PRIMAVERA SOUND – The ultimate sunshine holiday for the discerning music fan
text and photos Cath Aubergine 28/3/11
The first festival ticket of the year popped through the letterbox this weekend, and with it that wonderful feeling that summer’s on its way. The hotel was booked way back in August last year; the flights just before Christmas… hang on a minute – flights? hotels? Are you talking about a festival or your summer holidays, I hear you ask. Well for a growing number of music fans from Britain and elsewhere, it’s a bit of both…
The LeedsReading line-up’s out, and about 75% of it looks exactly the same as last year and the year before. You can’t go to Glastonbury because you forgot to fill in their application form in triplicate sometime last November. And besides, if you wanted to go camping you’d go camping, right? You’re a music fan. You like a wide variety of genres, although chartpop and mainstream radio indie / rock are not high on your agenda. You like the idea of seeing some time-served and legendary artists but you’re not stuck in the past – there’s a whole load of great bands around now that didn’t even exist five years ago and you’d love to see a few of those, too. And what with the recession biting hard you’d really rather not have to choose between a major music festival, a European city break and a few days soaking up some Mediterranean beach sunshine – wouldn’t it be great if you could go on one trip that combined all three? There’s only one answer – get yourself to Barcelona the last weekend in May. Once you’ve experienced Primavera Sound you’ll never look back.
It starts as soon as you reach the airport and you find yourself discussing the merits of Fuck Buttons’ live show with the people in front of you in the check-in queue. There are more British music fans making the trip each year (and those from further afield, too – this year my own loose crew will include locals plus friends from across England, Oslo, Hong Kong and Brisbane) but as yet the festival hasn’t really caught on with the “let’s go for a lads’ weekend and get leathered in the vague vicinity of some random music” crowd. Maybe because of what it doesn’t have – fancy-dress contests, endless hippie stalls selling tat you’ll never look at again if indeed you manage not to lose it before the weekend’s out, beery singalong “everyman” acts like your Arctic Monkeys – as much as for what it does. Here’s six reasons why Primavera is the best festival in the world…
1. The line-up. Basically, the very best music from the dawn of time (or thereabouts) to the present day: every year seems to get tagged “the best yet” by regulars, and they’re usually right. Pitchfork and ATP curate stages and there’s simply no room for low-grade filler. This year you get your retro fix with Echo & The Bunnymen performing Heaven Up Here and Crocodiles, EinstÃÂ¸rzende Neubauten, Suicide, P.I.L., and Dean Wareham playing a Galaxie 500 set; contemporary bands such as Interpol, Simian Mobile Disco, Explosions In The Sky, Battles and Field Music; and the pick of the brightest new / breakthrough acts including Islet, Matthew Dear, Perfume Genius, Factory Floor, Warpaint and Yuck. As well as a whole load more in each category and a few great continental European and South American bands you’ve never heard of before. Most bands play full gig-length sets and stages are arranged with long spaces between acts which means they all get a decent soundcheck and you get fewer clashes. On the first day of the 2010 festival we managed to catch Sic Alps, Bis, Monotonix, The Fall, The XX, Comanechi, Tortoise, Crocodiles, Mission of Burma and Fuck Buttons plus a Brazilian grunge band and still have time for some food, drinks and sunbathing.
2. The festival site. No mud here, just concrete, concrete and more concrete, but concrete arranged in a rather more creative and attractive fashion than the post-war British small town precincts and Communist-bloc brutalist towers which have given concrete such a bad reputation. Wide, well-constructed leafy paths link the main plaza – whose two stages are arranged in such a way that the sound from one does not encroach badly on the other – with the smaller arenas and a seafront amphitheatre. You’re never more than about ten minutes’ walk from anywhere, and most of the stages have terraced seating if you just want to chill and watch a band from a distance. The indoor stage is a proper theatre used for artists that maybe wouldn’t work so well in a traditional festival environment; in 2009 Michael Nyman brought a 15-piece chamber orchestra and in 2010 we had a preview of Animal Collective’s film show.
