The català capital that is Barcelona boasts a drinking culture that’s quite literally so laid-back that it effortlessly lends itself to the alcoholics unanimous all festivals so inevitably, and with that almost immediately become without fail: we trundle past the monolithic Estrella Damm brewery on the way into town from the airport, whilst once inside every other building is seemingly a bar. Thus if welcoming, it’s somewhat disconcerting, therefore, that the city’s unimpeachable alternative music festival, Primavera Sound, should this year be sponsored by the Dutch leviathan of lager that is Heineken. I suppose lager’s lager, as the haggard gent in the corner of any which bucolic boozer back home will so incomprehensibly inform, and this shift toward a more international outlook is transparently reflected in the influx of alien reveller anyhow. The festival programme even features an advert proclaiming the beer’s vivifying powers: ‘Amplifica tu mundo’ it reads. It amplifies your world, or at least it ostensibly does to directly translate in a deplorably impassive manner.
It’s three years since I was last on Barcelonan shores for this particular shindig although the times, they’ve quite patently a-changed: it was then, albeit still incomprehensibly, sponsored by San Miguel – a beer originating, intriguingly enough, from the Philippines which was first fermented in Southeast Asia’s inaugural brewery, only becoming wholly Spanish-owned at the turn of the millennium when a remaining 30% stake was snapped up by the madrileño beer seen in McDonalds, Mahou – and although the streets teem with that same can-toting topless of before, there’s now a far more profuse abundance of English vomited all around us.
Snobbism aside, I’ve grown increasingly infuriated by our continued, and indeed contemptuous invasion of mainland Europe. Were it not so ignorant both linguistically and so too culturally, I’d doubtless condone it for its exploratory and horizon-expanding proficiency although for those very reasons, I really struggle with the very concept. (The obligatory gasp at the availability of alcohol in fast food outlets aforesaid does so similarly.) But I this year wanted to explore a little bit more comprehensively the perceptible impact the entity that is Primavera Sound has on the city of Barcelona.
A cursory glance about the centre suggests it’s a matter of universal importance, what with overtly visible billboards now advertising its imminence. Though the central show of Wednesday’s warmup bash is, without question, that of local Balearic beat maestro John Talabot. There is no foofaraw when it comes to the Barça hombre – not even here in the gently chintzy Sala Apolo to the southwest of the city – but instead a blitz of intricate and idiosyncratic, if forever blissful disco. As is so often his wont, he begins with the inviting humidities of Depak Ine before going on to intensify his set as it slowly but surely crescendos when amalgamated into one invigorating whole. Though whereas he last summer proved seamlessly Sónar, there’s a bit more trepidation and so too ambivalence tonight – not least for an artist returning to home turf, having so extensively touted his musics about the many enviable corners of the Earth over the duration of this past year.
The English have seemingly been siphoned off elsewhere and indeed, tonight the festival has discernibly expanded: where you could once have waltzed into the Apolo on any of these ancillary evenings, the queue now stretches a sizeable proportion of the distance down to the for the moment remote Parc del Fòrum. This snaking line, incidentally, moans and groans in what is a commonly germanic tone, as German gulps collide with archetypally indecorous British slurs. (An approximated 40% of this year’s attendance crossed at least one internationally recognised border en route to Cataluña.) Thus it’s not to intentionally detract from Talabot’s international appeal (of which there is quite apparently oodles) that I suggest there being an omnipresence of español once inside, although the apathy perhaps says something of how the people of Barcelona maybe fail to directly identify with a man who is, to all intents and purposes, something of an indispensable cultural flag bearer for this staunchly autonomous community. I mean it may well be the Heineken whispering fetid nothings in an ear, but there’s a palpable sense of Talabot really being onto something unrelentingly original here once the bloodcurdling squeals of Oro y Sangre abate to allow for its surging electronica vibe to truly thrive.
But yet more saddening still is that the first linguistic pitstop those who so softly sway make is, distressingly or maybe merely predictably enough, English. “You leik dis?” quizzes an irrepressible chancer who, no matter how many times his lecherous advances may be rebuffed, persists regardless with an improbable suitor to positively epitomise indifference, and later rage. Clichéd as it may sound, we’re brought together by the music more than anything else and yet we remain divided; dislocated by cultural difference. Though one of the more positive elements of this disconnect that I witness this week is that whereas in the UK there has been a recent trend which suggests the outcast’s increased societal acceptance – a crisp progression mirrored in the current actuality that the left field continues to pollute that more mainstream of culture – there is here a society-spanning appreciation of indie. Primarily American; occasionally Canadian, although at times so too British. They may harbour this odd proclivity for the idolisation of the exotic – one which appears all the more bizarre when they’ve now the likes of Talabot to call their own and eulogise thus – although as a people, the Catalans I encounter are all inconceivably amicable regardless, or perhaps rather because, of my outward otherness.
But the city itself has, inadvertently I don’t doubt, tidied itself up a touch in time for this year’s edition. It remains a city of many faces, most of which manifest themselves as malformed and unmistakably ugly features of what, somewhat perplexingly, remains an enduringly endearing city but Primavera Sound is still its most winsome facet. However we, the migrant population, make our mark: whether those Brits who, deeming the metropolis something of an idyllic Utopia by day and a perfectly lawless, gritty dystopia come sundown, litter the streets with vacated cans of Estrella Damm or those from further afield who surreptitiously sell the stuff on each and every street corner, this alien impact resonates as one which is palpably, if perhaps only superficially detrimental.
