderful Wild Nothing. While watching them I thought of the title of the New York Dolls last record One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, and thought myself quite lucky. After a lovely late supper in a tiny restaurant somewhere in Barri Gòtic, and a nightcap in an equally tiny bar that had tiles with unicorns and mermaids on it (I didn’t dream that, did I?), it was time to cycle home, beside the sea.
THURSDAY 31ST MAY Because the festival gates don’t usually open until 4pm, there is plenty of time to take in other sights of Barcelona, or to go swimming in the sea, which we did every day, as well as having long, leisurely lunches at places like L’ Escamarlà (Paseo Marítimo, 40) on the sea front. It made the almost athletic endeavour of seeing a huge variety of artists in a day seem almost possible.
Things have changed a little since last year, the faraway Llevant stage has been rechristened the Mini stage, and the Pitchfork stage changed position; the bars and food stalls (thankfully) have reverted to taking cash, after last years technical difficulties with the top up card system (that broke on the first day). Somehow the whole festival seemed busier this year, but it remains an easy festival to navigate; it is well catered, with a good variety of food and drink options, from minerals and tea and coffee, to beer and whiskey (although strangely for Spain, still no wine).
It started off well, with the very shiny-sounding, heavily percussive Brooklyn-based Friends at the Mini stage; and their sound that filters disco, funk and indie-rock framed the beginning of the official festival well, with “I’m His Girl” as a particular highlight. We then trooped along to Iceage at Pitchfork, and the Danes have certainly got something – it is all noisy intensity, punk-driven, distorted guitars and vocals that were a little disorienting, a word that could certainly go some way in describing Grimes and her soundscapes which are impossible to resist. She has expanded a little on her sound since I last saw her in the small room in Whelans last August, but retains an air of shambolism which I enjoy. With a day-glo coloured ribbon in her hair, she danced around like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, and brought a number of (what seemed like) random people (where did they come from?) on the stage to dance with her, bringing to mind the insanity of Girl Talk at the same festival last year. Her voice floated around the sunny evening, retaining a girlish quality that is very appealing, and while she nodded to earlier records Geidi Primes and Halfaxa, it was her third record Visions that was showcased, that strange and mesmerising album that at turns can sound ghostly and life-affirming, to which her standout song “Oblivion” attests. It was hard to eschew Field Music for Claire Boucher, (though I got to catch them a few days later) but I am glad I experienced her in a festival setting; she has enough youthful exuberance to sustain all of us, and dances like most of us have at some point, in our bedrooms, out of sight.
Running off to see the reformed Afghan Whigs on the Main Stage (San Miguel), I thought of how Primavera is hosting many reformed bands, from Saint Etienne through to the brilliant Codeine and Sweden’s Refused – (I’m not sure you could say that The Cure have reformed exactly, given that they have been steadily touring for the last number of years) – and how satisfying it is to see such bands again, with a renewed vigour in their step, outstripping the hype of many newer bands who sometimes seem bored with the whole thing. This was a case in point with The Afghan Whigs – who have reformed around the 25th anniversary of their first concert in 1987, and what started out as a growl of a sound, culminated in a roar, for what was a particularly rousing performance that featured “Crime Scene Part One”, “66”, “Milez iz Ded”, and as the sun set behind them; their heavy, screeching guitars, and Greg Dulli’s battered, ache of a vocal started into “Love Crimes” – truly great.
We then descended down the hill to the Ray-Ban stage for Mazzy Star – in what feels like an outdoor ampitheatre, and which suited the epic, if somewhat downtempo strains of their sound, which is all lovely, sensuous shoegaze. What is clear is that their musicianship has never waned, and with at least seven musicians on stage, a huge backdrop of rotating, almost faded (like old photographs) visual imagery to accompany the music, and Hope Sandoval’s somewhat melting, eerie voice, the overall effect was dreamlike, with songs like “Look on Down From the Bridge” and “Fade Into You” as particularly memorable, increasing the interest for their forthcoming new record.
Then up the hill again for Wilco, who had an equally large band set up as Mazzy Star, but in a much more showy way, somehow – perhaps harnessing their extroverted side, as Mazzy Star harness their introverted side, with very differing results. I have found Wilco’s sound to have wilted with the last few records, but their energetic performance here was coherent,and expert – borrowing heavily from last year’s record The Whole Love, yet it all somehow failed to really move (me). However, what came next on the ATP stage couldn’t have been more different in terms of uplifting creativity and freewheeling musicality with Thee Oh Sees who would revive any jaded heart – John Dwyer bopping around the stage like a musical Tom Sawyer, taking songs from the band’s back catalogue of over ten records, particularly last year’s excellent Castlemania – this is garage pop at its best, with a swell of enthusiasm and verve that is rare, and because of that – precious. I wondered how they would recreate this verve and sound live, which at times can be experimental, but always roughly melodic- but they exceeded all expectations. Then, just as they finished (to a crowd that were stage diving as well as screaming for more), Dwyer came back on to announce that Matt Pike from Sleep (who were to follow Thee Oh Sees) was in the hospital (he has since been released) – saying how much he had been looking forward to seeing them himself – “this is the worst f*****g news I’ve ever had in my life”- and while wishing Pike well, sated the saddened crowd with an encore -“hopefully this is what Sleep would want, I guess.”
