What a way to begin your first ever Primavera Festival; trailing illness and a voice that gradually becomes more hoarse until it finally disappears somewhere around the middle of Pavement’s slacker-daisical set. Ah, Barcelona, your beaches are beautiful, your women are smoking jewels (literally), and this festival by the beach (really an explosion of concrete by the seaside) is clearly the diamond in the rough for the traveling roadshow of bands that litter the skies with one thing in mind – a paid holiday. With a selection of acts that suited this weary hack like a good pair of tight jeans and a band tee, Primavera was a stage to stage delight. The current crop of new band like The Drums, Surfer Blood and Dum Dum Girls rose up to meet the challenge of the ’90s alternative old guard of Pixies, Pavement and Superchunk.
Day One – Bis, Titus Andronicus, The xx, Superchunk, Pavement
Having been given a nice old runaround whilst securing entry, our ears and eyes soon descended on Scottish kandy-pop-ers Bis who’s twin guitarists, Sci-Fi Steve and John Disco, both seem to have suffered the same plight of Pavement’s Spiral Stairs’ hair. How the years have treated them unkindly, and to be in your late-30s and singing about sweet shops and secret vampires, which must’ve seemed absurd when you’re 20, is now downright ridiculous. Budding songwriters note — write songs that you won’t potentially be embarrassed to sing twenty years later. The crowd seemed to be strangely familiar with their catalogue, and if there’s one international language Bis and the Spanish both have in common, it’s Eurodisco.
Titus Andronicus set the high mark for the day with their red-blooded anthemic yankee rock (cf: their most recent album The Monitor). At times sounding like they were about to break into “Johnny Comes Marching Home”, Titus Andronicus took no time in lassoing the crowd and quickly amassed an army of enraptured fans and one (at least) impressed journalist. With lyrics that sound like “you’re always a nuisance” and “open up a brewery” (misheard lyrics or not — thumbs up) it was satisfying to hear an as-yet-unhyped band make the loudest impression of all (wait, I take that back – Rolling Stoned named them as part of their top 10 bands of 2010 — my bad). Singer, Patrick Stickles leapt off the stage mid-song to press the flesh and drive the point home, but dude, we were already with you.
Over the course of the weekend, there were a few bands that were received exceptionally (and surprisingly) well and The xx was one of them. The Spaniards ate up their minimalist whispers like a plate full of tasty tapas. It was so quiet in the Ray Ban Stage amphitheatre that you could of heard the chirp of lighters as one huge cloud of cigarette smoke permanently descended over the Parc Del Forum. Five hours from then I would lose my voice. Were these things related? I believe so. From record to stage, The xx recreated their monochrome mood and passionless feel of their self-titled debut perfectly. Like watching a stoned Young Marble Giants, The xx seem to have dug themselves into a hole, where their debut has defined their sound so much that they’ll be asking themselves “where do we go from here”? Perhaps if they add another x they could take things to entirely new level.
Rumours of Superchunk‘s demise seem to have been false. Singer Mac McCaughan told the crowd “We don’t play often, but we’ll always play Spain”. Well, yeah, that’s like saying, “I love to take my guitar on holiday and play it for an hour in front of an appreciative crowd”. Of course you will, Mac. On a bill that features other ‘grunge-era’ luminaries such as Polvo and Pavement, Superchunk, it has to be said, feel right at home. New track “Learned To Surf” was cut from the same super-charged Superchunk blueprint of old, which their career-spanning setlist attests. Fan favourite “Precision Auto” with Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington sharing the vocals instantly incinerated the first few rows, which just goes to show that the Superchunk flame still burns like a (slack) motherfucker.
Pavement needed and needs no introduction. What Pixies were in 2004, Pavement have become in 2010 — the darlings of the reunion scene. Ironic that the Pixies (who would appear on the same stage twenty-four hours from then) show no sign of un-reuniting. One wonders that once Malkmus and Co. sear a slice from their cash cow they’ll find the taste addictive too. Absent from our stages since 1999, Stephen Malkmus appeared cagey, coy and ageless, as if the passing years have bothered him none. Waltzing through their back catalogue with the same insouciant fervour of old, “Cut Your Hair” and “Trigger Cut” were dispensed with straight off the bat. As had now become habit at this festival, passing band members backstage were invited on to participate, as did Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, sharing vocal duties with Spiral Stairs on “Kennel District” while Malkmus took the opportunity away from the mic stand to practice golf shots with his guitar. Stairs got his own back by crowd surfing during the final song of the encore, “Stop Breathing”. Breathing? I could barely speak. Exit Pavement at 2:30am. Exit Webcuts right behind them.
Day Two – New Pornographers, Spoon, Beach House, Cold Cave, Pixies
New Pornographers commenced the second day of Primavera with an unsurprising rendition of their “Sing Me Spanish Techno”, after which songwriter/vocalist A.C. Newman offered up some more “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” by telling the crowd that Barcelona was his “favourite city on earth”. Lip service over, it was back to business with ‘Porno pop classics “Use It” and “The Laws Have Changed”. Having picked up the slack left in the wake of the album-which-shall-not-be-named, these classy Canadians were in the arms of Webcuts’ good graces with Together. The absence of Dan Bejar and Neko Case from the starting line-up detracted none from the occasion, in fact, of all the bands that had played so far, the ‘Pornos were the only ones who didn’t outstay their welcome.
