This year’s Primavera boasts two big names returning to the live circuit with albums to promote (Radiohead and PJ Harvey), with a significant reunion (that of LCD Soundsystem) grabbing headlines and promising to bring the party to Barcelona. There are 12 performance areas in total, some restricted or annoyingly hidden away to create buzz, backfiring in the confusion to allocate tickets. Despite the odd overflowing toilet, the weather is fine, and things run smoothly over the weekend, allowing festival-goers to do what they came for: see a wealth of live music in a modern, picturesque seaside setting.
Despite her Irish/Italian heritage, Daughter frontwoman Elena Tonra comes across as a Jane Birkinesque English Rose, attempting to heat up the balmy first evening. Svelte in a silver chainmail top, her stage demeanour is all golly-gosh self-effacement with a vocal style that can best be described as professional sighing. Like Birkin, she is guilty of using her sweetness as a weapon, but its charm can only penetrate so far from the giant Heineken stage, despite the gauzy pleasures of their widely-circulated Youth.
Classic duo Air then get what you would think was, for their music, a plum sundown spot, the liminal atmosphere perfectly suiting their Gallic retro-futurism. One of the vaguest looking ‘frontmen’ of all time, Nicolas Godin seems not to know which planet he’s on, let alone what festival he’s playing. Barely there songs like Playground Love and Remember provide warm, familiar moments but in the context of a festival show, this all feels rather lazy. The cosmic spaceship of which Air are at the controls could be a formidable vehicle if they let it. Unfortunately, they’re far too prissy about replicating their recordings on stage for it to lift off properly until the extended wig out for the traditional closer, La Femme D’Argent. Shame.
Over at the Primavera Stage, Ben Shemie repeats “Resist! Resist!”, halfway through Suuns‘ set. Resistance is most definitely one of the highlights on their latest album Hold/Still and the crowd at seems to enjoy the Montreal band’s new direction: a murkier, groovier sound that hints at post-punk while retaining a high dose of danceable electronica. Despite its retardant effect, the slow-burning Paralyzer manages to tease us in glorious fashion: “I just wanna touch you/feel you with my hand”, sings Shemie. Comparisons between his band and Clinic will probably to continue, but on stage, bringing the peculiarities of Hold/Still to life and showcasing a newfound theatricality, Suuns certainly find their own space.
The Ray-Ban stage, half spacious dance floor half amphitheatre, ends up being where some of most ‘demanding’ gigs of the festival take place. Floating Points seem to do better for the folks seated on the steps at the back: they’re jazzy enough to keep everyone on their toes, but apparently too cerebral for the standing crowd to linger. Shepherd’s Fender Rhodes electric piano and drum patterns lead the 16 man live ensemble through thick and thin, the former being a dangerously prog heaviness, the latter a refreshing mesh of hip hop beats and angular electronica.
The prospect of a John Carpenter show raises questions about whether his cinematic synth extravaganza can live up to the expectations of a (presumably) distracted festival crowd? As the setlist unfolds, scenes are projected from his iconic films, a necessary prop for the live set, as you’d expect, but also a pleasurable exercise in decontextualisation. Despite the pervasiveness of his fame as a horror filmmaker (“I love horror films”, he proclaims at one point eliciting our “no shit” response), the fantastic sound quality, paired with turbulent bass lines makes for a delightfully odd dance concert, where chilling textures and functionality peacefully coexist. This is ultimately a fun show: Carpenter, making us dance and giggle at his sardonic self-presentation, seems more interested in deconstructing his myth rather than celebrating it.
The main event tonight, though, is the reunion of LCD Soundsystem. Eight musicians, a truck haul of instruments and a full can of party-sized festival hits to pop: away from the scene for 5 years, and not present at Primavera for 13, their rearrival here is crowned by a giant disco ball which announces the intent of a joyous time for all. Emerging from the forest of instruments, guitars chack, cowbells frantically plock, the bass bounces and suddenly we’re grooving again like it’s 2002, with James Murphy still sweating admirably into his microphone. But how significant is this reunion really? It’s only been five years, so perhaps their joining the Reunion Circuit is not perhaps as momentous as some are making out. It’s nice to have you back, but let’s see what you’ve got up your sleeve next.
Neon Indian’s late 2.am set at the Pitchfork Stage is a “retromaniac”, where Mexico-born singer Palomo is about to give the most energetic and infectious performance of the night. Accompanied by a full band, he channels chanteur gestures à la Jacno, the comforting ingenuousness of the Italo-Disco stars he’s so fond of and the skittish energy of melodramatic torch singers. The crowd seem to make no distinction between his most known singles (Slumlord, Annie, a refreshing take on Polish Girl, from the old days) and the most riotous tracks (61 Cygni Ave), but it is a spasmodic cover of Prince’s Pop Life that really seals the deal, a celebratory tribute that sends the crowd happily towards the early morning DJ sets.
