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Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

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primavera Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011American festivals are more popular than ever, with record sellouts happening across the board. Unfortunately, in 2011, the lineups of the major players are more indistinguishable than ever, thanks to a shallow pool of available headliner options and an endless regurgitation of The Black Keys, Crystal Castles, et al, with surprises and unique bookings in short supply. Especially grievous is the total absence of Pulp. The Britpop legends might be the reunion of the decade, but are currently nowhere to be seen on American shores. Thankfully, there are more attractive alternatives in Europe for the seasoned festival attendee, with the most impressive lineup belonging to Barcelona’s San Miguel Primavera Sound Festival.

Primavera Sound has expanded from a small gathering at the intimate Poble Espanyol to a world-class event and the 11th edition was bigger than ever. The average attendance of its three main days at the Parc del Forum exceeded 40,000 attendees from across the globe, with two additional days at the original festival site, and intimate pre and post-parties scattered throughout the city. Despite the unavoidable presence of sponsorship, Primavera never comes across as a corporate cash grab thanks to a lineup that remains decidedly left-of-center. Yes, there are plenty of proven, reliable acts such as The Flaming Lips, Fleet Foxes, and The National, but it’s the more adventurous and less universal bookings of odd and obscure acts and cult bands performing their seminal albums that set Primavera apart from the average corporate affair. Primavera Sound is living proof that the likes of Einstürzende Neubauten and Suicide need not be restricted to ATP events.

Primavera’s eight stages include ones curated by Pitchfork and All Tomorrow’s Parties, and a limited capacity, indoor seated theater. The Rockdelux Auditori offers a relaxed atmosphere for the likes of John Cale and Mercury Rev and makes it possible for the festival to have performances that cannot be done outdoors, such as the intricate Sufjan Stevens production. Camping is nonexistent, with everyone staying in apartments and hostels throughout Barcelona, but the availability of beds and showers does not guarantee a full night’s sleep. The party never stops in Barcelona, with the main festivities beginning at 4:00 p.m. and ending at 6:00 a.m. every day, plus daytime performances in a nearby park and all the irresistible sightseeing the city has to offer.

img 2233 Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Frank Mojica

New in 2011 was the Primavera Portal, a system that allowed the festival’s access card to double as a debit card that can be recharged online or at booths situated by the main concession area. Unfortunately, the problem with the digitalization of festival commerce is that things often go wrong, and in this case, something did and the whole system crashed. After waiting in hour-long queues for recharges on Thursday, because the Primavera Portal site crashed, attendees found that all the drink vendors could not sell any water or alcohol because they did not have the necessary scanning devices. Food stands accepted cash, but only the drink vendors could sell alcohol or water, and the festival was without any sort of liquid refreshment available for purchase for several hours, and the street vendors offering cheap beer and water outside the gates only appeared at night. A major hiccup in an otherwise smooth festival experience, yes, but when seeing the likes of Grinderman and Sufjan Stevens, a day of stress and dehydration was a price well worth paying.

-Frank Mojica
Staff Writer

Wednesday, May 25th

Nisennenmondai - Poble Espanyol - 5:00 p.m.

nisennenmondai1 Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Frank Mojica

Primavera Sound’s choice of Nisennenmondai to open their main festivities says quite a lot about the heart of the festival. In the festival world, the instrumental Japanese noise band has only performed at smaller fests and the 2010 edition of Roskilde, but their experimental sound was a perfect match for the discriminating tastes of Primavera goers. As the sun scorched the crowd that left the refuge of the shade to get a closer look, Nisennenmondai unleashed unrelentingly pulsating bass lines, and a pummeling rhythm so frantic that some casual observers debated if drummer Sayaka Himeno was possessed by a demon. Spinning together traces of Krautrock, no wave, and math rock, Nisennenmondai proved to be a captivating festival opener as they turned their repetitions into something strangely danceable that won over a largely unfamiliar crowd. American festival promoters would do well to introduce their audiences to this inventive, thrilling trio next year.

Echo & the Bunnymen - Poble Espanyol - 8:45 p.m.

echo Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Frank Mojica

Watching a band perform a favorite album in its entirety is a special treat, but two albums back to back? That’s what Echo & the Bunnymen brought to Poble Espanyol, performing Crocodiles and Heaven Up Here along with an encore of a few more recent favorites, although a gander at “The Killing Moon” was not on the agenda for this trip down memory lane. While seemingly in good spirits, the post-punk legends sounded more and more as if they were merely going through the motions as the set progressed.

