The second half of Siobhán Kane’s epic roundup of this year’s Primavera Sound festival – Dirty Beaches, I Break Horses, The Cure, Afrocubism, Codeine, SBTRKT, Sharon Van Etten, Jeff Mangum, Beach House, Shellac & more
FRIDAY 1ST JUNE
The initial plan was to try and see Nick Garrie in Rockdelux, then Other Lives, and perhaps a little bit of Milk Music before going to Dirty Beaches, but with bicycle troubles, we only just made it for Alex Zhang Hungtai’s project. Dirty Beaches possess an air of mournfulness and in parts, menace, and at different turns they came across as a mixture of John Maus and Roy Orbison. Their sound is scuzzy and melancholic, but there is a diversity present, also – which was obvious on their debut record, last year’s Badlands, which was sad and strained, evoking a particular spirit of the fifties, but fragmented.
As we wandered over to I Break Horses we could hear the strident sound of The Chameleons, who sounded good, but I was anxious to see the Stockholm band’s set in its entirety, and Maria Lindén and Frederick Balckse didn’t disappoint; bringing to mind the Cocteau Twins, and a more upbeat My Bloody Valentine, their confection of romanticism, dream pop and shoegaze is winningly beautiful and compelling, captured on last year’s record Hearts, and their sound wafted around the ATP stage, set off against the sea which framed them perfectly.
Lower Dens, Harvey Milk, The War on Drugs, Wavves and the Melvins were collateral damage in our attempt to get a good spot for The Cure, but as we walked over to the main stage, we were captivated by the textured, joyous sounds coming from the Ray-Ban stage, and Afrocubism, a collective spirit and sound led by singer and guitarist Eliades Ochoa and the brilliant Toumani Diabaté that help join the dots between Mail and Cuba. The orchestration of the sound was astonishing, and the overall effect uplifting, with people dancing wildly – creating an atmosphere of real contentment, it almost felt like a break, a respite from all else.
And then we found our places for The Cure, and the experience was at least partly approaching transcendental, not least for Robert Smith and the rest of the band who looked genuinely humbled by the emotional reaction they elicited. They played, unexpectedly, for three hours – and in that time, raided records such as Disintegration, Three Imaginary Boys, Seventeen Seconds, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and Wish, and did so with real musicianship and heart. Their sound came across as epic, even with something as tender as “Lovesong” or “Pictures of You”, with those familiar guitars piercing the heart, and Smith’s vocal yearning tenderly, confidingly. After two encores it seemed impossible to go on, but then I remembered that Codeine were playing.
I had waited so long to see Codeine play, and never thought I would get the chance, but in the wake of the reissuing of a Codeine box set, there they were, on stage, as if in a misty dream. Frigid Stars, and The White Birch are two of my favourite records, and it was slightly surreal to hear them being performed live. It is also feels, in part, as if time has stood still, since Stephen Immerwahr, John Engle and Chris Brokaw seem just the same, just slightly older. Age has not withered them, and has probably deepened the resonance of their slowcore compositions that possess experiences of regret and intense emotion, navigating the underlying tension that frames so many of our lives. It was a very emotional, and at times haunting experience that will stay with me.
I didn’t want to end on such haunted notes, so went to see SBTRKT, (who I had been lucky enough to had seen in Dingle in December) and anchored by Aaron James’ electronic wizardry, and aided by vocalist-musician Sampha, replete with masks, they performed most of the songs from their self-titled debut of last year, ably filling the air with their complex, though accessible sound which surveys house, two-step, dubstep, funk and RnB. And as we cycled off, back down to the sea, we could hear the strains of Death in Vegas playing us out, which seemed fitting, somehow.
SATURDAY 2ND JUNE
After having cycled off earlier in the day to Parc Del Forum to pick up tickets for Jeff Mangum’s Rockdelux performance at 7pm (you had to get them in advance, for two euros each) we returned for the luminous Sharon Van Etten, who was mesmerising a few weeks earlier at her first Dublin show, and she captivated all who made it to the main stage. The sun was just starting to go down as Van Etten warmed up to her dreamy, though driving coalescing of folk and rock, mainly playing songs from her most recent record – this years Tramp, with a few from her earlier records Because I Was in Love (2009) and Epic (2010). The warmth she brings to stories of devastation and disappointment is very special, like the gloomy, driving “Serpents”, or the romantically confused “Give Out” – with the lyric “I’m biting my lip, as confidence is speaking to me” as a poignant example of how far she has come from the darkness of years ago, especially if you listen to something like “All I Can” or “A Crime”. I cannot wait to see her again.
