Recumbent along the Ribeiran bank of the Douro river, the two necessarily hyphenated adjectives best applied to Porto – Portugal’s so-called segunda cidade, or ‘second city’ – are ‘laid-back’ and ‘low-key’; and these prove similarly applicable to the 2016 edition of NOS Primavera Sound. However, whereas the Portuguese perna of the celebrated, bipedal jamboree can often feel like a little bit of an afterthought, taking place as it does in the immediate aftermath of the detrimentally massive Barcelonan cama, empirically speaking, it increasingly seems a key player on the European festival circuit…
Set in the lusciously verdurous surrounds of the Parque da Cidade, a clutch of kilometres north of where the Douro waters stream out into the Atlantic, it makes for a beautiful, and beautifully respected setting: there is none of the drug-induced nonsense so often seen at the Parc del Fòrum, with the odd bod pissing in the bushes about as debauched and/ or disgusting as it gets. (Indeed, a dearth of [incredibly well-looked-after] toilets precipitates this, and is one of ineffably few blots on NOS Primavera Sound’s proverbial copybook.) So although there is relatively little, if any, of the smut, mud, etc. by which British festivals are so often defined, its situation – combined with the temporal revelation that, against geographical logic, Portugal finds itself in the exact same time zone as these particular, peculiar isles – ensures there is a rather familiar feel it all. Those grassy expanses aforesaid are complemented by (admittedly, comparatively) inexpensive street food stalls, also; where NOS Primavera Sound differs – and does so dramatically – though, is in its similarly reasonable price structuring. Final-release tickets set you back a basic €115, while a pint costs a pitiful, almost bemusing, but ultimately, most welcomely modest €3.50; but, to reiterate, there are no bacchanalian shenanigans on show, with sangria and Super Bock (as well, weirdly enough, as Somersby Cider – a Danish, if mock-British tipple which has, reputedly, ‘obtained a reputation of spreading joy and sunny togetherness’) flowing as readily as, well, ‘joy and sunny togetherness’.
This is something that translates from audience to artist, too: the 6 Musical Julia Holter remarks, midway through what is, otherwise, a somewhat unremarkable set on the Palco Super Bock, “It’s so beautiful here in Porto; I wanna stay longer,” while Victoria Legrand of the altogether more impressive Beach House tells of how she and Alex Scaly spent the three days prior to their spellbinding performance on the sizeable, if still eminently manageable NOS Stage taking in the sights and sounds of the city, a gently undulating smudge of striking red lipstick making her out to look every bit the fado diva the Baltimore, Marylanders saw the preceding evening. Parquet Courts’ Austin Brown, meanwhile, proffers a more culinarily inclined appreciation, professing to having indulged in “one of those Francisco [sic] sandwiches” in a knowing nod to the infamous, ominously omni-meaty Francesinha, which is said to have originated right here in Porto. Fellow lead vocalist Andrew Savage conversely looks as though he might have overindulged, he and his New York cohort expectorating a largely self-indulgent, and expectedly turgid set that, although lit up by the unarguably golden Master of My Craft, followed swiftly on by the commensurately scintillating Borrowed Time, seems to suggest they’re living on exactly that, as it soon becomes stodgy as the monstrosities they’ve audibly been chowing down thereon.
Otherwise, only the perma-curmudgeonly Geoff Barrow of BEAK> has a bad word to say about NOS Primavera Sound, taking umbrage with “the worst kick drum [he’s] ever played,” as well as the rather intrusive drones which hover overhead throughout their overly dronal renditions of Eggdog, Yatton, and so on. However, Barrow’s gripes notwithstanding, this seems to be a festival for the artists as much as it is their audiences: the cluster-fucking soundchecks audible from the nearby beaches, the Forte de São Francisco Xavier do Queijo, and so forth ensure the sound is, aside from a few “technical difficulties” (Cass McCombs, whose Morning Star still glints tremendously in the early evening sun) which bedevil Friday, beyond on-point.
