‘There is no possibility of accidently running into the Catalan equivalent of David McWilliams giving a cookery demonstration‘ – Hugh McCabe on Primavera Sound 2015
As the only remaining music fan from Ireland who has never travelled to Barcelona’s Primavera Sound festival before, it hardly needs reiterating what’s so good about it, but let’s just briefly mention a few things. There are the obvious ones that everyone talks about such as the location, the weather, the excellent organisation, and the lack of mud. But there are other less obvious things too, such as the complete lack of the bullshit that has taken over so many other music festivals. There is no comedy stage, no shiatsu massage tent, and no mindfulness area. There is no possibility of accidently running into the Catalan equivalent of David McWilliams giving a cookery demonstration. There are bands. There is (overpriced) beer. There is food to keep you going. And that’s pretty much your lot. If you’re not coming here to rock out there’s not much point in coming at all. Another revelation is the almost complete absence of kids. Catalans have clearly made a deal with their children: we’ll give you your playgrounds if you give us our music festivals. We won’t hang around your swings and sandpits drinking (overpriced) Heineken and headbanging to stoner rock. In return you won’t insist on plaguing our festival sites with your nappies, your toys and your ridiculous giant furry ear protectors.
But really the main attraction is the depth, breadth and quality of the lineup. At every single moment there is someone playing that is worth going to see. Often two or three. The only problem (apart from the inevitable clashes) is that it makes it difficult to take a punt on something you know nothing about. Why would you? There is always something else on at the same time that you do know about, and that you also know is likely to be great. Speaking of greatness, this brings us to the Replacements, who are on early enough on one of the larger stages on the opening Thursday night. Westerberg and co. are in flying form. They look and sound fantastic, and barrell through a taut one hour set of greatest hits. For the faithful crammed up the front this is like the second coming. Fists are pumped and choruses bellowed along to. A euphoric mid-set double whammy of Bastards Of Young and Can’t Hardly Wait is about as great a six minutes of rock’n’roll as it’s possible to imagine. And lest it be said that this is simply music for middle aged indie farts reliving their youth, before their set we get chatting to a 21-year old Irish girl for whom the Replacements are one of the big draws of the entire festival. She’s delighted to find out that there are actually Irish people out there who are as excited about seeing the Replacements as she is. We really should have told her about Thumped. We scoot over to the other main stage in time to catch most of a stunning set from Anthony and the Johnsons. Anthony has an entire orchestra, complete with conductor, in tow and a suitably obtuse Japanese experimental movie is being projected behind them as they play. It’s initially unclear whether these delicate and intimate songs will work on a huge outdoor stage but Anthony nails it. The assembled hordes are enraptured and emotionally drained by the end. The closing renditions of You Are My Sister and Hope There’s Someone are devastating.
Another act that seems fundamentally unsuited to the outdoors is Sunn O))). It seems wrong to even consider their members being outdoors, never mind playing a gig there. Their particular brand of thrilling malevolence really requires a darkened enclosed space. A coffin is best but failing that a medium-sized venue with blackened walls and a giant PA system. Primavera’s solution to this problem is two-fold. Firstly put them on at one in the morning where at least it’s going to be dark. Secondly turn it up really really loud. Maximum volume does yield maximum results after all. Before they start, a guitar tech is line-checking O’Malley’s guitar and it sounds like a city exploding. When the band come out and plug in (dressed in their customary black robes of course) it becomes clear that this was only a small city. Soon there are megalopolises exploding. Entire civilisations are being rent asunder. The white walkers are tearing down the wall here. Cruise ships out in the bay start hauling anchor and firing up their engines to try and escape whatever apocalypse is unfolding on land. Sunn O))) have broadened their palette considerably over their recent records and experimented with more varied instrumentation, collaborators and styles. This though is the classic Sunn O))) sound, with the core group of O’Malley and Anderson joined by a Moog player and Attila Csihar on vocals. We, the onlookers, can only stand there in awe until eventually it finishes. For the time being it appears that the Gods are satisfied but, just to be on the safe side, indoors in the Auditorium next year would be a wise move. Where do you go after something like that? Well, you go to see Electric Wizard of course. Their deep heavy stoner-doom metal is going down a storm on the compact Adidas stage. Every guitar solo sounds better than the last. Every filthy riff sounds like the best riff you’ve never heard before. At the end of their set their singer says: “Thank you Barcelona. See you in hell”. That’s the spirit.
Friday is all about Patti Smith, the mother of dragons, doing her Horses show on the main stage. It’s predictably brilliant. We get the whole album played in full with an encore of Rock’n’Roll Nigger. It’s lucky we’re wearing sunglasses because there are teary moments here. Unfortunately, paying our respects to Patti Smith means we have to skip Kathleen Hanna’s The Julie Ruin, and it also means we accidently stumble upon Damien Rice who is cranking up his dreary troubadour routine on the other main stage as we are walking back. The space is far too big for him but there is a reasonable sized crowd watching, all of whom are hanging on his every mumbled vacuous word. We move on quickly. By the time we get back to the ATP stage Belle & Sebastian are in full-on party mode. There is no moping in sight – just joyous renditions of I’m A Cuckoo, Boy With The Arab Strap and tracks from their infectiously danceable new record. It’s then back to the main stage for Sleater-Kinney who have all the moves and are (quite rightly) treated like heroes.