I feel very lucky that I have now seen Jeff Mangum three times this year, having previously felt that I might never see him again. And even since his Dublin show he has grown in looseness and even positivity. As we took welcome shelter from the beating sun in the cool dark of the Rockdelux indoor auditorium, he tentatively stepped out onto the stage to huge applause, and suddenly there was a surge, with hundreds of people making their way to the front, something he seemed to enjoy (as well as admiring a nearby mans hat) and by the time things had settled, it felt like we were all in a kind of field, listening to something of a holy man singing of two-headed boys, birds, and brokenness. He eagerly played songs such as “Circle of Friends”, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and “Holland, 1945” – clearly enjoying the process – and when he finished, it felt like there was going to be a very gentle stage invasion, but the security stepped in to shield him from the adulation, to which he responded with an encore. Each time I have seen him has felt very different, and the hue this time around was one of hope and possibility for new work, since he seems so renewed not only by the reaction, but his own performances.
I was disappointed not to see Milagres, but instead it was over to Kings of Convenience, who I was very excited about, as I hadn’t seen the Bergen natives together for some years. Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe have always made great use of harmony, and their delicate approach to pop music at times has made them sound like a Norwegian version of Simon & Garfunkel. Their music was perfect for a set on the main stage, just as the dusk began to descend. They mainly took from their first two records Quiet is the New Loud (2001) and Riot on an Empty Street (2004), and songs such as the graceful “I Don’t Know What I Can Save You From” and “Little Kids”, sounded as wounding and fragile as previously. The earlier part of their set was just the two of them, then later additional musicians joined to provide drums, keyboards and more guitars, and the fuller sound was a welcome contrast, with it all crumbling into a disco melee for “I’d Rather Dance With You” by the end.
Unfortunately there were more casualties in order to see the entirety of Beach House‘s set, so Atlas Sound, Josh T. Pearson and Real Estate were bypassed in order to give full attention to Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand. The Baltimore-based duo have swelled to a four-piece for the live rendering of Bloom, which also sees a set of rectangular striped structures surround the band, with fans whirring at the back, bringing to mind some of those dramatic narrative-driven eighties videos, where there is a shot of someone crying, broken glass, and a tattered lace curtain fluttering somewhere in the distance. Bloom sounds utterly beautiful live, with Beach House casting a spell that I am still recovering from. Their music always conjures a very special, emotional atmosphere that gathers you in its arms and presses you to its warm, soft chest. While older songs such as “Norway” sound wide awake, newer songs like the glorious “Myth” made me wobbly, lifting me out of my earthly body. Many critics have suggested that Bloom is a variation on a theme for Beach House, but for me, there is always a subtle difference in each record – and Bloom sounds like an acceptance that because nothing lasts forever, no matter how happy or sad, the thing to do is to try and be in the moment, where possible (though it isn’t always possible) – “can’t keep hanging on, to what is dead and gone” Legrand sings, with “let the ashes fly” as a lyric that seemed to soar over the heads of the many thousand people that were there to witness what was a stellar performance from this dream pop band. Other standout songs from the set were “Wild” with its lovely Smiths-y guitars, “Lazuli” with its pretty synths, and the weary romance of “Other People”. One of the gifts of Beach House is Legrand’s vocal that contains a faded kind of elegance, betraying her tender years; tired from experience, yet hungry for more, perhaps it is all bound up in those lyrics from “10 Mile Stereo” -“Bright pyramids at night/That carry us on forever/Love’s like a pantheon/It carries on forever/ Can’t say we saw it all/Can’t say we felt it all”. It reminded me that it is another concert to buy tickets to (Sunday 28th October, Vicar Street), because they topple me over, every time. And we need to be toppled, now and then. A different kind of toppling came later in the show, when I had to break the news to a disoriented local man called Javier that he was at Beach House not Beach Fossils, a particular favourite of his – “but I love Beach Fossils!” he said, “I love them so much!Where are they?”, and with that he wandered off, crestfallen, but accepting – it’s what Beach House would have wanted.