On Friday, in the hushed space of the auditorium, Cabaret Voltaire indecorously break the reverent atmosphere with brutal industrial techno, matched with their equally eye-bleeding projections. An acid washed hyper-cavalcade of long 20th-century footage, pop culture and a hefty quota of anti-war and anti-American rhetoric roll out. The ear-bleeding volume, accentuated with bursts of even louder noise, proves too much for the faint of heart who bugger off early. However, the audience that stays is itching to let loose. It seems the Spanish like their techno punishing and brutal and when some arm-waving pioneers break loose from their seats, the rest of the audience suddenly follows their lead, wrong footing the security who struggle to reimpose order.
There’s always been something slightly “stagey” about Savages, to the point where the hype surrounding them felt like something to be reckoned with. Yet Jehnny Beth & co own the Heineken stage at sunset like no other. You can tell why they can be so divisive. They look serious, ominous indeed, and with tracks as scathing as Husbands, they perfectly embody the unapologetic black and white aesthetic of their work. Beth’s provocative moves and shouts take some getting used to, her powerful voice reminiscent of Siouxsie. Their set is fast and hyper-loud, seamlessly interlocking tracks from Silence Yourself and the new Adore Life. An impromptu competition between the two sides of the crowd (one is definitely better at making noise than the other) continues further on when she opts for some stage diving action: turns out the quieter bunch is better at holding knees.
Nao’s jittery take on RnB over in the Pitchfork ‘shrine’ doesn’t need a particular readjustment to tempos and genre conventions. Her soulful vocals and sweet stage presence need no hard work to acclimatise. With the night comes a contagious dance craze in a matter of minutes.
Primavera dubbed Holly Herndon ‘la diva digital’, a nickname that perfectly suits her current reputation in the left-of-centre field of electronic music. Her records and live sets are equally cerebral and fun, enamoured with data, technology and their discontents, to the point that her backdrop, mixing images taken from the domestic and the virtual, remind us of how the two ‘worlds’ have become one and the same. Highly processed vocals go hand in hand with vaporous yet discernible lyrics, her show just as embodied as it is purposefully not. Herndon readjusts the formless backbone of her latest record Platform to feature longer takes on her most danceable tunes (Home, Interference), but never leaving the political behind. The image of Barcelona’s mayor and activist Ada Colau’s Wikipedia phases in and out from start to finish, while the whole set, types Holly, is dedicated to Chelsea Manning and “all your friends who can’t go home cause they are too good at being human”.
The biggest crowd amassed over the weekend is, unsurprisingly, for Radiohead. Their show starts with a run from new album A Moon Shaped Pool. The opening Burn The Witch manages a little ferocity, but subsequent songs like Daydreaming twinkle gently, dissipating their subtle charms into the night sky with little impact. The lack of volume really isn’t helping, nor are the projections of the band, fractured into multiple flickering panels which, while beautiful, refuse to give the huge assembled crowd a proper look at the band. OK, yes, yes we know it’s supposed to be all about the music, but would the occasional simple close up really hurt so much? Much of the more subtle material like Pyramid Song gets inexcusably lost in the ether. For such a big band playing what is essentially a bunch of well-loved songs, they only rarely galvanise the audience as they should, and a sing-along Karma Police throws into contrast where the set otherwise fails. Having said that, the choice of songs is near impeccable, providing moments from every one of their albums. And yes, that means they played Creep.
Animal Collective get a highly appropriate spot at the Ray-Ban amphitheatre, as we are now calling it. Recent album Painting With has divided critics, with further journeys into their chopping up vocals replicated here in songs like Summing The Wretch. Like the best psychedelia, there is no obvious response to Animal Collective and at times the crowd look a little unsure whether they are meant to respond with their heads or bodies. However, the closing Floridada fires off dizzying plasticky earworms that send both brains and bodies spinning happily off into other late-night pastures.
Beach House’s reputation as ‘consistent’ can be both considered their forte and their major weakness. For want of a better term, ‘dream pop’ is still a pretty accurate way to describe their hypnotising, recursive tunes, which is probably why music so quiet is left oscillating between 2 and 3 AM at the bigger stage at Primavera. The overall feel of this gig is still one of monotony and lysergic abandon – no wonder the E-fuelled revellers suddenly feel like oversharing or inviting you into a slow-motion dance. With their starry lights and sequinned refractions, the duo provide a continuum of melodic trips, accompanying the sleep of those who wanted to make it until the end, but were left by their friends on the grass at the sides of the stage. For dreamers, yawners and haters alike, this must register as a job well done.
