Although Coachella unofficially kicks off festival season for Americans, across the Atlantic, that honor goes to Primavera Sound in Barcelona.
The far-reaching celebration of global music has been launching the European festival season from the Catalan capital since 2001, growing in worldwide acclaim yearly. With almost 200,000 square meters of undulating landscapes, grassy parks and cement structures, Primavera Sound features over a dozen stages sprinkled throughout the Parc del Fòrum — including two facing main stages, a wide amphitheater that looks out into the shimmering Mediterranean, and a Primavera Bits coastal stage only accessible by crossing a long bridge. And although music is the focus of the week, the fact that Primavera takes place in the cultural mecca of Barcelona is one of its most singular boasts.
Here are some of the best moments from the 2017 edition:
While Arcade Fire headlined one of the main stages on Saturday night with a marquee midnight time slot, that was not the Montreal collective’s best show in Barcelona. That honor would go to an unannounced set essentially kicking off the festival Thursday afternoon. On a secret four-sided stage used only for this one show, Arcade Fire blew the collective minds of the several thousand that had just caught wind of the performance via rumor mill, tweet, blog post etc. The four-sided stage allowed most to get startlingly close to the headliner act, making the set feel intimate in a way few will experience. Starting the set with the world premier of their track “Everything Now” from their upcoming album, Win Butler stalked the stage like a happy, lanky giant, he and his eight band mates balancing their attention between the four fronts. “We’re so happy to be here we can’t even fucking tell you! Thank you!” he said to the crowd as the golden sun settled on the delighted faces of those all around. Then they kicked into “Here Comes the Night Time” from their 2013 album Reflektor as twilight fell upon the Forum crowd. By the time the Canadian ensemble ended on “Rebellion (Lies),” with Régine Chassagne running from stage to stage pulling multi-colored streamers, the festival hit an early climax.
Long before Lady Gaga was wearing cold cut salami gowns and bungee jumping into Super Bowls, Grace Jones has been perfecting the art of spectacle. Few have ever touched the fierce conflation of avant-garde with pop entertainment the way that Jones has consistently done since the 1970s — and that continues into 2017. Lighting the stage with a cover of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing,” Jones played an hour-plus set that will not be forgotten by anyone in attendance. Between strapping on a giant dildo for “My Jamaican Guy,” walking out into the crowd in regal Mayan-like headware and repeatedly changing flamboyant masks, Jones elevated Primavera Sound into a sartorial marvel. It shouldn’t be surprising that the supermodel who first gained fame strutting for the likes of Yves St. Laurent and Kenzo would choose clothing as her favored weapon of choice — but to the degree with which Grace takes over the stage with fashion is an accomplishment on its own. By the time she wrapped up her set with a master class in hoola-hooping, the Primavera crowd was utterly dazzled.
Just like Arcade Fire’s unexpected Thursday set, one of the gems of Primavera Sound are secret shows and off-menu sets dubbed “Primavera Unexpected.” In a small tent tucked by the harbor the boys from Hot Chip entertained an invite-only crowd to a disco heavy set punctuated with favorites like Wham!’s “Everything She Wants.” But these shows aren’t for VIPs — tokens and wristbands are handed out to lucky random fans walking around the festival, and the sets are also used as a reward for staff wrapping up their long night. Mogwai used a similar Primavera Unexpected opp on the Bacardí Live stage to world premier their next album Every Country’s Sun, while Haim selfied their way through a late Sunday night unannounced set on the Ray Ban amphitheater.
Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels came out scorching like a missile, with DJ Trackstar cuing up Queen’s “We Are the Champions” for a singalong that erupted directly into the concussive beats of “Talk To Me” from their latest RTJ3 album. It was explosive, with the 30,000 strong filling the main Mango stage pogoing wildly. Unexpectedly the sound cut off only ten minutes into the set during “Blockbuster Night, Part 1,” which allowed the Primavera crowd to show its true colors. Instead of boos a collective RTJ! RTJ!! chant rang out from Calle Diagonal to left to the Mediterranean Sea below. To entertain the sound blackout, the two rappers broke out into a spontaneous dance battle, with a surprisingly agile Killer Mike only being outdone by El-P’s impressive caterpillar.
Unfortunately the delay was much too long to be forgivable for a massive fest like this, akin to the troubles Coachella had this year during Radiohead’s infamous set. The rapid-fire duo stumbled a bit to regain footing, but took a break to unleash a scathing indictment of America’s president to the collective delight of the European crowd. By “Panther Like a Panther,” with the “I’m the shit, bitch” chorus, they had won the crowd back over again. A couple collaborations in the DJ Shadow-produced “Nobody Speaks” and “Run the Jewels Fast” (with an absent Zack De La Rocha) followed, before ending it all with their eponymous anthem. Quite likely the most hyped set of all Primavera.