And the setting, beneath honeyed setting suns that give way to greyish, if in no way gloomily crepuscular lighting, or a slight lack thereof, is most accommodating, a sloping hill littered with trees and little else lending an amphitheatrical feel to both the NOS and Super Bock stages. Sitting on this rolling incline is not so much instigated as insisted upon, bags containing blankets handed out to everyone upon entry. Those sternest of cynics may be more wary of NOS exercising slightly too much brand awareness, perhaps, but the bags are very evidently beloved of everyone in attendance, with those from previous editions seen frequently across the course of the week. But NOS’ involvement is more helpful than hindering and, but for those aforesaid drones, proves in no way intrusive; indeed, it serves as vivid, if somewhat distressing testament to how the now, widely lambasted All Tomorrow’s Parties could have avoided becoming a thing of the past: the . Stage stands where that of ATP once was, and maybe would’ve been, as rumours spread of the commendably uncompromising Drive Like Jehu refusing to play a stage associated with Barry Hogan & Co., their recent curation relocated from North Wales to southwest Manchester, before notoriously being unceremoniously cancelled mere days before it was scheduled to take place last April.
Back in Porto though, particularly vivid are the handmade headdresses – made to order daily, and from a panoply of polychromic blooms and blossoms – seen throughout the site, with this branding far better integrated than it is in Barcelona: for one, we sup on Super Bock, instead of Heineken; for another, the majority of other ‘Partners’ are national institutions, instead of conglomerate multinationals. But it’s the app produced by ‘Main Sponsor’ NOS which is perhaps their finest contribution to the festival: a small, seemingly inconsequential footnote maybe, but so perfectly formed is this, that it puts those of their every contemporary to shame, as it prompts ten minutes prior to showtime. And, for once, this proves ample time to make it to more or less anywhere necessary.
Our first port of call is São João da Madeira four-piece Sensible Soccers, who play with ephemeral reflections of Emeralds – forever a positive thing, of course – and kick proceedings off with complete aplomb; they’re succeeded on the Palco Super Bock by the altogether less successful, wildly nothingy Wild Nothing, who look bored and sound boring, to boot. Invigorating, and visibly reinvigorated meanwhile, are Deerhunter who, in spite of Bradford Cox seemingly kitting himself out in castoffs from Angus Young’s wardrobe, turn in a stylish, timeless set that fizzles and sparks with joie de vivre renewed, with the likes of Breaker and Snakeskin – not to mention an eminently saxy, sexophonic Living My Life – effortlessly fitting in with a phenomenal Agoraphobia and a smattering of matter-of-factly seminal Halcyon Digest tracks. There may be strokes of a certain Casablancas’ lot at times, while Desire Lines – enlivened by an extended coda which swivels on that bass line – is slightly over-egged, but in short, they’re back on song and, playing songs that people actually, actively want to hear live, this evening, they really do thrive.
The same can’t quite be said of Sigur Rós who, reduced to a trio once more, revisit the chilling landscapes encapsulated in, but never contained by, breakthrough releases Ágætis Byrjun (Ný Batterí and Starálfur) and ( ) (E-Bow, Popplagið, and Vaka), with the opening, all-new Óveður intimating toward a return to rather more spare, petrifying arrangements in the future. It takes until the lattermost moments of Sæglópur for Jón Þór Birgisson, Georg Hólm and Orri Páll Dýrason to emerge from the shadows, silhouettes enmeshed in strip lights our guides through the bleak, uncluttered opening exchanges which prove ever so evocative of their native Ísland. But, transcendent though their emergence from the realms of the imperceptible may be, the prevailing impression is that Sigur Rós have lost their way somewhat: their sound remains cinematic in scope, yet its silvery qualities have dulled to such an extent that, at times, they seem more formulaic than epic. Of course, they continue to command the kind of adulation which sees the doting, enduring and durable front rows sing along to the unsingalongable, Birgisson’s searching, idiosyncratic laments meaning an awful lot to an awful lot, without really meaning anything to anyone. And a concluding Popplagið stands as the absolute reminiscence of why they’re held in such high reverence still. But, still, the question as to whether they’ve got a great deal left to give persists and, taking into account a dismayingly messy Festival, the answer would seem to be they’re no longer the heady, ready headliners they once were…
Which consequently, subsequently, leaves Animal Collective with rather a lot of legwork to make up; that they’re able to do so so effortlessly, without benefitting from the euphoric fluorescences of Merriweather Post Pavilion – not to mention under torrential rains, just goes to show how compelling a collection Painting With really, truly is and was. Their revising Martha Reeves & The Vandellas’ Jimmy Mack is something of a concession to time, place, et cetera, but elsewhere, reminiscent of Magical Trevor, The Burglars is the stuff of chopped-and-screwy wizardry, while Golden Gal does indeed ‘inspire the sort of festival euphoria rivalled only by Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds in full’.
