Transcending Excellence: Primavera Sound 2018 Festival Review

Nick Cave, Hinds, Lorde, and more bring magic to the Spanish shore

Primavera Sound 2018, photo by Kimberley Ross

Beyond the Gates: It’s a fascinating story: When asked about the highlights of globetrotting festival-hoppers, many cite years of attending Primavera Sound — myself very loudly included. Replete with an immaculately curated lineup that acts like a resounding gong broadcasting the beginning of the year’s festival season, the stunning seaside beauty, the zealous fans, the genuine joy of dancing along to the blissful sounds of the moment into the early morning hours — the Barcelona-based event transcends the idea of “festival” and becomes an artistic community.

It’s the kind of festival where people will shush you if you’re talking during Björk’s set, look at you funny if you’re not going to see The Art Ensemble of Chicago (they were quite remarkably delightful by the way), or give you a beaming grin as you dance together to a late-late-late-night Four Tet performance.

Coming into this year’s edition, there was no reason to doubt that idyllic reality would fade. Lapping up everything from Kelela’s perfect R&B pop to Nils Frahm’s singular soundscapes to The Breeders’ shut-up-and-don’t-give-a-fuck music, Primavera always seems like the perfect combination of artist and place. The grounds continue to grow, the lineup continues to shift and meld, and yet one thing remains true: the beating heart of Primavera remains the reverence of art, an undying passion for exciting experience. –Lior Phillips

Best Bites: If you can measure the depth of a festival’s food options by the single most obscure item with its own designated vendor, then Nitrogenie might give you an idea of the variety in Primavera’s menu. But even if liquid-nitrogen-cooled ice cream isn’t actually that novel, or an accurate measuring stick whatsoever, it’s true: this year’s edition was stacked with alternative, accommodative and globally represented options to complement the standard pizza-and-burgers fare. Among them: kebab, arepas, and increasingly trendy poké bowls. –Steven Arroyo

Fashionable Art: When fashion functions beyond the machinations of the mainstream world, that’s the drippy sweet-spot. We remember what it’s like to be blown away by the magnetic intensity of an artist’s live stage reinvention. This is a festival that favors the new, the now, leaving conventional dress in the hands of us pleb-y normies in the crowd. There were plenty of striking costume choices across the festival grounds, including a special shout-out to the wonderful Kiwi woman in the replica Björk goose dress. But the performers themselves had their own share of signature looks and aesthetics.

Flowers decked many stage designs, from Hinds’ minimal use to Sevdaliza’s sultry sway, all the way to Björk’s digital stop-motion displays and a stage bedecked with so much flora and fauna I swore the foliage breathed and shared its DNA with the artist herself—who arrived in yet another peach-colored, geometric, hyper-glossy ensemble from Micol Ragni. The beautiful iconography ranged from Oumou Sangaré’s flowing white and gold dress to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s illusory classic French cool-meets-sci-fi stage design, HAIM’s silver suits, Lykke Li’s side eye and cinched black, patent leather suit, Lorde’s pale blue euphoria, and Kelela’s ivory sex mystica — each adding a sense of heroic empowerment to their performance. –Lior Phillips

Expanding to New Shores: Primavera didn’t invent the on-site beach, but until Hangout grows to their numbers, this year it separated itself a little further from the Glastonbury’s and Coachella’s of its ilk in at least one facet. A surprise perk of the new Primavera Bits expansion — Primavera’s self-described “festival within a festival” located on the other side of a walking bridge overlooking the sea and city — was an actual, lifeguard-staffed stretch of swimming beach. Within earshot, three new stages hosted electronic-leaning acts including (inhales) Panda Bear, Oneohtrix Point Never, Chromeo, Four Tet, JLin, Mount Kimbie, Jon Hopkins, Superorganism, Majid Jordan, and a DJ set from Mike D. –Steven Arroyo

Early Fan Catches The Band: Many European festivals tend to run later into the night than those in America, but there’s something different about the 4:00 a.m. DJ sets and performances at Primavera Sound. Maybe it’s the sea breeze sifting through the crowd as the temperature drops on the Spanish coast, or maybe it’s just the fact that Primavera’s bookers are as eager to book a buzzy electronic producer like Ross From Friends as experimental modern composer Nils Frahm for a coveted late-night spot. And when Skepta gets stuck at an airport on the way in to fill the last-minute vacancy of missing headliner Migos, that just means they’ve got another surprise late-late event the following day. You certainly won’t go home empty-handed if you leave the festival before 2:30 a.m., but seeing the sunrise while still dancing your heart out is the true Primavera experience. –Lior Phillips