And no, there’s no camping – but Barcelona is well-served with hostels, apartments and hotels to suit all budgets – on the upside this means the whole place doesn’t smell of shit and puke by the second day, and you won’t have your musical enjoyment spoiled by the fact that you only had half an hour’s sleep thanks to someone deciding to have a tent rave three feet away. And nobody will offer to paint your face, read your aura, or try and convince you that juggling in a jester’s hat is a reasonable activity for a sentient adult – but you can nip out to the shops over the road and nearby department store to furnish yourself with batteries, cigarettes, chemist’s stuff or even a change of clothes at regular shop prices should you feel the need.
3. The scheduling. Probably the most shit thing about British festivals – who in their right mind wants to watch a band at midday – or indeed stop watching bands at midnight? Here, the first bands start about an hour after the gates open at 4pm and continue til three or four in the morning, sometimes later. Headline level acts tend to play between 10pm and 2am then one or two of the stages become dance arenas but if you prefer your music live there are still options: Holy Fuck’s incredible 2008 set with the 5am sunrise behind them remains a favourite Primavera memory of everyone who witnessed it. Officially the site closes at 6am but apparently they’re never in much of a hurry to kick out the last few stragglers.
4. The location. It’s by the seaside, about three or four miles from Barcelona city centre. Sitting on a grassy bank in the blazing late afternoon sunshine under a bright blue cloudless sky sipping an ice-cold beer or fruit smoothie with the cityscape rising in front of you, the Balearic sea stretching out to the horizon one side and Steve Albini crunching out brutal riffs on the other (Shellac are effectively the house band and play pretty much every year; 2011 is no exception) – does life get much better than that?
5. The facilities. Let’s face it, the worst part of a large British festival is spending 40 minutes in a crush for as many pints as you can carry in one of those flimsy cardboard trays, all the while hoping someone who’s already had too many won’t crash into you as you make the twenty minute hike through a swamp back to your mates and hear half the set of the band you wanted to see in the distance. Primavera runs a token system that actually works; at peak times you might wait a whole ten minutes for a drink, and each stage has a bar from which you can see and hear the action while you do so. And with no concept of drinks measures in the British sense, being nice to the hard working bar staff can sometimes net you a spirit-and-mixer combo so strong it hurts your eyeballs. Luckily the place is equally well-catered with toilet facilities…
As for eating, you really haven’t experienced the ultimate festival junk-food until you’ve had a Pizza Cone. This is basically a savoury dough ice-cream-shaped cornet stuffed with pizza toppings and thus the best dirt-cheap eat-with-one-hand late-night drunken snackfood in the world ever. Sober it may closely resemble a cardboard tube stuffed with superheated wallpaper paste but that’s not what they’re there for. Luckily there’s also a wide range of very good quality actual food available: barbecues, Mexican, Thai, conventional pizza, curry (one of the few places in Barcelona you’ll get a decent one), falafel, salads, pancakes – and the legendary sandwiches which each year take the names of the high-profile performers: 2009’s choices included a Neil Young (ham and cheese: basic, but stood the test of time) and a My Bloody Valentine (spiced sausage with tomatoes and almond sauce; a fucked-up mess that might just work).
6. You can still get tickets. Yes, it’s just two months away but you haven’t missed the boat – and last-minuters can usually get them up to the week before. UK agent Seetickets has some left at ÃÂ£150 which is still a pretty good price for the line-up when you compare it to the big British festivals. You get five days of music for your money this year, with a stage up in the old town operating Wedensday and Sunday with the three days down by the sea in between – and if you go out a few days early there are great gigs in the city’s regular venues which are free entry to festival ticket holders, as well as a big Sunday daytime bill of local bands in the park next to the main station which is free for everyone. Amnd the best bit? When you’ve been once and realised it’s the only festival any discerning music fan needs, it gets a lot cheaper: the first batch of tickets go on sale each November at well under ÃÂ£100, with the price increasing gradually as the event approaches and more bands are booked. It’s certainly the only festival on which I would personally stake a ticket price without a look at the full line-up and I’ve been to a lot of festivals; this will be my fourth Primavera and already I can’t imagine ever being anywhere else that weekend.