Ah, Spoon, how the mighty have… plateaued. This Austin, Texas quartet have been Webcuts’ perennial champs for the last decade, putting nary a foot wrong since 2001’s Girls Can Tell. It was 2007’s triumphant Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga that would put Spoon on the map and on the iPods of every backward-baseball cap wearing frat-boy and frat-girl in America. It would be mere speculation to consider that the success and recognition heaped upon them has left Spoon no longer the underdog, which clearly showed on the unprocessed folly that is Transference. Their Primavera set was competent but nothing extraordinary, as they cherry picked the more palatable tracks from Transference (the yawnsome “Trouble Comes Running” not included) with the tested and true from Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. If this were a football match, I’d call it a disappointing draw.
We were amazed at the transformation that has turned Victoria Legrand of Beach House into a more subdued version of the siren of song, Stevie Nicks. This Fleetwood Mac-like influence was something we instantly picked up on from the jangled cascade of notes and the breathy introduction to “Norway” from their latest album Teen Dream. But with Legrand’s long curly locks a-flowin’, all that was missing was the picture were gypsy scarves hanging from her mic stand. On the polar, literally, side of Beach House’s opaque operettas were Brooklyn’s Cold Cave who turned the late-afternoon Pitchfork Stage into a low-key smoke-filled electro rave. Having been very hit and miss when witnessed in London a month ago, Cold Cave seem to work best on a large stage where you’re not focusing on their static stage presence and expecting to be entertained, but actually dancing along to the music, which tracks like “Love Comes Close” and “Life Magazine” were clearly made for.
Oh, it’s you again. Witness the Pixies once more on their never-ending “if the price is right” tour. The nostalgia here has to be well and truly over. The obvious animosity between Black Francis and Kim Deal (who were spread so far apart on stage, they’d need binoculars to see each other) slowly drifted into the crowd as we realised that nostalgia is an over-rated commodity these days. They aren’t, and never were, the greatest band ever known. They just happened to be the first band of our generation who split up and then needed to pay off their mortgage. But not to piss on any Spaniard’s parade, the Pixies could never be accused of dialing it in and nobody walked away unhappy. A surprising (and welcome) rendition of Neil Young’s “Winterlong” hit the spot with Deal and Black Francis inching close their estranged distance with this lamenting duet. Kudos to the hardy souls who lingered on and partied Primavera-style with Orbital till four am and beyond but our date card ended here.
Day Three – Atlas Sound, The Slits, Dum Dum Girls, Pet Shop Boys
The final day was a late one, which meant there was time for dip in the Mediterranean and a mild freak-out at the nude beach we seemed to have stumbled on. Seasoned nudists Webcuts are not. Heading straight to Atlas Sound, the side-project, one-man-show of Deerhunter mainman Bradford Cox was a little like watching Bob Dylan play with a loop/delay pedal for forty-five minutes. When the harmonica came out, well it just about nailed it. The jury is still out on solo Cox. Having seen him fill small living room type gigs in London and Sydney (well-heeled types that we are) is one thing, but a festival stage in Spain is another. It’s not a matter of something being lost in the translation, just not enough presence to hold interest.
Far be it from us to decide when costume changes verge on the ‘for the love of god, stop now’, but Ari Up of The Slits, with her dreads, was not one to be deterred from enjoying herself. Of all the bands that we witnessed, The Slits brought the “punky reggae party/let your dreads swing like old rope and smoke a spliff” vibe that seemed to be lacking elsewhere. Working their way through Cut classics like “Shoplifting”, “Typical Girls” and a dub-laden “Heard It Through The Grapevine”, The Slits were clearly the band for the job.
I overheard somebody throw a “they’re just like ‘Vivian Girls” comparison in the Dum Dum Girls direction, but apart from them being all girls, the Dum Dums don’t come across as so haphazard and tune-seeking (and so New Jersey) as their East Coast counterparts. It’s 1960s girl-pop, it’s vintage guitars and matching outfits, it’s three-part harmonies and broken hearts and sucking lemons, and all that kinda tear-in-my-pillow torch song pap that bands like The Stooges did their level best to demolish at the tail end of the ’60s. There’s more than enough space for the Dum Dum Girls and the Vivian Girls to exist, and well, hey, “Jail La La” still remains one of the best songs we’ve heard this year.
Witnessing the Pet Shop Boys playing on a beach in Spain wasn’t the weirdest of propositions this weekend. In fact, we pretty much played it safe on the ‘weird proposition’ front. The weird part was the choreographed stage show involving a couple hundred cardboard boxes assembled as two huge split video screens and a box-on-head-wearing Neil Tennant walking out to sing “Heart” with matching box-on-head backing singers in bright full-body jumpsuits and a box-on-head Chris Lowe. It all felt like a staging of New Order’s “True Faith” video. Known to put on an extravagant stage show, it was still a surprise when it wasn’t so much Neil and Chris playing their hits, but a fully staged theatrical spectacle including mock punch-up box-hurling exercise. A dearly departed Dusty Springfield appeared from above via video screen to sing her part on “What Have I Done To Deserve This” while the anthem after anthem was unveiled. A “Being Boring” and “West End Girls” finale, complete with exploding glitter pyrotechnics (that some of us were still find pieces of hiding in the most extraordinary of places) sent us home, utterly, completely, thoroughly, dog tired and burnt out, but we were never being bored. You hear that, Primavera? We were NEVER being bored.