Chained to the Rhythm: Mount Kimbie set an early high bar at the new Primavera Bits area, which was heavily designated for dance music — and Charlotte Gainsbourg made a powerful case from the central Primavera with Apple Music stage — but it was a late-night, no-lights performance by Four Tet that nudged thousands of people to face each other inside the bowl structure of the Ray Ban stage area for the best dance set of the festival. Directing attention away from him and toward the crowd, Kieran Hebden set into motion a dark mass of bobbing, mingling heads before a seaside backdrop, a sight that couldn’t really be touched. Not even the great DJ Koze, who immediately followed, could top it. –Steven Arroyo

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, photo by Kimberley Ross

That One Performance: Nick. Fucking. Cave. As his name would suggest, he’s always seemed better suited to the grit and shade than the sun-drenched Spanish coastline — especially so in the darkness and pain of his recent albums. But then Cave, one of the all-time-great performers, can bring any setting into his hypnotic orbit (even if you’re convinced he is a 1000-year old vampire). His band wielded violin like a razor-wire guitar, pummeled sighs and gasps of pain out of the drumkit, and built everything into a hurricane of catharsis.

Performing “Loverman” for the first time this century, as well as long-time favorites like “Red Right Hand” and pained recent hits from Skeleton Tree, Cave and his band drew more and more fans closer in, until at long last many climbed onto the stage during “Stagger Lee”. As the hymnal, floating organ tones of “Push the Sky Away” rang out, Cave walked amidst the throng, arms outstretched in magnanimity. Exceedingly danceable and relentlessly poignant, amps seethed with rage whilst he began to draw the entire first few rows of fans on stage with him.

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, photo by Kimberley Ross

Eventually, he singled out one fan, held his hand to the young man’s heart, singing “And some people say it’s just rock and roll.” Joining as one with his entrancing band, the masses on stage, and the masses in the field, Cave led the world to push the sky away and reach a higher plane. –Lior Phillips

Honorable mentions: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kelela, Father John Misty, Jane Birkin sings Birkin Gainsbourg Symphonic, Sevdaliza, Lorde, Björk.

Don’t Believe the Hype: Maybe it speaks to the quality of his album Half-Light, or maybe it’s the undelivered promise of designating four-fifths of a backing band to a string quartet and then relying on recorded sounds more than live ones, but Rostam’s still-very-new solo endeavor has a ways to go on the live-performance front — at least considering his brilliant ear. In spite of his talents, the ex-Vampire Weekend sonic architect sang almost exclusively, occasionally picking up the guitar, and generally seemed to keep a loose emotional distance from the moment. It probably doesn’t say much that HAIM’s cameo drew the biggest reaction, but it probably says something that the musical highlight of the set was a redesigned, cascading rendition of a Vampire Weekend song: the small-but-mighty Modern Vampires of the City closer “Young Lion”. –Steven Arroyo

The Best of the Tiny Fonts: The songs of Atlanta’s Omni are easily distracted things, sleep-deprived and unable to sit still. So even though the conditions of their early-Saturday-morning set were nothing near what they’re used to, they also meshed perfectly with the music, inciting some 4 a.m. crowd-surfing from the one or two-hundred who stayed up for them. “We’re Omni from Atlanta, Georgia,” singer and bassist Philip Frobos said multiple times, shrugging and smiling, as if anybody shows up to the small, tucked-away Adidas Originals stage at 3:20 in the morning by accident. They weren’t dealt an ideal hand for gaining new fans, but ideal for delivering a one-of-a-kind set — and a highlight from the bottom line of the bill, literally. –Steven Arroyo

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The National, photo by Kimberley Ross

Phones Up: “I’m wearing orange today for gun control because stuff in the US is all fucked up,” The National frontman Matt Berninger said near the start of his band’s astonishing set. Though he’d lost his luggage en route from Chicago and proceeded to buy a suit that had no workable pockets, it felt fitting. Advocates of gun control across the world opted to wear orange this weekend, and Berninger took the opportunity to further enter the political conversation after their incredibly charged 2017 album, Sleep Well Beast.

