The last time I was at Primavera Sound, in 2008, I almost chuckled myself into an early grave on watching this hilariously mismatched bout of fisticuffs between Alan Braxe and DJ Assault. 2011's major dust-up was more abstract. In the red corner: upstart challenger Technological Progress. In the blue corner: consistently formidable prizefighter Insufficient Testing. Soon after the doors to Barcelona's sprawling Parc del Forum opened on Thursday, the first day of Primavera's main festival programme, a winner emerged by knockout. The festival's rather fancy new system for paying for drinks, whereby a plastic card had to be pre-loaded with credit and handed to staff for each transaction instead of cash, had broken, but not before thousands of people had waited for well over an hour in snaking queues to pile wads of cash into the now-useless cards. And now no drinks, alcoholic or otherwise, were available anywhere on the site.
An extremely long queue for press tickets meant I experienced much of this situation only through the increasingly anguished texts of friends. I got in around three hours after the problems began, by which time bars had started accepting cash, and later on card refunds began to be issued. A logistical and financial disaster for the organisers, to be sure, and a less than auspicious start to the weekend for punters, but widespread free water handouts and the not-insignificant goodwill of the crowds, ensured by the sheer quality of this year's bill, meant this fairly major screw-up thankfully overshadowed only part of a day, rather than the whole festival.
Finally in, we headed for the main San Miguel stage, where Nick Cave and a selection of Bad Seeds had recently thundered into life in their Grinderman guise. Seeing the limitlessly charismatic Australian in action is always a tonic, and so it proved here. Still a dapper powderkeg at 53, Cave stalked and growled his way through the likes of "Love Bomb," "The Grinderman" and the enforced celibacy anthem "No Pussy Blues," each potent pick-me-ups after all the waiting.
"Go and see Suicide now," Cave commanded us as his set ended, and so we arrived at the first of many heartbreaking, Sophie's Choice schedule-clash dilemmas: Caribou vs Suicide vs Das Racist. Dan Snaith's Caribou on the ATP stage won the day by a whisker, and the verdant dream-pop of "She's the One" and the like was exquisite enough to banish any what-ifs. The ATP stage is one of several areas at the Parc del Forum where the sound benefits from partial enclosure by sloped edges, and Caribou's sound in that environment made for a beautifully immersing hour.
Next up on the ATP stage were Factory Floor, who blew my initial doubts into the long grass with their brilliant support set for Chris & Cosey at London's ICA earlier this year. The London trio's merciless bouts of ultra-percussive machine rock were impressive as ever here, but a smallish room remains the place to get the full mesmerising experience.
That left Greg Gillis, AKA Girl Talk, to close out Thursday on the Llevant stage. There's not a lot left to say about the man who has single-handedly breathed new life into the mashup genre; he's just a solid-gold guarantee of great fun. The set's 5 AM start (after everything else had finished for the night) ensured a massive crowd, and Gillis's eye-popping skills with a reclaimed pop nugget or 300, the usual posse of stage dancers plucked from the crowd, and a constant hail of balloons and toilet rolls, created one of the best atmospheres of the festival. As a friend, mind duly blown by hearing Girl Talk for the first time, said to me: "Three times a minute you get the feeling you get when your favourite band starts playing your favourite song."
Refuelled by a combination of sleep and enough tapas to kill a herd of elephants, we began Friday in the company of blond-maned LA rock caricature Ariel Pink and his Haunted Graffiti on the Pitchfork stage. His Before Today album from last year is a wonder to behold, and much of it got an outing here, with the magisterial rebooted soft rock of "Round and Round" a standout among standouts.
Belle and Sebastian /// Photo credit: Gill McCabe
Spousal obligation then took me up to the San Miguel stage to see Belle & Sebastian, who—perhaps unsurprisingly for a writer of this parish—I've never much cared for. However, something that used to irritate me about their music seems to have disappeared recently (answers on a postcard please) and I can't deny I enjoyed them. I also can't deny that I became "lost" during a trip to the bar and ended up catching, entirely by accident of course, a bit of Twin Shadow's rewired new wave back down on the Pitchfork stage. Luck had it that one of the three songs I saw George Lewis Jr. and his band play was "Forget"—for my money one of the most absurdly beautiful songs of the last few years—and I slipped back to the main stage satisfied at having committed the perfect crime.
Steve Albini's minimalist rock greats Shellac got the nod over Explosions In The Sky, Deerhunter and Field Music in the next round of schedule-clash tug o' war. Their fat-free math-rock clatter was as tight as the circle formed around drummer Todd Trainer by Albini and bassist Bob Weston, and the ATP stage was an intimate enough setting for Albini to be able to conduct his mid-set "question and answer" session with the crowd as normal. "The title of this song, 'He Came in You,' makes it sound like it's about some sort of sexual situation ... and that's because it is," intoned Albini late on, proving yet again that uncompromising musical polymaths who crusade for decades against industry bullshit can have fun too.