Thursday, May 26th

Sufjan Stevens - Auditori - 8:30 p.m. (5:00 p.m. on Friday)

sufjan1 Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Frank Mojica

If Harold Camping had not been wrong yet again about the impending rapture, then it would have surely played out like a Sufjan Stevens performance. Specifically, set opener “Seven Swans” was the sound of the end of days commencing, as heavenly as it was commanding, and the winged Stevens and company served as the rapture’s archangels. Next, the ultimate ironic dance party to ring in the forthcoming apocalypse came in the form of “Too Much”, leading into a journey through the madness of Armageddon during “Age of Adz”. After the destruction of all existence, what followed was a 100 minute journey through the rebuilding of reality and its various ups and downs and creations and destructions. Along the way, Sufjan Stevens took a break from cosmic folk and performed a rare cover of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” at the Thursday performance and treated the Friday crowd to “Sister”, with valuable singing lessons preceding the latter. Existence finally rebuilt itself back to normal during the rejuvenating 25-minute set climax “Impossible Soul”, where fans rushed the stage at both shows after Stevens asked, “Do you want to dance?”

sufjan3 Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Frank Mojica

Throughout what was more of an experience than a concert, Sufjan Stevens donned feathered wings, chimp masks, space capes, and a spinning disco ball chest piece, backup singers twirled ribbons and performed choreographed dance numbers, while animated imagery inspired by the prophetic visions of Royal Robertson flashed on the screen and an extra layer of visuals appeared occasionally on a scrim in front of the stage. But are the costumes, confetti, and multi-screen visuals excessive, if not unnecessary? Yes, he does not need an elaborate display and his songs are powerful enough to stand on their own, but this Knife-meets-Flaming Lips live spectacle makes the playful voyage through the end of the world all the more powerful.

Grinderman - San Miguel - 11:00 p.m.

grinderman1 Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Frank Mojica

Let’s just get this out of the way now: Nick Cave is currently rock & roll’s number one devil. At Primavera, Cave’s Grinderman exhilarated a large festival crowd with their darkly humored brand of sleazy, feral rock that put all those garage revivalists with a fetish for the blues to shame. Ever the magnetic frontman, Nick Cave didn’t walk across the stage so much as he swaggered and thrusted, and spent much of the set in the photo pit cavorting with fans that desperately grabbed at their idol and surfed to get closer. For an hour that passed far too quickly, Grinderman dementedly tore into tracks from both albums with the sort of furor that consumed the songs and spat them back out with new layers of filth and extended jams.

Suicide - Ray-Ban - 12:45 a.m.

suicide Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Frank Mojica

Less than an hour before show time, Nick Cave implored the Grinderman crowd to watch Suicide, and quite a few punters took his words to heart. Suicide is definitely not a crowd-pleasing band that appeals to everybody, not even when performing their first LP, and not even at Primavera, but such challenging acts are what make the festival and its lineup so refreshing. Perhaps the ear-splitting and unsettling nature of the duo’s discordant beats and noise was too much to bear, or maybe people just wanted to hear “Ghost Rider” and call it a night, but the surprisingly sizable crowd left in droves. Fans that were up to the challenge were rewarded with a set that contained the crucial element missing from most of those “so and so performing some album” gigs: surprise. Despite the age of their debut album, Suicide transformed it into something fresh by applying new ways to confound and deafen.

The Flaming Lips - San Miguel - 2:15 a.m.

theflaminglips Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Colin Athens

At one point during the set, Wayne Coyne expressed his love for Primavera, declaring it to be one of his best festival days ever. Coyne sure has had a lot of them, considering their years of festival ubiquity, so it’s no empty platitude. Giant hamster balls, confetti cannons, costumed dancers, laser hands, and the rest of The Flaming Lips’ bag of tricks have been getting a lot usage over the years, but considering the crowd’s ecstatic reception, it might as well have been the first time. It was impossible to feel anything but the purest bliss during a life-affirming set full of sing-alongs accompanied by one hell of a spectacle.

