Caribou. Photo by: Xarlene; Courtesy: Primavera Sound
The first thing you notice about Primavera Sound is the venue itself. Spain’s largest music festival — which celebrated its 15th anniversary this year — takes place in Barcelona’s Parc del Fòrum on the banks of the Mediterranean. After walking past the street vendors selling bottled agua and six-packs of Estrella Damm, and through the orderly entrances (with minimal hassle from security), you’re greeted by a concrete playground of artist tents, food stalls, porta-potties, multiple corporately-sponsored stages, and one indoor theatre.
As someone who’s attended his fair share of Canadian and U.S. music festivals over the last few years (Coachella, Governors Ball, Osheaga, etc.), both as a journalist and as a fan, the setup seems similar to all the rest, until you realize the care that’s been taken in the details. Instead of simply scribbling the layout on a napkin, everything has been organized for maximum efficiency.
Over the course of three days, Primavera Sound will be attended by approximately 200,000 people, but rarely does it feel like that many. For starters, the first day’s set begins at 4 p.m. (a decision made, I suspect, for the practical reason of avoiding Barcelona’s hottest hours), which means many festival-goers don’t show up until around midnight. With six main stages, plus a dome for electronic, techno, and house acts curated by Red Bull Music Academy and Resident Advisor, there’s plenty of overlap and you’re guaranteed to miss something. You just have to choose what.
The biggest problem when it comes to European and North American music festivals is how homogenous they’ve become in recent years. While this year’s Primavera Sound featured headlining performances from heavy hitters including The Black Keys, The Strokes, and the inexplicably popular alt-J, the rest of the bill struck an intriguing balance between buzzy new acts, reunions (more on that later), and unique, one-off performances (Arthur Russell songs being performed by a orchestra, anybody?). The organizers and partners (London-based festival and concert promoters All Tomorrow’s Parties and Pitchfork both had stages) have built a reputation for carefully-selected genre-diverse lineups (electronic, noise-rock, indie pop/rock, metal, and a smattering of hip-hop acts). There’s been plenty written about gender inequality at music festivals, and while Primavera isn’t perfect, there’s more female performers than your Bonnaroos and Lollapaloozas.
For all these reasons and more, the audiences were friendly and relaxed, even when night fell, everyone had one too many Heinekens (still preferable to Molson Canadian or watery U.S. beer any day), and the drugs started coming out. I didn’t see one flower crown, Native American headdress (the only offensive clothing I witnessed was the red plastic fedoras being given out at the Firestone booth), or physical scuffle the entire weekend.
Historically speaking, there’s been inferiority complexes when it comes to our country’s music scenes. but that wasn’t the case at Primavera.
Bienvenido a Primavera.
Patti Smith is struggling to remember the words to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” Not that the crowd — many of whom are carrying tote bags printed with “JESUS DIED FOR SOMEONE'S SINS BUT NOT MINE” — minds in the slightest. It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m in a packed auditorium watching the founding mother of punk play a stripped-down set with her band. Most of the audience were in attendance the day before, when she played her all-time classic Horses front-to-back, easily one of the festival’s most-anticipated shows. At 68-years-old, she has more energy than musicians a third of her age, shimmying across the stage and shaking her fists to emphasis her “us versus them” messages. After dedicating songs to Amy Winehouse, late mathematician John Nash, and Reed, Smith urged fans to get off their seats as she played a rousing rendition of “People Have The Power.” Following her acoustic set, noise rock group Swans proved why they’re one of the most technically skilled bands out there, playing for over two and a half hours.
Reunions at festivals are big business and Primavera routinely draws the most-anticipated comebacks and bands playing classic albums. While the hottest ticket in Barcelona of the weekend might have been an AC/DC concert (throw in a Spanish League futbol match and the result was overflowing hostels and hotels), the festival had plenty to offer those feeling nostalgic for the ‘80s and ‘90s. This year alone you could go see Babes In Toyland, The Replacements, Ride, Sleater-Kinney, and British electronic group Underworld performing their 1994 LP dubnobasswithmyheadman in its entirety. While it’s easy to be cynical and say these reunions are nothing more than cash grabs, it’s hard to argue with the joy of someone seeing one of their favourite bands (sometimes for the first time) outdoors in the sunshine.
You can see Smith’s influence on younger artists at the festival too. During Torres’ unaccompanied set of raw, confessional songs, the Brooklyn-via-Nashville singer/songwriter shouted out Smith and Tori Amos (also playing Primavera). The members of Barcelona teenage punk band Mourn — one of the highlights of the weekend — might have been born long after Horses came out, it’s not hard to imagine them opening for Patti Smith or The Ramones during CBGB’s heyday. This reverence for veteran artists manifests in other ways as well. Fucked Up frontman Damian Abraham expresses how honoured they were to be playing on a stage before Minneapolis ‘80s grunge-punk trio Babes In Toyland, and later after lead singer Kat Bjelland’s guitar broke, the Toronto band provided her with a backup.
From Arcade Fire’s first Spain concert in 2005 (a year after the band released Funeral and was starting to become a household name) to Neil Young’s career-spanning 2009 performance, Primavera Sound has a long history of bringing up-and-coming and established Canadian acts to Barcelona, and this year’s edition was no different. It wasn’t just onstage where you could see some of our country’s best acts either. Everywhere you looked, there were pledges of fan allegiances, from t-shirts (Death From Above 1979, METZ) to full-sleeve tattoos (shout out to the British guy I saw with the cover of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven inked on his shoulder).
While there were plenty of people there to see festival mainstays like Fucked Up (expanded to a nine-piece for their current tour with the addition of Toronto’s DOOMSQUAD), Mac DeMarco (who turned in an appropriately goofy cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow”), and The New Pornographers (whose 2005 song “Sing Me Spanish Techno” went over with aplomb with the Barcelona audience), two Canadian bands who put out their debut albums this year also attracted healthy turnouts.
On Thursday afternoon, Calgary’s Viet Cong (who also played to a packed-to-the-gills concert hall a night earlier during one of the festival’s side-shows) and Montreal’s Ought went back-to-back on the Pitchfork stage, providing sets as equally scorching as the late afternoon sun. At one point, one of the former’s members beckoned to one of the stages in the distance and asked, ”What's playing over there? Is it as good as what's about to happen?” A tossed off bit of cocky stage banter, sure, but there was something refreshingly anti-Canadian about the sentiment. Historically speaking, there’s been inferiority complexes when it comes to our country’s music scenes (“Toronto isn’t New York”, “Montreal isn’t London”, “Vancouver isn’t Seattle”, etc.), but that wasn’t the case at Primavera.
Still the biggest crowd of the weekend for a Canadian band was reserved for the pride of Dundas, Ontario: Caribou. Given the enviable (by European festival standards) 3 a.m. Saturday slot, Dan Snaith (who performed earlier in the day under his Daphni alias) and his band caused a pile-up, with fans jostling for better vantage points and frenetically dancing. Leading up to the festival, I had an idea of the electronic musician’s popularity overseas, having watched his Boiler Room set in a Roman amphitheatre and talking to fellow travellers hyped for his performance.
By the time he closes his set with the 1-2 punch of “Can’t Do Without You” and “Sun,” it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what language you speak, you’re already planning your trip to Primavera Sound next year.