Shellac /// Photo credit: Gill McCabe
When Shellac finished at 1.30 AM, there was only one realistic next destination, and going by the almost complete lack of competition on the schedule, the organisers knew it. Pulp's first show since 2002 on the San Miguel stage was simply a joy, Jarvis Cocker resplendent and slender as ever in his suit and tie, throwing the shapes of old as this, the classic '90s Pulp lineup, delighted the enormous crowd with the likes of "Disco 2000," "Something Changed," "Sorted For E's & Wizz" and "I Spy." There was a marriage proposal in the front row, presided over by a mini-camera-carrying Jarvis, there was charming between-song talk of the band's pre-show nerves as he sipped red wine, and there was a song dedicated to the anti-austerity protestors beaten and shot with rubber bullets by police in Barcelona's Plaça de Catalunya earlier in the day. There was also the peculiar delight of hearing thousands of heavily accented Spanish voices belt out the lyrics to "Common People," and an affectionate nod to the city's nightlife with final song "Razzmatazz." It's great to have them back.
Einstürzende Neubauten /// Photo credit: Gill McCabe
Saturday began with a show of journalistic integrity to echo through the ages: me picking Einstürzende Neubauten on the Ray-Ban stage over Barcelona vs Manchester United on the big screen at the Llevant stage. "Good evening, all you non-soccer fans," was Blixa Bargeld's laconic welcome—if only you knew, Blixa—but their reliably compelling post-industrial workouts and creative use of scrap metal, industrial machinery and bin lids to add percussive texture rewarded the attention of non-soccer fans and those making a minor sacrifice alike.
Matthew Dear /// Photo credit: Gill McCabe
Next on the Pitchfork stage was Matthew Dear, a perennial fixture in Catalonia each summer at either Primavera or Sonar. You always know what you'll get with the Ghostly International co-founder: a sickeningly attractive and well-dressed man leading his band through some of the most expertly crafted electronic pop of recent times. A slightly looser, summer-vacation feel imbued many of the tracks compared with the couple of other times I've seen him live since the release of his Black City album, and the only disappointment came when his set ended a little earlier than I'd expected. Perhaps James Blake, DJing after Dear, was getting tetchy about his set starting on time. If so, he was rather subtler about it than DJ Assault was on the same stage three years ago.
From there we stumbled in the direction of Michael Gira's Swans, on the Ray-Ban stage, another area to benefit from both sloped slides and terraced seating, takeup of which had spiked markedly by this late stage. Like Shellac, Swans are one of the true cornerstones of underground American rock, undiminished by a 13-year hiatus broken only last year. In the shape of new album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, they possess rhythms as stomping, bass as thundering and lyrics as shot through with deliciously bleak fury as ever.
Animal Collective provided the main San Miguel stage's final set of the weekend, and, going by some of the grumbles I heard, their experimental, Afrobeat-inflected rock was a little more experimental and Afrobeat-inflected than a portion of the crowd was prepared to tolerate from a main stage act on the final night. Me? I'd say Primavera's just the kind of festival where music like this should be at centre stage—so more power to them and their ten-minute tropical/electro freakout ending.
A last wander around brought brief diversion in the shape of The Suicide Of Western Culture's uncomplicated three-man synth assault at the Jagermeister Vice stage, before the likeable synth-pop of DFA's Holy Ghost! brought things to a close on the Ray-Ban stage in front of a crowd oscillating between enjoyment and complete exhaustion. "Thank you for being non-violent," said singer Alex Frankel, as if anyone still had the energy for that.
Though Saturday brought the close of the main part of Primavera, there was still a hell of a treat in store for those who could muster the enthusiasm for yet more music on Sunday. Bookending the festival were two gigs, on Wednesday and Sunday, at Poble Espanyol, the open-air architectural museum on Montjuïc hill where Primavera was held from 2001 to 2004. Travel dates meant we missed the first, featuring Echo & The Bunnymen and Caribou, but Sunday's show, at which Mercury Rev played their classic Deserter's Songs LP, as well as a lovely cover of Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill," was a beautiful way to end the weekend in breathtaking surroundings.
"You've got the best festival in the world here," lead vocalist Jonathan Donahue said during his band's encore. He appeared genuinely moved to be there, and his statement sounded like anything but empty rock star bluster. Technological misadventures or not, there's little to rival Primavera Sound on the calendar of major music festivals right now.