Friday, May 27th

M. Ward - San Miguel - 8:00 p.m.

mward Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Colin Athens

Performing on the same stage as the long awaited Pulp reunion is unenviable in the sense that for the fans camped along the front of the stage, watching M. Ward was just something to watch during a painfully long wait. Luckily Matt Ward and his band proved to be capable of capturing even the most distant and distracted Pulp fans with an hour of jaunty rock, blues, and country revivalism. The setlist favored the boisterous over the heartbreaking, most memorably a romping cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”.

Belle & Sebastian - San Miguel - 10:45pm

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Photo by Frank Mojica

After “Stars of Track and Field”, Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch realized the lyrical link shared between his song and the next band’s biggest hit, and acknowledged that it would not be the first time we heard “college” and “knowledge” within the same sentence that night and expressed his own anticipation of the reunion. As Murdoch later went to the crowd in search of dancers during “Legal Man”, Stevie Jackson performed a brief cover of “Common People”, giving all in attendance an opportunity to warm up for the imminent sing-along of the year. The dancers remained for crowd pleaser “The Boy with the Arab Strap”, after which they were awarded medals for their efforts. Putting forth a solid mix of new material and old favorites from their extensive back catalog with an infectious charisma, Belle and Sebastian were nothing less than charming at Primavera.

Pulp - San Miguel - 1:45 a.m.

pulp Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Colin Athens

Half an hour before show time, the hardcore fans crowding the San Miguel stage were treated to some pre-show entertainment consisting of laser projections across a curtain obscuring the San Miguel stage asking questions from the official website such as “Do you remember the first time?” and “Is this a hoax” in both English and Catalan and always in the Different Class font. Most randomly, green lasers inquired “Do you want to see a dolphin?” before a green dolphin of light appeared and swam across a sea of black. The laser show increased the excitement and tension to unbearable levels, and just as the anticipation became too much to bear, the lights went out, and a neon pink and blue P was illuminated, followed by the rest of the letters in their name one by one as the B.A.N.D.C.A.DOUBLE L.E.D.P.U.L.P. finally took the stage.

Pulp’s headlining set at Primavera was the first reunion performance announced, which was a chief factor in the decision to attend for many in the considerably international crowd, so anything less than a rapturous response to the band would have been a surprising letdown. As the curtain finally dropped during the first chorus of opener “Do You Remember the First Time?”, the crowd responded to the unveiling by screaming along to all the words at the top of their lungs and jumping along to the beat as if their lives depended on it. This level of energetic enthusiasm persisted throughout the entire set and peaked, predictably, during “Common People”, which Jarvis Cocker dedicated to the protesters in Plaça de Catalunya.

pulp2 Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Frank Mojica

It may have been a Pulp reunion, but Jarvis Cocker was still the star of the show, delighting the crowd with his all-over-the-stage trademark dances, climbing, leaps, suggestive gesturing, and general refusal to stand still, while the rest of the band stayed in the back and on the sidelines. The peerless showmanship exhibited in his recent solo tours was retained, as was the bookish look of a professor that has seduced many a coed during office hours. After what might have been the sleaziest rendition of “I Spy” yet, Cocker stepped down to the photo pit, where he asked a couple from Athens, GA to introduce themselves and then told the woman that her boyfriend had something to ask her, setting the stage for a marriage proposal and then commenting on the niceness of the ring. Cynicism and biting spitefulness are often found in Pulp lyrics, but the source of them just might be a romantic at heart.

The setlist focused almost entirely on the era of the band’s commercial peak, with nine songs from Different Class, three from His & Hers, plus encore “Razzmatazz”, with “This Is Hardcore” and “Sunrise” as the only songs released after Russell Senior’s departure to be performed. Why does Pulp get a pass for churning out the hits at their reunion, while other bands get derided as shameless panderers? For starters, they were performed as if it were still 1995; it was as if the band had not abandoned us for nine years. More importantly, the music of Pulp has survived the ravages of time remarkably well, because they were never a true Britpop band in the first place. “Common People” has achieved a new identity as a vitriolic anthem against hipsterism, and at Primavera it was appropriated as a rallying cry for the local protestors, or at least the ones in the crowd that waved a giant banner stating “#Spanish Revolution Sing Along with the Common People”. The Primavera comeback was an explosive set that cemented Pulp’s status as the essential festival band of 2011 and will be remembered as fondly and regarded as definitive as their Glastonbury 1995 performance.