Which, as it just so happens, is precisely what several thousand happen upon the following afternoon, transpiring to prove a superb reminder of the erstwhile Beach Boy’s abiding brilliance. How much of it remains has – as was with Sigur Rós the previous evening – to be questioned of course, more recent novelty releases certainly more questionable than novel; but Wilson is still there, or thereabouts, inaugurating proceedings with an unprompted, “Hello Porto,” before requesting “more voice in [his] monitor.” As quintessentially American a national monument as Cabrillo, in Wilson’s native California, or Fort Sumter, or 1732 Popes Creek Road, to see him sat behind a grand piano is a thing of immediate wonderment in and of itself. But, although alive, how well he is nowadays is less easily seen, or shown; regardless, he certainly doesn’t seem “made for these times.” And essentially, it’s pretty saddening to see The Beach Boys’ master puppeteer become quite so impotent onstage: where he would once have directed the musically incompetent Mike Love and his like, Wilson is now surrounded by altogether more proficient – not to mention compos mentis – musicians, and rarely dares to lay a finger on the ebonies and/ or ivories. On this sort of evidence, you can only presume John Cusack would’ve been as, if not more capable, but ultimately, God only knows what tonight might’ve been like without the likes of Al Jardine et al. backing him up…
However, Wilson is just about capable of mustering a series of expressions to suggest he’s visibly overwhelmed by the reaction with which his coup de maître is met; a reaction which, as much as fifty years on, mirrors that of those who’ve ever given Pet Sounds a spin. And tonight is as much a celebration of said album – still very obviously loved by very many, mercifully – as it is of its auteur: sure, Wilson does little, to nothing, in clunky white Nike clodhoppers which make him out to look none too dissimilar to many another, if not any other DSLR-slinging Statesider setting foot on Iberian soil for the first time, but it matters little, to not at all. For as much as Blondie Chaplin might try and nick the limelight, with his knackered riffs and hackneyed pub-rock posturing, it’s the motionless, immobile Wilson upon whom all ears are fixated, and by whom all eyes are transfixed.
As far as vocal cords may be concerned, well, Wilson makes for a superlative festival act in that, somewhere or other, in the lush chorus of voices, there’s a range for everyone; inclusive, on occasion, of Wilson himself. Yes, there are missteps, with the won-won-won-wonderful Wouldn’t It Be Nice abridged dramatically, while in much the same way that A Design for Life is wasted so early on in the Manic Street Preachers’ Everything Must Go revisitations, the album retrospective format prescribes a closing, if less than climactic Caroline, No; but with Good Vibrations, Help Me, Rhonda, Barbara Ann, Surfin’ USA, and Fun, Fun, Fun still in the tank, there’s more than enough to see him home. And, keeping on keeping on, a mere two days subsequent, he’s back touring the States, striking while the iron’s hot as a pinky, porky chouriço.
