By Greg Wetherall
Amid the vibrant streets of the Catalan capital of Spain, Primavera Sound has closed shop. It will have cleaned up its plastic pint glass-covered paving and coiled up its final microphone cable. It will no doubt (still) be nursing a hangover from celebrations that marked fifteen years since its genesis. The celebrations were big. The celebrations were special. By all accounts, according to festival veterans (this writer isn’t one; testimony came from his company), this was a vintage year.
For a festival renowned for its breadth and scale, as ever, the roster ranged from the big hitters (The Strokes, The Black Keys) to the up-and-coming bright young things of the future (Benjamin Booker, Nuria Graham, et al). For those unfamiliar with festivals overseas, there is an adjustment to make when attending Primavera. It is not something that many folk prepare the uninitiated for; commencement doesn’t begin until early in the evening and the line-up doesn’t conclude until the early morning. Such an approach means that there is a natural ebb and flow to the scheduling, that peaks around midnight and then gently pulls away thereafter.
Here’s how Interpol, The Black Keys, Foxygen, Belle and Sebastian, The Strokes, Patti Smith, Ride and many more fared…
On Friday, early entrees were greeted with the Tom Petty/Bob Dylan tones of North Carolina’s Hiss Golden Messenger. A far groovier proposition live than on record, they brought their latest LP Lateness of Dancers to life with elongated, yet impressive, instrumental passages. With the sun beaming down upon the gathered, their punchy plod engaged, culminating in a beguiling take on latest album centre-piece ‘Southern Grammar’. For those who have any encounters with them across this summer’s festival circuit, they are well worth anyone’s time.
Over on the main stage, newcomer Benjamin Booker drew a strikingly sizeable crowd. Plundering last year’s eponymous debut record, alongside such traditional standards as ‘Li’l Liza Jane’, it quickly became apparent that this dapper upstart is more a success of style and bluster than substance. His songs were energetically performed, but with little craft and even less in the way of hooks. Sound-wise, reminiscent of a poor man’s Alabama Shakes or Gary Clarke Jr, Booker’shollow howl and one-note vocal melodies quickly began to grate and the palpable sense of disappointment could be sensed across an increasingly indifferent, chattering audience.
Things couldn’t have been more different over on the Ray-Ban stage for Mikal Cronin. At turns sunny, then moody, his lo-fi early 90s/60s pop hybrid teased the Primavarians (yes, we’ve made that noun up) with a relentless barrage of hummable tunes awash with meaty Rickenbacker solos and waves of distortion. Never forgetting the melodies at the heart of the stylised sound, the pull of his charms were evident in the swelling crowd as the set progressed, which even sourced the first (and only) sighting of crowd-surfing that this writer witnessed at the festival. New songs such as ‘Made My Mind Up’ sat with beautiful compliment to older material, like ‘Apathy’, ‘Shout It Out’, ‘See It My Way’ and ‘Weight’. His set was a highlight amongst highlights. A must-see live draw.
Expectations stood high for the first Black Keys gig since Patrick Carney’s mishap. Drawing heavily from El Camino and Brothers, it was a set in almost wanton neglect of their older two-piece guise. With only ‘Leavin’ Trunk’ pulled from their catalogue pre-Brothers, it felt like witnessing a band still acclimatising to the big stages that they now call home. Traditional set-closer, and now mid-set incumbent, ‘I Got Mine’, was the only performance where they stood face-to-face as a ferocious duo. It was a timely reminder of how compelling they can be when stripped back to their core.
In a set that ingratiated pleadingly towards the newbies, one thing became abundantly clear: in playing to the casual fans, their staunch admirers from the days of yore are sentenced to a lack of adequate satisfaction. Yet, if the Primavera crowd is anything to go by, the casuals only cherish the big songs from the big albums. No matter how consistently excellent their two commercial high-watermarks might be, they’re not loved enough by those who pack out the main stage. Unfortunately, this resulted in an impatient crowd, who took it upon themselves to start singing ‘Lonely Boy’ in between songs about a third-way from the end and the point where they played it. Never a good sign. Closing their encore with the Zep-imitating, glorious epic ‘Little Black Submarines’, the overall impression was a disjointed set unhelpfully aided by the worst sound of the whole weekend. A genuine pity.