A stark choice then follows: Ride, Run The Jewels or Voivod. We opt for Voivod as Ride always seemed like a second or third rate MBV and we are not in the mood for being shouted at. This is a mistake. Voivod are ridiculously pleased that we have come to see them. They are grinning from ear to ear, giving it socks, making it really clear that they are having a super time, and that we should be too. It’s all a little bit Anvil. Voivod are the type of guys that you would be perfectly happy to have minding your kids. Not a good look for a metal band. They do sound great though. Dylan Carlson on the other hand is probably not the sort of person you would want to leave in charge of your offspring. The guns and the heroin might be well in the past but he still has that unpredictable and intense look about him. This is one of the things that makes Earth so good though: there is an obsessive attention to detail in terms of their sound, their tone, and their song construction. If a particular guitar figure needs to be played for eight minutes then that is what will happen. There is nothing wasted and nothing unnecessary is added. Everything unfolds at its own pace and more often than not this pace is excruciatingly slow. Earth are agonizingly brilliant. Just don’t expect them to get the kids into bed at the correct time.
The third and final day kicks off at 4pm with another opportunity for some Patti Smith adulation. This time she is playing indoors in the huge seated auditorium and it’s billed as an acoustic/spoken word show. This has us slightly worried but it turns out that there was no need to be. It’s a full band show, albeit with acoustic rather than electric guitars, at which she plays many of the songs you would like her to play that are not actually on Horses. She opens with Dancing Barefoot and follows it soon enough with an absolutely riveting rendition of Pissing In A River. It has its cheesy moments (we could have done without John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy) but it’s loose and relaxed, and Patti and her band are clearly enjoying themselves. As a tribute to Lou Reed they do Perfect Day and she can’t remember the words. She laughs it off and by the time they launch into Because The Night the whole room is overflowing with love for Patti Smith. Seats are abandoned, hands are raised into the air, dancing breaks out, and all semblance of Primavera-cool is dispensed with. For one hour at least, Patti Smith makes us all believe we have the power to be free.
Michael Gira and Swans, who are up next in the Auditorium, soon put paid to that though. While their epic misanthropy of old may have tempered somewhat in recent years, they still exude a ferocious intensity, and any chinks of light are only visible because we have been staring into the darkness for a long long time. They play much the same set as they did in Dublin a week earlier but it seems more unhurried, the buildups take longer, and the subsequent payoffs are greater. The pristine acoustics of the Auditorium allow us to focus more on the sparse and subtle aspects of what they do, and less on anticipating the inevitable crushing climaxes. They open the set with Frankie M, a new song they have been doing for some time now, and close it with Black Hole Man, a blistering Krautrock juggernaut which is also as yet unrecorded. Swans are well known for using a tour as a means of evolving and generating material for the next record. On the evidence of this, there is no reason to suppose that the one they are about to start recording won’t match the heights achieved by the last two.
After that epic set there is just enough time to get to Sleaford Mods in time for kick-off. There is a worrying moment when button-pusher Andy Fearn appears to have no can in his hand and much relief when one suddenly appears. He cracks it open and we’re off. There are multiple levels on which Sleaford Mods can be appreciated. If you’re not into the penetrating social realism of the lyrics then you can just get off on the word-play. If you don’t appreciate the endlessly profane catchphrases (Bunch of cunts! Sack the fucking manager! etc) you can enjoy the flow of the delivery (if Wu-Tang were looking for a white rapper with a Northern English accent to join their ranks then Williamson would surely be a shoe-in). If you are Catalan with no idea in hell of what they are actually on about, then you can just dance your ass off to their dirty bass lines. Which is what most people here are doing. One of the sets of the festival. No question.
There is an impossible amount of good stuff to try and catch for the remainder of the last night. We try and grab a bit of Babes In Toyland but arrive just as Kat Bjelland has broken not one, but two strings on her guitar. Unbelievably they have no spare, and an embarrassing ten minutes is spent with drummer Lori trying to entertain the crowd with banter and ‘questions’ before they give up and call it a night. Earlier on Einstürzende Neubauten played on the same stage. They were far more measured and far less unhinged than we had (perhaps incorrectly) expected and there was little for the uninitiated to latch on to. Onwards to a midnight appointment with Earthless where Mario Rubalcaba gives a master-class in pounding the absolute shit out your drumkit and Isaiah Mitchell proves himself the bastard son of Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia. You might think that an hour of psychedelic guitar soloing is not really your thing but really that’s just your loss. Shellac take to the stage not long after and it turns out that we are not the only ones that have been converted to the cult of the Mods. “Hands up who here thinks Sleaford Mods are the greatest band to have ever existed?” Albini asks. A brave few raise their hands. “The rest of you are WRONG” he then declares. What follows is not the finest Shellac set that we have ever seen, but then we have seen a lot of Shellac sets. They are hampered somewhat by serious sound spillage from Health who are playing on the nearby Pitchfork stage. It’s the first time that this has been a noticeable problem and it seriously detracts from the sparse minimalist aspect of their sound. Still, it doesn’t cause a problem for the rousing sing-along version of Prayer To God that comes towards the end. There is surely something uniquely life-affirming about a late-night festival crowd screaming “KILL HIM! FUCKING KILL HIM! KILL HIM ALREADY KILL HIM” at the top of their lungs. Early bird tickets for Primavera 2016 will be on sale from next week. We’ll be first in line.