What Sleep might not have wanted, however, was Danny Brown – who was scheduled to play on the Pitchfork stage. It’s strange, in the last couple of years, Pitchfork have programmed some excellent bands, but this year the programming was a little awry. Something that has always troubled me about Primavera Sound is the lack of programming of hip-hop acts – I was heartened to see that The Roots are to play Sónar later this month, but disappointed they were not at Primavera, a festival they would be perfect for. I went along to see Detroit’s Danny Brown because aspects of last year’s XXX record were interesting in terms of production (think of something like “Die Like a Rockstar”, or “Lie”), and his strange squall of a vocal, but the content of his lyrics can be lazily misogynistic and reductive (some people try to pass this off as tongue-in-cheek, but it just seems stupid to me, like on “Outer Space”) – perhaps I wanted to see how this would translate live. I have loved hip-hop since I was 13, and though it has often been problematic in terms of lyrical content, it seems faintly depressing that so much of it still is. Brown has previously said that he is “not misogynistic, but growing up as a kid that was the music I was the most entertained by, and I think that’s the only reason why that’s in my music…that shit made me laugh. I try to think about, if I’m that little kid, what would he like? That’s why I do everything that I do. I do it for the 12-year-old me.”
We had seen him earlier in the day beside an outdoor café near Parc Del Forum, being filmed by Pitchfork, who appear to herald him, as they herald the awful Odd Future. I was already disappointed – as one of my favourite hip-hop producers and artists of all time – El-Producto had to cancel his festival appearance due to an unexpected bereavement, yet even El-Producto has some time for Danny Brown – perhaps it’s a beats thing (although Brown has previously stated what a huge Def Jux fan he is). The stage was surrounded by people who seemed to believe that this was somehow meaningful; yet here is a sample lyric from “Blunt After Blunt”: “I smoke blunt after blunt after blunt after blunt after blunt after blunt”. Yes, he has lived through some terrible experiences, and come out the other side, and perhaps that explains away some of the questionable lyrics, but he is a bright man, who references Shakespeare and Maya Angelou in one breath, then lets himself down in another – though not as badly as A$AP Rocky, more on which, later.
As we tried to make our way to The XX on the furthest stage away, we realised that we had probably missed quite a bit, but just as we ran over, we were struck dumb by the insanity happening on the Ray-Ban stage, in response to the recently reformed Refused. In truth, it felt like my feet were tied to the floor, I couldn’t seem to get away – it was perhaps Dennis Lyxzén and his acrobatic performance, he was kicking and jumping and flipping over, and at one point, what seemed like cartwheeling. Their passionate plea for an “anti-capitalist revolution” found a very appreciative audience – we were beside one man who was literally crying tears of joy, punching his fist in the air screaming “yes!!”. And as they rattled through much of The Shape of Punk to Come, and Lyxzén writhed on the floor, screaming “dare to be yourself!”, I wondered what Jeff Tweedy would make of all this.
Then it was back to Pitchfork to hope for the best and see Harlem native A$AP Rocky, who last year released the mixtape LIVELOVEA$AP to great acclaim. Perhaps the acclaim stemmed from his filtering of various influences like dubstep, and there are some interesting beats on there, but the rapper who was christened Rakim Mayers doesn’t live up to his namesake, and is overshadowed by every other guest MC on the tape. I was thinking about the original Rakim for most of Rocky’s set, and how his talent is, and always will be, searing, yet someone like Rocky is hyped beyond comprehension from the four corners of the internet – it genuinely doesn’t make sense, as so much in the age of advanced social media doesn’t. Rocky is astute when it comes to promotion, but what he is promoting is borrowing from a similarly empty palette to Danny Brown – “Purple Swag” gets everyone hopped up, but perhaps it is not meant for me as I am not “getting high on the regular” – a place where everything is purple – “purple drink, I still sip, purple weed blunt still lit…/purple swag, purple swag, I’m in the zone, I’m getting throwed/that purple swag, purple swag, that purple smoke up in my clothes”. There is also a lot of talk of money and “bitches”, an equation that is repeated over and over to nullifying effect. He has previously talked about his love for G-Unit (uh-oh), and has worryingly featured on an Usher song (“Hot Thing”), but going back to his performance, while most of the crowd seemed to love him, especially his crowdsurfing – objectively, he is not a good rapper, his delivery is almost indifferent – perhaps that is why he brought along some hype men to swell the content, which is very thin. I was frustrated – there are so many truly great rappers out there that don’t receive proper support – someone like the great Aesop Rock (an old Def Jux alumni – new record soon to be released), came to mind, considering the play on name Rocky is surely making, with Aesop Rock firmly remaining an underground proposition, yet quite obviously the superior talent. Maybe it is true that those that shout the loudest will be heard, even when they have nothing much to say.
With energy depleted by the horror of the Pitchfork stage, we retire, regretfully missing Wolves in the Throne Room, and John Talabot, but glad to be leaving a place that elevates “swag” over quality.