This effect similarly translates to the city’s general demographic during the festival, for society is overrun with the riffraff of E8 and every neighbouring postcode. As has been so incessantly stated, Barça outwardly becomes “Dalston-on-Sea” and that fact alone is unreservedly disquieting: Rough Trade totes inexplicably sold onsite at the Parc del Fòrum are interspersed with beyond clichéd Beyond Retro bags, whilst jingoistic chants of London later abound during Blur. Away from the festival itself and downtown, tour buses of both sorts can be seen wherever you turn whilst Brits struggling with Spanish locks seems a perpetual feature of the week, the luminous green ends of the pulsera (or what an overzealous security brigade may confoundingly brand a “bracelet”) endlessly in the way of oxidised entrances.
That enwrapped around my wrist reads ‘PRESS’ (the 2012 edition played host to around 550 international media toilers, with 900-odd national compeers present) with these five purportedly all-important letters placed beside the omnipresent Heineken logo. Nonetheless more worrisome still is the outward appearance of the festival’s main stage – that which is sponsored by the libation in question. For the drapes flanking either side of this monolithic, if ephemeral construction on the one side confirm we’re currently to be quite miraculously found at ‘Primavera Sound 2013 Barcelona’ while the other reminds us we’re likely in need of further refreshment, and of course recommends we indulge in a ‘Heineken’. Though while the latter is radiantly illumined under a verdant spotlight and hoisted high, the name of the festival itself lies at the base of this opposing side. If never out of mind, the logo thus remains out of sight across the entire weekend and it’s as though the two labels are thereby hung in the balance on some metaphysical set of immense scales. It takes little to discern which side they’re tilted in favour of, and this seems to represent a shift in incentive as the festival itself continues to expand exponentially.
Obtrusive Heineken beer vendors who’ll come spunk out an €11, one litre job right in your line of sight ply these hastily glugged vats seen lugged about the place in flagrant Britishism, although it’s the natives who are the ones left standing latest night after night thus it’s they who are out early enough to slide down the first tubes back into town. And it’s here where the impact of the festival at large is most heavily felt: for Primavera Sound overhauls many of the city’s bars over the course of April in anticipation of the main event, and its clubs and parks across the entirety of the week before it then relocates to Porto the following weekend. For an inner-city bash with a line up pristine as that of this year, the Parc del Fòrum really stinks as a venue in that it literally reeks of Glastonbury’s great unwashed but it’s back in this more central setting that the festival this year really blossoms. The shows unspeakably more intimate and the atmosphere considerably more convivial, those held on the fringes of the Parc de la Ciutadella and spread out over the several stages of the Sala Apolo this time add great variety and so too vigour to the beginning, and indeed end of the festival.
Though it’s the virtues of Barcelona itself which are so widely extolled by those invited to this time take part in Primavera Sound: Carson Cox of Merchandise, having once snarled of “a perfect country that sits right by the sea” on Anxiety’s Door, professes to there being “none other like it” midway through one of the band’s four heady shows smeared across the week whilst his namesake Bradford, a renowned aficionado of the city, goes one better in the scramble for unadulterated hyperbole. “The best festival in the world in Barcelona, the best city in the world.” And indeed it’s the one and only Brian “Geologist” Weitz of Animal Collective would voluntarily frequent given even half a chance, as he trumps even the spindly Deerhunter: “This is definitely my favourite festival in the world” he gushes with barely a prompt. “I always say it’s the only one I would come to if I weren’t playing, and I think this is our fourth or fifth one. I like the layout of the place; it’s nice that it’s in the city too, so you don’t have to worry about camping or driving in.” He continues to commend its latent curational aspect, before confirming that the troop’s 2008 set during which they aired certain Merriweather Post Pavilion material for a first time still ranks among their finest to date. But sycophantic as all of the above may well sound – and there’s certainly an element of Weitz here articulating the anticipated – you can’t help but sense he really means what he’s saying.
For Primavera Sound is a truly fantastic festival. Never is there a tedious moment, primarily due to the reality that with so much on nonstop, there’s only rarely an idle one to relish. Even in times of financial austerity – and lest we forget that Spain is currently more profoundly stuck in the proverbial mud than even we – it remains as immovable a fixture of the city as the as yet incomplete Sagrada Familia, though this one may be forever remembered as the year it scaled previously uncharted heights and truly struck gold as it hit a positively scintillating big time. Did it get too big for its own good? Potentially, aye. Its capacity has increased by nigh on 50% in the past three years alone, with an average of around 55,000 revellers this time arriving at the Parc del Fòrum daily although there are of course benefits to each and every stage being some outdoor behemoth in that everybody gets in, and almost everyone can see no matter how blotto.
But the lack of intimate experience of an at least musical variety is a possible area in which it can still be improved upon, no matter how inconceivable such a thing may seem. Similarly, there was a sense that its organisers went for broke this year with a line up comprised nigh on exclusively of artists this summer headlining elsewhere. Thus if only time will tell whether what seemed something of a gamble will have ultimately paid off – and with weekend abonos this year selling out completely some ten weeks ahead of the event, it at first appears to have already done so – it can instantly be considered a richly rewarding occasion on a one-off basis. Surely nobody would begrudge them less a regression than a reversion to older, more bijou ways but irrespective of the direction in which Primavera Sound now moves, its ability to better acquaint with the city, to reflect a both national and cultural identity, and with that project the appearance of an unrelentingly progressive festival proves ineffably impressive. Thus all that’s left is to once again exclaim the parting muchas gracias, Primavera Sound.
Dots & Dashes’ full coverage of Primavera Sound 2013 can be found here.