Saturday, May 28th

Yuck - ATP - 6:00 p.m.

yuck Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Colin Athens

Ideally, every festival would start out with a bang by having a great set early in the day to reward attendees that stumbled out of bed in time to attend the full schedule, with these early birds catching a quite special worm. Only at Primavera is 6:00 p.m. widely considered not just early but excessively so, but the ATP area still managed to fill just in time for recent indie darlings Yuck. The London-based quartet loudly revisited the sounds of the late 80’s and early 90’s indie greats, but made them sound fresh. Their performance revealed a genuine excitement to be playing the festival, and guitarist/vocalist Max Bloom gave shoutouts to both Pulp and Shellac before tearing into a new song entitled “Milkshake”. Yuck hasn’t even been around for two years yet, but their live sound implies a band that’s been going at it for far longer.

Warpaint - Llevant - 6:45 p.m.

warpaint Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Colin Athens

Sometimes the stars align and a band gets a festival timeslot so perfect that the setting actually enhances the performance. After witnessing Warpaint perform on the beach of the new Llevant stage as the day finally began to cool, it’s difficult to imagine watching the Los Angeles band in any other setting. As clouds obscured the sun and the cool Mediterranean breeze rolled in, the charismatic all-girl quartet appeared confident before the large crowd as they intricately layered vocals and guitars to dreamy effect, peaking with the gorgeously transcendent pop of “Undertow”. Ubiquitous buzz bands are a dime a dozen nowadays, but Warpaint proved to be one that fully lives up to the hype surrounding them.

Gang Gang Dance - Pitchfork - 9:45 p.m.

ganggangdance Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Colin Athens

Eye Contact, the latest album from Gang Gang Dance, is their most danceable release to date, and its tribal beats and psychedelic synth freak-outs gained an extra degree of intensity on the Pitchfork stage. Accompanying the band were an interpretive dancer and a flag waver throughout the set. The band sounded more urgently fantastic than ever, and frontwoman Lizzi Bougatsos hypnotized with her dances and soaring yelps, so leaving early enough to make the steep uphill climb to the San Miguel stage in time for the start of PJ Harvey was one of the biggest challenges of the weekend.

PJ Harvey - San Miguel - 10:30 p.m.

pjharvey Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Colin Athens

Clad in a white dress and feathered headdress and surrounded by near-total darkness, Polly Jean Harvey looked as angelic as she sounded. Half of her 20 song set consisted of songs from the stellar Let England Shake that favored the jangly strum of the Autoharp over the guitar, with older favorites getting a subdued makeover. As stunning of an album as Let England Shake is and despite sounding especially gorgeous live, the noise of the massive crowd often overpowered the delicate beauty of the music. The new PJ Harvey tour is a delight, but is ideally enjoyed in a more intimate environment.

Animal Collective - San Miguel - 2:00 a.m.

animal collective Festival Review: CoS at Primavera Sound 2011

Photo by Frank Mojica

Neo-psychedelic weirdsters Animal Collective have jumped from mid-tier to headliner since their last batch of festival touring three years ago thanks to the success of their latest and greatest full length, 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavillion. In contrast to the two previous headliners, Animal Collective was far less of a crowd pleaser, only performing a handful of “hits” in a set filled with almost entirely unreleased material. Evolving new music in a live setting is how their albums have always developed, so it’s refreshing to see a band that stays true to their roots despite a sudden surge in popularity. Typically atypical Animal Collective sets might seem like an awkward match for a festival’s main stage, since the crowd is guaranteed not to be full of fans that know what to expect, and at Primavera, some in the crowd declared the performance too self-indulgent and without “proper songs” and left early. However, the majority remained, and they were treated to some new songs that not just showed a lot of promise and even outshone the older selections. In contrast to the light cubes and Creators Project collaboration at Coachella, the visual element of Animal Collective’s set at Primavera was more mysterious and less elaborate, with only moderate usage of house lights and some trippy, colorful animations projected on the screens that never flashed any footage of the band or crowd. If their Primavera headlining set is any indication, their polarizing nature will not lose all the Merriweather Post Pavillion bandwagon-jumpers and continue to draw more followers because of it.

Gallery by Colin Athens

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Gallery by Frank Mojica

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