‘This is 2016 and we are on the Continent after all‘ – Hugh McCabe recaps his weekend at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound
There are many sound reasons to avoid Irish music festivals like the medieval plague, but top of many people’s lists would be the inevitability of having to use the toilets. The feeling of dread that ensues after 3 or 4 pints of beer when you just can’t put it off any longer. The knowledge that soon you will have to brave a small cubicle where the distinction between the part in which you go, and the part in which you don’t go, has completely broken down. The horror of knowing what this world is about, indeed. Thankfully, the toilets are just one of the many things that Barcelona’s Primavera Sound festival gets right. They are plentiful and they are faultlessly clean. You could happily eat sandwiches in them at midnight. Granted, on occasion we were using the Ladies rather than Gents, but it wasn’t always clear which was which, and anyway, surely by now we have dispensed with these archaic gender binaries? This is 2016 and we are on the Continent after all.
This year’s Primavera distinguished itself in many ways but primarily so by having three excellent headliners: LCD Soundsystem, Radiohead and PJ Harvey. Normally we get some shite like The Strokes or The Black Keys which can be safely ignored in order to better concentrate on the abundance of riches below the fold, but this time around several treks to the main stage at peak times are going to be necessary. Before we get to that though, we kick off Thursday’s proceedings with an early evening set from Car Seat Headrest. Indie wonderkid Will Toledo’s band turned in a stormer of an album, Teens of Denial, earlier this year but the live experience doesn’t quite work yet. There’s an eager audience lapping up their Pavement/GBV style slacker rock but the band are milking every song for way more than it’s worth and the drummer is, quite frankly, rubbish. Still, songs like Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales are such monster anthems that it’s not hard to imagine them headlining bigger stages here in the future. Next up for us is Kamasi Washington in the giant indoor auditorium. Surprisingly, it’s packed: there is obviously more of a market for Sanders/Coltrane inspired cosmic jazz than one might otherwise assume. Sadly, drummer problems occur here also: this time in the form of an errant mic incorrectly positioned somewhere on one of the two drumkits being used by Washington’s band. The resultant clacking sound pretty much ruins the first few numbers, which is a shame because otherwise they sound glorious. Some sound engineer out there is not going to be ecstatically transcending the astral plane any time soon.
We get back to into the Forum to catch a bit of AR Kane (way more standard-issue shoegaze and way less experimental than we remembered or imagined) and then settle into the Primavera stage for John Carpenter. We don’t have particularly high hopes for this. A 68-year film director suddenly deciding he wants to be a rock star and tour his film scores around the world? Is this some sort of mid-life crisis 20 years too late? By the end of the set though, we are suitably chastened, as Carpenter is brilliant. Each track is accompanied by visuals from the relevant movies, the band sound great, Carpenter hams it up to just the right level, and we all have a blast. Thursday night though, is really all about LCD Soundsystem. They take to the main stage at 1am and for the next hour and half they just shut up and play the hits. For anyone who has seen them live before, or even seen their excellent concert movie, LCD v2.0 offers no big surprises. There are no new songs and little deviation from their trademark stripped down stage show. It sounds like Murphy might have been taking singing lessons during their five year break though. He sounds clearer and stronger than before and hits the high notes with ease. It’s a fantastic set and they play all the songs you would expect, finishing with an epic double-whammy of Dance Yourself Clean and All My Friends. It’s hard to imagine a better festival band and hard to think of anyone else right now who could trigger an ecstatic 40,000 person strong dance party. Total strangers are hugging each other at the end and the happiness scale has rocketed right off the charts. It remains to be seen if Murphy and co. have any more tricks up their sleeves but this will certainly do for now.
Early on Friday evening, the Babes In Toyland award for Primavera 2016’s most inept performance goes to Neil Michael Hagerty & The Howling Hex. Hagerty’s previous bands Pussy Galore and Royal Trux were hardly known for their slick professionalism but nevertheless we expected more from this than second-rate barroom boogie. Some comic relief is provided by Hagerty’s guitarist: he looks like he would be thrown out of The Strokes for being too New York and spends his time alternating between doing “percussion” by banging a metal slide against his pickups and stalking around the stage as if he’s lost something. We give up on Hagerty and head over to see Savages on the main stage. Savages are tremendous and easily repurpose their stirring post-punk for a big outdoor stage. Towards the end Jenny Beth does the full Iggy and launches herself into the adoring crowd. Stage diving is back with a vengeance, ladies and gentlemen. So is crowd-surfing: as we found out to our dismay when an overenthusiastic Catalan landed on our head while watching Dinosaur Jr later on. The new songs don’t sound great but everything else in their rollicking greatest hits set certainly does. Mascis is so taken with the occasion that he abandons his usual laconic demeanor and starts smiling and cracking jokes between songs. During the last song he puts down his guitar, starts dancing around the stage and then leaps into the crowd himself. Ok, none of that really happened.