That focused yet comfortable tone continued on to the end of the band’s set as they dedicated closer “About Today” to the tragic loss of Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison. The band began with heads bowed, slowly unraveling the tightly knotted tune. “How close am I to losing you?” Berninger rang out at the chorus, the guitars exploding skyward, drums thrumming. It felt as if Scott himself had joined the band onstage: haunting, tragic, joyous, and sublime all at once. The audience bawled back the lyrics about loss and emotional rebellion with the strength of people whose lives have been fully affected by them. –Lior Phillips

Why Can’t We Be Friends: While we didn’t get to see Charlotte Gainsbourg return to Parc del Forúm the next day to sing her father’s songs with Jane Birkin and a full orchestra, Primavera 2018 still delivered a few nice surprise cameos, especially at its mid-size Pitchfork stage. Among them, HAIM — who mentioned their surprise-guest appearance at Primavera last year in their own set — came out to lend handclaps to a brand-new song from Rostam that made its live debut. There again the next day, Ibeyi brought out Spain’s own Mala Rodriguez to rap her guest verse on “Me Voy” towards the end of their set, turning their already-full-throttle energy up one final, emphatic notch. –Steven Arroyo

Quoteworthy/Overheard: While there were plenty of nutty one-liners throughout Primavera (“Someone put coke on my toe,” stands out particularly for its sheer insanity), it’s the fact that so much of the festival was difficult to overhear that stands out. The festival has always been a major international draw, but the sheer volume of non-Spanish attendees seems to have hit a tipping point. I heard German, Chinese, Italian, and American- and UK-accented English — and that’s just the beginning. “We are a little confused what language we should speak,” Hinds guitarist/vocalist Carlotta Cosials laughed. Though they performed with the blazing intensity and joy of a band at one of the biggest stages in their country, Hinds too noticed the extra-international flare this year.

The most socially salient appraisal arrived on a massive, far-stretching billboard conveniently placed in the walkway between the entrance and the merchandise tent that read in big block letters: “We won’t keep quiet in the face of sexual harassment.” The festival has zero tolerance, and the Jumbotrons frequently were emblazoned with the slogan “Party for your right to fight” during artists changeovers. This is how a festival should stand triumphantly tall in the face of violent and oppressive social norms and provide an undoubtedly defiant and fearless stand. –Lior Phillips

From Bad News to ‘Buen Dia’: When news broke that Migos had missed their flight to Barcelona and would not perform Friday night, it kicked off a chaotic string of developments about who would step into the coveted 11:00 p.m. vacancy. With only a few hours to work with, festival organizers still managed to secure thousands of fans to the Seat stage at that time (roughly) — albeit of a more local and guitar-inclined crowd. Ultimately, it was the jangly Spanish indie-rock trailblazers Los Planetas who jumped on the bill, rounding up compatriots and citing the news that Mariano Rajoy is no longer Spain’s prime minister as the makings of “Un Buen Día” before launching into their 2000 hit. Spanish flags poking out from the crowd rose higher when they brought out two (already billed) guests: Bilbao singer La Bien Querida and Granada trap artist Yung Beef, who played hype man on “Islamabad” from last year’s Zona Temporalmente Autonoma. –Steven Arroyo

Coming Home: Barcelona’s Parc del Forúm assumes some wild geometrical shapes across its several concrete kilometers of shoreline and outdoor auditoriums. At times, they feel like a physical blueprint for the mission of Primavera Sound, which forges figurative ramps and bridges to connect sounds, sights, and flavors (it makes sense after seeing Oneohtrix Point Never perform next to a beach club). While the unfortunate cancellations of Migos and Madlib dinged the event from a hip-hop standpoint this year, Primavera’s planning for diversity and depth ensured that there was more than enough to fall back on.

Thirty-three countries were represented on this year’s roster of artists. Perhaps most impressively, organizers didn’t let their excitement over new flourishes compromise the imperative of being rock-solid with essentials: Port-a-potty lines were a rare sight, eating areas were as abundant and varied as the food and drink itself, coffee was available at all hours in multiple locations, and there were even free shuttles to mitigate the stress of walking its expanded diameter. In its 18th year, Barcelona’s annual jewel only strengthened its already concrete status as the world’s premiere music festival. –Steven Arroyo