The Adidas stage has been the best place to see homegrown Spanish acts, and Saturday brings back-to-back big draws for the local audience. Current big thing in Spanish rap PXXR GVNG are followed by legendary rumberos Los Chichos. Dressed in Neopolitan mobster chic, PXXR GVNG’s immigrant-trash-got-lucky image has endeared them to the home audience and made them unlikely local heroes. With titles like Tu Coño Es Mi Droga (translated as ‘your pussy is my drug’), they’re not exactly aiming for critical acclaim although they have nonetheless attracted the dubious attention of VICE magazine. It’s fun, and backed by a tight latin band, a far finer musical experience live than their records might suggest.
Close by, Jenny Hval’s current act is both confusing and mesmerizing for a festival audience. Gauzy, girly and ecstasy, Hval has an electric tuba playing female foil and much of the focus of the show is on the teasing interplay between them, which involves a lot of stroking and cutting of each others’ wigs. The focus of the show is as much performance art as it is music and mesmerizing as it is for those on her wavelength, early in the evening, the audience are perhaps not yet tripped out enough to fully enter her world.
David Tibet’s enduring reputation as the the godfather of the English “esoteric wave” started in the early 1980s (or “England’s hidden reverse”, as music critic David Keenan dubbed it) today seems stronger than ever. In their signature disorienting fashion, Current 93 make their entrance to Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, swiftly annihilated by swathes of noise. Accompanied by his eight-man ensemble, Tibet sings, preaches, emotes and points fingers to the audience and the sky during a set that winks at the connoisseur rather than the occasional listener (especially considering Current 93’s immense discography). No matter how affecting Tibet’s raspy vocals sound, the long sequence of lush folk-rock ballads feels rather repetitive and monochromatic. It’s when things are stripped down (piano and voice) or brought to the extreme that Current 93’s pastoral magick peaks.
PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project has come through many different media so far: recording sessions open to the public, a poetry book and a series of readings and Seamus Murphy’s photographic documents and videos. How will the record translate on the festival stage? When she marches in accompanied by her band on Chain Of Keys, playing her sax, it’s immediately clear how she’s reintroducing more theatrical elements to her performances. Whilst the live sets for Let England Shake were impeccable, but felt a bit restrained, Polly’s now returning with an incredibly charismatic stage persona: no longer static behind her autoharp, she launches herself in interpretative dances and engages with the audience at every occasion with gestures and quizzical expressions. As is now tradition for Polly, her set is predominantly filled with songs off the new record, some of which instantly catchy (The Wheel, Community Of Hope), others visibly more difficult for the audience to digest (Dollar, Dollar). But she still manages at least one major surprise – the last thing you’d expect from Polly after her ‘political turn’ is a raw version of 50ft Queenie, but that’s exactly what happens and the crowd can’t get enough.
The amphitheatre of the Ray-Ban stage has now become a suitability test for performers, and one which Julia Holter does not comfortably pass as she struggles to fill the area. In all honesty, she would probably have benefited from an earlier and more intimate placing. Her set, mostly culled from last year’s Have You in My Wilderness, reaches for bliss but live often feels curiously ungrounded, lacking a solid enough rhythm base to do anything more than float in the space. An older favourite In The Green Wild provides a more immediate connection with the audience, but she has to be content tonight with small victories, rather than the larger scale triumph that the setting demanded.
Before the closing DJ sets, Parquet Courts and Ty Segall, playing a few steps away from each other on the Pitchfork and Primavera stages respectively, offer an update of sorts on the current state of guitar music. Parquet Courts play it cool (the ’90s alt rock version of it anyway) with their banter, twee moves and presentation, but it’s when you can discern bits of lyrics here and there that you realise it’s their humour and wittiness that make them occasionally stand out.
However, it’s not just irony but full-blown comedy that saves Ty Segall and the Muggers’ show from being a cock rock cliché fest. The prolific trickster perfectly embodies the desecrating spirit of his label Drag City: far from wanting to be taken too seriously, with his latex masks and odd random outbursts he just wants you to have fun and rock hard. Which is why when he hands the microphone to an overexcited fan in the front row, the gig turns into an extraordinary, exhilarating identity exchange. Segall cheers his British fan from the front row, the fan having the time of his life singing with the Muggers up on stage, offering a surprisingly convincing performance both as a Ty impersonator and himself.
While the festival drifts into the city for one final pared-down day, where Mudhoney provide the main draw, we wave goodbye to the Parc del Fòrum, the purpose built festival space that has provided such a professional festival playground for many years now. Can Primavera Sound get even bigger from here? From the evidence of the 2016 edition, it has already assured its position as one of the great annual music events, and we eagerly await the announcement of next year’s big draws.
Review by Alex Jeffery and Giuseppe Zevolli