We catch a bit of Shellac being Shellac and then move on to Tortoise. The Chicago post-rock pioneers execute their material with smooth precision but we can’t help feeling that what might have been amazing in an indoor auditorium with pristine acoustics is a little lost on an outdoor stage late on a Friday night. Tortoise were all calculation and control where we wanted abandon. Our final date of the evening is with Holly Herndon who takes to the Pitchfork stage at 1AM. Herndon has two sidekicks, and all three are hunched around a table of electronics and computers in the middle of the stage. Behind them is a large screen projecting 3D graphics visuals that are being generated as the set proceeds. Herndon’s music is complex and layered, and driven by a preoccupation with dense theoretical concerns revolving around the interface between the human and the technological (her recent collaboration with the Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani is an indication of the seriousness of her intentions). It’s not exactly your usual music festival fare and so it seems destined to disappoint a crowd who are always going to be more interested in the beats than in the ideas. Herndon gets people on her side though by communicating with the crowd by typing text that is then projected onto the screen behind her: asking the crowd if they are enjoying themselves, and giving shout-outs to Shellac, Radiohead, Chelsea Manning and Barcelona’s left-wing mayor. It’s a neat trick that cleverly plays on the usual festival dynamic between performer and audience and moreover does so using the very technology her work sets out to explore.
Saturday’s lineup has so much quality, and so many resulting clashes, that the stuff we don’t get to see would make a pretty stunning lineup in it’s own right: so we reluctantly pass on Six Organs Of Admittance, The Chills, Current 93, Deerhunter, Orchestra Baobab and Unsane. The first act we do get to see though is Boredoms and their set is as perplexing and engrossing as we have come to expect from the long-running Japanese avant-garde masters. They start off with Yoshimi and Yojiro Tatekawa gently coaching ambient washes of sound out of suspended metal rods and gradually progress to explosions of electronic sound, meticulously synchronised double drumming, and Eye’s trademark shrieks. It’s unbelievably good while at the same time impossible to determine what it actually is. It feels like music made by an alien intelligence. Boredoms are, as ever, on a different plane to the rest of us. Jenny Hval is similarly challenging and original. Her brilliant Apocalypse, Girl record trades in provocative tales of gender disquiet and her current stage show brings this to life in a way that is far closer to performance art than any kind of regular “gig”. Herself and her two musicians (one male, one female) are all wearing leotards and tacky blonde wigs. One of them plays the tuba and while not doing so applies lipstick to herself and uses a scissors to hack chunks from Hval’s fake hair. They both apply makeup to each other and Hval rolls around on a huge exercise ball. It’s funny and intriguing and unlike anything we’ve seen before.
More conventional fare is to be had at the much-anticipated appearance of Drive Like Jehu and the San Diego post-hardcore legends do not disappoint. Their set is taut, loud and powerful, and provides ample evidence for those who regard Jehu as the best Speedo band of all. A quick dash to the other side of the forum gets us there just in time for the start of PJ Harvey’s headlining set. Polly has a 10-piece band (including stalwarts such as John Parrish and former Bad Seeds Mick Harvey and James Johnston) and, in spite of some occasional audio problems, they sound magnificent. The bulk of the set is taken from her new album and its immediate predecessor, Let England Shake, and while the new one still doesn’t quite convince, this just emphasises what a towering achievement the previous one was. It’s an artfully contrived and composed performance made all the more effective by the beautifully shot B&W footage of Polly and band being relayed to the giant screens on either side of the stage. Towards the end of the set she rolls out a trio of classics: a surprising but underwhelming runthrough of 50ft Queenie followed by superb renditions of Down By The Water and To Bring You My Love. As the latter song reaches its climax, fireworks start exploding into the sky a few miles away along the seafront. The final show of Primavera for us is Ty Segall & The Muggers and it proves a suitably rambunctious end to proceedings. Segall’s band look like a motley collection of mechanics and used car dealers and their anthemic brand of sleazy garage rock goes down a storm. During one of his periodic forays into the crowd Segall hands the mic to a fan called Manny who takes over proceedings to such an extent that he eventually clambers onto the stage and awkwardly but enthusiastically leads the band through an entire number. It is both hilarious and terrible, particularly as the whole thing teeters on the verge of a giant exercise in taking the piss out of the hapless Manny in front of thousands of people. Manny survives to tell the tale though and undoubtedly has the best Primavera 2016 story of us all.