(A perhaps superfluous post scriptum, but intriguingly, firstly, Wilson has been playing no solo material on this particular tour, in spite of his having been so abruptly, unceremoniously booted out of The Beach Boys; and secondly, as unbelievable as it is for Pet Sounds to have turned fifty last month, without sounding like it in the slightest, the Cooper Black typeface which emblazons the album’s sleeve is now ninety-five!)
In stark contrast to the comparatively happy, and unabashedly clappy Pet Sounds, however, are the morose solemnities of PJ Harvey’s current setlist. Her sartorially commingling a pair of black hot pants – their shiny patina glinting in glaringly bright, denuding lighting – with a blackened veil draped across her shoulders suggests we should expect as much of her more raucous, discordant early oughties outpour as her more recent, sterner material, although the dour overtones of Let England Shake and the subsequent The Hope Six Demolition Project comprise the majority of tonight’s show, defining the whole thing as they do so. Presumed anathema to this stereotypically ‘laid-back’ and ‘low-key’ peninsula, Polly Jean, MBE amasses a positively massive audience but, rooted back in Blighty, little translates as well as Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, for instance, might have otherwise. However, she’s never been one to bow to convention nor anticipation, and continuing to do all that she does so well on her own terms, she remains an immensely admirable mainstay of chameleonic art-rock; and her ability to so unrelentingly transform or transmogrify, informing and mystifying all the while, really is unrivalled.
So, although The Words That Maketh Murder – musically reminiscent of The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird; lyrically, chillingly, mutilated limbs still hang from trees in war-torn territories – doesn’t necessarily complement a chilled pint of Vini sangria, it’s stirring stuff all the same. And, as news of football-based violence begins to filter through from Marseille, The Glorious Land assumes a more sardonic tone than intended; “Oh, England,” indeed. But ultimately, as she directs a distinctly male-voiced choir through 90.9% of The Hope Six Demolition Project, this somewhat restrictive configuration – lacking drum kits, and the like – consequently strips the performance of requisite oomph for a main stage. In essence, the sonic muscularity exhibited by Savages on the Palco Super Bock prior thereto is absent, leaving us with a lean, mean, and less than killer live machine of a Friday night. And, as an incongruous gaggle of NOS-sponsored balloons, fitted with softly coruscating, fluoro lights, fly up and away into the jet-black skies, this grim mismatch between time, place and PJ Harvey makes itself unmistakably manifest.
By contrast, although Kiasmos’ set back over on the Palco Super Bock may be preceded by some more of those aforementioned dificuldades técnicas, not to mention intermittent shit-fits, they’re much better suited to this witching hour than the otherwise bewitching Peej appeared. More triumph in, rather than of, adversity therefore, after two false starts, and on their third and final strike, Ólafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen strike it lucky.
Having witnessed Kiasmos shows anywhere and everywhere from Barcelona to Reykjavík, and back to Hackney again, it’s intriguing to see how well they’re able to shuffle – or perhaps rather, reshuffle – the pack, in order to pack as much punch into their curtailed stage time. But with Bent, Swept and Thrown bent, swept and thrown into what comparatively little time remains, they put on a performance that is as, if not more engaging than ever previously; artist(s) and audience unified in hoping, praying, and so forth for no more technological recalcitrance. And, from the moment the initial clicks of Looped click into place, it’s impossible not to be transported to somewhere far removed from the Parque da Cidade; to a place where fermented, rather than inflatable, shark larks about, perhaps. But, as Arnalds delivers heartfelt thanks from the pits of that most integral of internal organs, celebrating this triumphant moment as his doppelgänger Per Mertesacker might an historic FA Cup victory, a feeling of utter oneness prevails.