Though very shaky, we went straight over to what has now become Shellac‘s annual pilgrimage to Primavera, and more specifically the ATP stage. It is so heartening to see the Chicagoan Shellac play, watching people throwing themselves around at the front, praying that tomorrow will never come. Steve Albini, Bob Weston and Todd Trainer often perform as if it is the first time, such is their enthusiasm, and yet their command of not only their instruments, but audience is truly astonishing – and by the time we got to “The End of Radio” they had affirmed once more that they are still one of the best rock bands at work today. Running over to Chromatics at the Pitchfork Stage, we got there just in time for the last few songs, and what seemed like poetic timing – as we heard the initial strains of their wonderful interpretation of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”, which was haunting and slow-burning, as so much of Chromatics work is. Over the years, they have been driven by producer Johnny Jewel, and were rejuvenated by their work on the Night Drive record which framed the slightly different direction they were heading in – a darker kind of synth pop, evidenced on this year’s great Kill for Love record.
We then made our way to Wild Beasts on the Ray-Ban stage, who are a band that have grown on me so much over the last few years, with their records Limbo, Panto (2008), Two Dancers, (2009) and Smother (2011) swelling in stature and sound, and Hayden Thorpe’s countertenor filling the space with its undeniable power and beauty, often trading harmonies with Tom Fleming. We had to deny ourselves the wonderful Yo La Tengo, but I was interested to see how Wild Beasts would be in a festival setting. Thorpe shouted that he couldn’t think of a “better weekend to be away from England”, making pointed reference to the Jubilee celebrations, and within moments we were transported to a different kind of jubilee, one of colour, substance and poetry – they really do possess a kind of poetry; at times Thorpe’s vocal can bring to mind Jimmy Somerville or Alison Moyet, and then completely turn back on itself again. The sway and force that guides songs like “Bed of Nails” or the rather epic “End Come Too Soon” has a traveling quality that helps distinguish them, as well as something like “Reach a Bit Further” which has that hazy, subtle guitar and the call and answer harmony of Thorpe and Fleming set amid layered percussion, and textured effects is particularly bewitching.
Trying to find the Adidas Originals Stage was a bit of an adventure, as we got it confused with the weird Adidas box that greets you once you are in the front gates, but we made it for most of Canada’s Cadence Weapon‘s set, who, if he were in a boxing ring with Danny Brown and A$AP Rocky would win by a knock out. I was a little on the fence about his first record Breaking Kayfabe (2005),but really enjoyed Afterparty Babies (2008) and this year’s (just released) Hope in Dirt City, which makes great use of his brilliant aptitude for language and huge spectrum of influences. Over the years he has toured with Owen Pallett, been Edmonton’s poet laureate, and integrated his love of dance music into his love of hip-hop. The results are tremendous, interesting, intelligent and fun – all words that describe his live set, which is one of the highlights of the festival. It is not only that he came out to say hello to everyone at the end, it is that his entire set was like a long embrace that surveyed party rap, electro, funk, and old hip-hop, delivering his witty lyrics with a naturally infectious energy and humility – an unusual combination, but I suppose this is someone who is as influenced by Ed Banger Records as he is Notorious B.I.G.
With a spring in our step we get to see the last remnants of Ernest Greene’s Washed Out performance on the Pitchfork stage, which sounded a little different to his last couple of outings, slightly more minimal perhaps, suggesting the direction he might currently be going in – and it added another aspect to songs from last year’s Within and Without, with his synth-heavy compositions that connect house, techno and pop, sounding full and refined.
Washed Out perfectly prefaced Neon Indian‘s very late night set on the Ray-Ban stage, since he is almost a companion band, though Alan Palomo provides a more psychedelic approach to electronic music. With a full band, he borrowed from Psychic Chasms (2009) and last years Era Extraña which built on the psychedelic touchstone, bringing in elements of disco and rock along the way. A lovely aspect to Palomo’s story is that he is originally Mexican, but moved to America when he was quite young – his father was a Mexican pop star, and remnants of his father’s work is often filtered through Palomo’s, bringing the connection between father and son, and heritage and home ever closer. It also brings a more emotional aspect to his work than one might first imagine, though something that is obvious from his live set, is his passionate spirit – something which infuses the collage of sounds he creates. It makes sense that we end the evening in the company of a Mexican-American whose second records title is in Spanish, and that the title roughly translates to “strange era”.
In truth, a few days in Barcelona, immersed in the spirit, the sea, and of course the music, feels like a strange era – but a nourishing one. Each year has been a different experience, but all have run the gamut of emotions, and for very different reasons. Primavera remains a potent proposition because it also remains shape-shifting, and can never fully be grasped, perhaps that is why, just like Beach House – we keep trying to – “Can’t say we saw it all/Can’t say we felt it all”.