Day 2 started with evidence of blistering local talent, aptly demonstrated by songstress Nuria Graham. Relatively fresh from supporting St Vincent, she showed a musically seductive sparkle that left its mark. Whilst her debut, Bird Eyes, offers a more genteel pucker in its recorded form, the guitar-toting Graham packs more of a feral punch live. Coming across like the lovechild of an early PJ Harvey and Anna Calvi (the latter at her most conventional), what she lacked in song craft was compensated by substantial proof of her considerable potential. One to keep an eye out for.
Rather appropriately for a festival celebrating its own anniversary, one gnarly punk icon dusted down a classic debut album for an anniversary celebration. In acknowledgement of its 40th year in existence, Patti Smith has taken ‘Horses’ on the road and this festival marked the first gig of this engagement. What emerged was a true success story of Primavera Sound 2015. It is overwhelming just how the poetry, riotous anger and grand ambition of that raucous record remains undimmed even after all of these years. Smith spewed out rants in between songs about corporations and the freedom of the individual, and sounded even more impassioned and engaged throughout this set than she does on the original pressing.
What emerged was an anecdotal, yet irrefutable evidence that, sometimes, the old adage of ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’ carries an aphorismic heft. ‘Gloria’ shimmied with its escalating energy; ‘Birdland’ stunned; ‘Free Money’ pummeled. For all of this, the Horses-closing ‘Elegie’ offered an emotional weight highlighted by the audience’s rapt attention. This gentle song rendered everyone an engaged spectator, peaking in its middle section, where Patti reeled off the departed in memoriam, including each of the Ramones and Lou Reed (who garners the biggest cheer of all). Stunning stuff. Even the slight discomfort of her shouting out the N-word repeatedly on the qualification that we are all oppressed outsiders for a closing ‘Rock n’ Roll Nigger’ couldn’t sully the overall impression of brilliance.
Belle and Sebastian were confronted by one of the biggest crowds of the whole festival on the ATP stage. Even before show time, there was a noticeable ripple of expectation. Kicking off their set with the meandering tip-toe of ‘Nobody’s Empire’ proffered a fleeting worry that a 5-minute languid launch would be a misstep for anyone but the committed. It was a worry dispelled with what followed. ‘I’m A Cuckoo’ provoked loud cheers/swaying, followed by the synth-tastic ‘The Party Line’, which stands as the shining jewel in the new record’s crown in a live setting. Joyous.
Unfortunately, those keen on hearing much from their pre-Dear Catastrophe Waitress era were left with little to cheer, as only a final, valedictory ‘Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying’, the evergreen ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ (replete with traditional audience plucking for onstage dancing) and Tigermilk’s ‘Electronic Renaissance’ finding space in their set. All in all, they came and provided further proof of why they are one of the most beloved indie bands of the post-Smiths generation. In an increasingly homogenised music scene, their individualism and creative restlessness is something of precious currency.
Back in town, back on the scene after an 8-year hiatus and ready to promote their impressive No Cities To Love album, Sleater-Kinney looked like a rather incongruous proposition on the main stage. Their infectious garage racket was never polished enough to be celebrated in such vast spaces, and there is little denying that they would fare far better in the environs of a sweaty, small and dimly lit club. But they do their best to get everyone onside. In particular, Corin Tucker’s voice is a visceral and earth shaking instrument and renders many onlookers agape with the power she emits. Although a few killer tracks shy of being essential, they certainly had (and will continue to have), plenty to offer. Here’s to hoping that they stick around now that they’ve made their welcome return.
The reunited Ride took up the ‘headline’ slot on the Friday, and this was a strange one. Welcomed by a bigger crowd than many might have expected, they launch straight into the drone of Going Blank Again’s ‘Leave Them All Behind’. It is immediately striking that the insouciance of their delivery is countered by the execution of the music itself. This is a band who are clearly very well-rehearsed and intend to mean business. Whilst clearly ensconced within the early-90s shoegazing scene from which their reputation rests, they have enough in their locker to move forward, should they want to. They lack festival-style sing-alongs, but they do not disappoint the faithful. Andy Bell would be wise to stick with this rather than join Liam Gallagher again on any future endeavour (even including an Oasis reunion).