As per both Sigur Rós and PJ Harvey before them, Beach House may be a bit too soporific for their date with the madrugada, but Legrand and Scally’s treating us to what they consider a “club show,” in light of a lengthier set time than they’ve become accustomed to in a festival setting, a) goes to show just how big a band they’ve quite rightfully become, and b) ensures those who stay out and about for the Baltimore duo are kept awake by some choice “deeper cuts.” Nothing cuts deeper than their outstanding Teen Dream of 2010, but from it, Silver Soul scintillates; elsewhere, Days of Candy has a delectably ecclesiastical quality to it, while Rough Song harks back to the days of Devotion. Their favouring the fruits of Depression Cherry, rather than those of Thank Your Lucky Stars, seems telling, although their enduring tendency to neglect Wildflower – from the former, rather than The Avalanches’ forthcoming record of that same name – is worthy of a telling off. The same can be said of their notoriously lousy light show, but when the rest of it’s so irrefutably resplendent, these really are irrelevant grievances…
And whereas these were both many and merited last time Battles crashed and banged their way into London, ‘seem[ing] somewhat light on firepower’, there’s absolutely no shortage of potency tonight. The juddering, shudder-inducing Dot Com gets us under way, with drummer John Stanier welcomed into the fray as though he were a wildly gyrating, widely ogled frontman. He’s central to proceedings in every which way, and pounds away at his kit to such punitive extent during Futura, that it looks as though the nuts holding it together may be unbolted at any moment. But this isn’t simply about Stanier and his infamously lofty cymbal, because he, Dave Konopka and Ian Williams are in such consummate synchrony with one another that’s it’s impossible not to be impressed. For in absolute and absolutely meticulous, almost mechanical control, they’re a real joy to behold. And, lo and behold, they too are having “an even better time than in Barcelona!”
Predictably, it’s Atlas and Ice Cream which are best received but, overly reliant on backing-tracked vocals, these are nowhere near their best; and while ‘Sundome would be pretty nice’, as their “first placard” down in the front row reads, there remains a deplorable paucity of material taken from Gloss Drop. However, with sweat dripping and another couple of shows beckoning, their work here is done; and done with assiduous purpose, also.
Drive Like Jehu don’t so much beckon as bawl within spitting distance of the Palco Super Bock, so condensed, and consequently navigable is the site, so they’re seen. But, having never been into the San Diegan post-hardcore scene personally, they’re not exactly savoured. So, as Rick Froberg rhetorically “hope[s we] like this kinda thing,” then conceding that “if not, there’s lots of other things to do,” tracks are made. And these lead straight back to NOS Stage, where floaty-lightweight Frenchmen Air are doing their soigné thing before several thousand. But, more reminiscent of a series of soundtracks to various publicidades than a set per se, and with their bigger hitters (with Alpha Beta Gaga and La femme d’argent the main offenders) more whistle- than sing-alongs, their impact is diminished to the point of becoming minuscule; an accusation that can never, ever be levelled at Explosions In the Sky, whose tumultuous, levelling post-rock escapades delight as much tonight as they have in serving memory. Beginning their set with The Birth and Death of the Day is a masterstroke; continuing with material from their masterpiece, The Wilderness, ensures any unsure of their enduring majesty are won over as one. And, currently operating on a plane echelons loftier than Air, we see out NOS Primavera Sound 2016 on a real high.
And, looking not so much back down, as simply back on it, it has proven a thoroughly preferable festival to any one I’ve frequented in Catalunya. There remain certain things and facets that it has still to learn from its antecedent, such as more (and much better promotion of) get-togethers such as the Primavera nas Virtudes festivities which take place on Wednesday (and witness, in Batida, a blindingly vibrant talent), but in only its fifth year, these are still relatively early days, and there is therefore time enough for developments both major and minor. Because in this “fitter, happier, more productive” city, far removed from Britain’s omnipresent “microwave dinners and saturated fats,” Primavera Sound has found the perfect space in which to stage itself. For infinitely more relaxed and, perhaps more importantly, relaxing, henceforth, this could be adéu, Barcelona, and olá, Porto! Because and finally, to paraphrase Sloop John B, this could well have been the very best trip I’ve ever been on.
Photography courtesy of Rhian Stuttle.