For many, the final day represented some of the most keenly anticipated acts of the festival. Coming in late for the sad withdrawal of Eels, Tori Amos bewitched and befuddled in almost equal measure in her slot in the early evening. With a front row packed out by the devoted, she was treated like a cult goddess plucking rare fruits from the alt-piano pop pantheon and passing them with a personable touch to her faithful. As the camera focused on the screwed-up and emotional faces of the acolytes in the crowd, there was no denying the attachment that she affords to the believers. Her regale still feels faintly Kate Bush-alike and she is still impressively intense, but some of her songs drift over the waves of the unfamiliar. ‘The Waitress’ and ‘Toast’ rippled with dark ambience, yes, but it was the finishing parade of ‘Raspberry Swirl’ and ‘Cornflake Girl’ that switched-on the uncommitted. The latter’s wonderful pop hook remains as fresh as a daisy, no matter how old in years.
They might be on the verge of splitting up, but the chaotic, schizophrenic and wonderful Foxygen strutted on the main stage with the ballast of Jagger and co at their peak. With a rambunctious efficacy, their tempo-shifting, mood-switching oeuvre played in a dazzling style, with bags of panache. Sometimes the nuances were lost on the main stage crowd, such as the restless swagger of ‘Shuggie’, but when your set closes with ‘Everyone Needs Love’ it is a sentiment and force that cannot be argued. Some were baffled and some loved it. You can’t imagine Foxygen wanting it any other way.
Interpol are back in favour after the (almost) universal shrug that greeted their self-titled and much maligned 2010 album. 2014’s El Pintor has signalled a second wave of critical and commercial spoils for the New York group, although you wouldn’t necessarily realise it from their set list. Met by a huge crowd, the trio, augmented by their touring bassist, rely heavily on the material from their first two records.
Bizarrely, the hallowed and lauded Turn on the Bright Lights seemingly elicits the least familiarity from the gathered, whilst the exact opposite proves to be true of the songs taken from sophomore effort, Antics. Perhaps it is inevitable that well-known and catchy songs such as ‘Evil’ and ‘Slow Hands’ garner the most widespread abandon, but even ‘NARC’ and ‘Take You on a Cruise’ are welcomed like long lost friends. The same cannot be said for ‘Hands Away’ or ‘Leif Erikson’, which appear to evidence more select appeal.
A beautiful ‘Pioneer To The Falls’ is wonderful, with its tremolo-picked mid-section providing a stunning moment amid a set of isolated wonders. ‘Untitled’ and the aforementioned ‘NARC’ also prove their worth. With the Strokes set time approaching perilously close on the ‘other’ main stage, many start making their way from Interpol’s lengthy set. In the distance, the strains of a set-concluding ‘All the Rage Back Home’ could be heard. It sounded great. But this writer needed a good vantage point for what was to come.
Exiting the traps to a backing track of ‘80s Comedown Machine’ from their most recent album, the first thing that anyone notices about the Strokes is the sight of Julian Casablancas. Looking like a hipster’s worst nightmare, his hair was long, part-purple and complete with what looked like a high-vis t-shirt covered by a sleeveless jacket. Horrendous. And yet, as the band lurched into the calypso-reggae march of ‘Machu Picchu’, they sound immense. In fact, throughout the set, Casablancas’ vocals are on-point, and particularly impressing on the falsetto-heavy ‘One Way Trigger’.
Witnessing this most precariously positioned of bands, with their ‘will they/won’t they hold it together?’ intra-band personal problems, they sound so locked in, so musically tight, that they engender nothing but love from pretty much everyone present. The old material shines and the newer material rocks in altogether different ways.The crowd jump up and down. They sing the guitar lines. The whole amopshere is one euphoric communion.
The Strokes’ sound is a simulacra of simplicity, belying the graft and mechanics of what goes on underneath; for while there are times that the Strokes seem a vehicle for straightforward musicality, there is a complex, fiddly trickery at play, especially in the exchanges between Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. In fact, it is often said that chemistry is the key to all great groups. Never more is this evident in what makes the Strokes a great rock band and perhaps one of the few headline worthy bands of the last 15 years. If you remove any single one of these cogs, like a house of cards, the whole thing would come tumbling down.
As they pull off a blistering main set finale of ‘Reptilia’ and ‘Last Night’ and emerge for the encore with ‘Under Cover of Darkness’ and a trifecta of Is This Is tracks to conclude, one fact is plain: their discomfort at sharing a space with one another is music’s, and our, gain.
With all of that laid out, that was our Primavera Sound 2015. Many highs, a few musical lows and plenty of alcohol. It was a giddy, brilliant and memorable music feast. It deserves its space on the festival calendar. Next year, you’d be wise to hop on board.
Primavera Sound 2015 took place between 28th – 30th May 2015.