Around 15,000 stuffed themselves shoulder-to-shoulder into the Ray Ban amphitheater to catch the latest from Flying Lotus, making crossing the lake of humanity nearly impossible. Impressive for a 3:30 a.m. set as people were streaming out of the festival to the comforts of their beds. FlyLo massaged the crowd with his abstract jazz/hip-hop musings, including a highly tweaked version of De La Soul’s “Me, Myself & I,” a playful collage with Kendrick Lamar’s “Wesley’s Theory” acapella and “Never Catch Me,” another Kdot collaboration from the two Los Angeles artists. Serious FlyLo fans were rewarded for staying till the end with a world premier of “Pre Requisite,” a track Mr. Ellison just produced with longtime friend and collaborator Thundercat — allegedly recorded right before he jumped on the plane to Primavera.
Taking full advantage of the prime Friday night slot vacated by Frank Ocean’s last minute pull out, Jamie xx kicked off his 2 a.m. set with a Catalan salsa disco song that wisely repeated “Primavera” to the dance-anxious crowd. The set was excellent and tasteful as can be expected from The xx’s producer, punctuated by controlled moments of silence that held the crowd rapt. He put a bow on the night with Ocean’s “Nikes” blending into “Gosh” from his own In Colour album. A tasteful homage to an artist heavily missed from this year’s bill.
Canada’s beer-swilled answer to Beck (with maybe a dash of Ween thrown in), Mac DeMarco marched immediately from “Salad Days” into a crowd charming set. The fact that his band was powered by an utterly naked drummer only helped out the vibes, because soon it inspired DeMarco himself to strip as well. Slow and teasing, the singer pulled the thoroughly entertained crowd down along with his jeans, eventually stripping down to his boxers. In front of the camera and to the squeals of the crowd, DeMarco pulled his boxers up until he gave himself a most painful looking wedgie. Needless to say he didn’t bother to redress, performing in thongs through his last two tracks, “Chamber of Reflection” and “Still Together,” while members of his band crowd surfed.
Holding the torch for the grime faithful was Skepta on a primetime slot Saturday night. The current king of UK rap blazed through most of his Mercury Prize-winning album Konnichiwa, pulling a classic rewind for “It Ain’t Safe” for the Primavera massive. “Does anyone like grime here?” Skepta asked Barcelona, and was quickly reassured. “Cause you know we gonna get grimey!” Strutting around in a smart orange polo, black sweats, newsboy cap and sunglasses, Joseph Adenuga looked more like Jordan playing a round of golf than Kanye playing the main stage. But he delivered on hits like the Pharrell Williams-produced “Numbers” and “Crime Riddim,” before his Boy Better Know crewmate Frisco jumped on stage for a couple tracks — including the post-Konnichiwa “No Security” and a brand new track titled “Hypocrisy” to close out the set.
The reclusive, always enigmatic Richard D. James chose Primavera Sound to kick off his 2017 summer festival tour across Europe. As can be expected of an Aphex Twin set, James doesn’t so much as play a series of tracks as he scripts a narrative with sonics, pulling the listener on a journey through sound. It is a kaleidoscopic story — the question of whether you like the tale or not is another thing altogether. Walking through the crowd there seemed to be only two responses: dancing frenziedly or staring blankly ahead, dumbfounded. By the peak Aphex Twin had scrambled the cerebral cortexes of everyone in attendance with a prismatic set that was at once schizophrenic, gorgeous and maniacal.
Part of the Primavera experience is a parallel program called Primavera Pro aimed at those who make music their careers. The event has emerged as a sort of mini European SXSW, featuring over 125 performances, panels and showcases. One highlight was Adeleida, a three-piece Chilean band shredding dark sweaty rock during sunshine hours. It is also a place where news is made. While traveling to Spain, Pitchfork founder Chris Kaskie dropped a bombshell tweet that after 13 years he’d be leaving the site this summer. With everyone wondering what was next for Kaskie, he was interviewed on Wednesday evening at Primavera Pro’s opening dinner while receiving the Primavera Award. When asked what’s next after leaving Pitchfork, Kaskie revealed he would be working an internship at Primavera Sound, which he called “the best festival in the world.” It was a fitting kick-off to the conference that drew over 300 delegates from around the world for three days of conversations on streaming, ticket re-sales, VR, independent radio and other industry issues.
“I just want to say this is one of our favorite festivals in the world,” Oliver Sim beamed to to the main stage primetime crowd, letting the Spanish cheers wash over them as the trio kicked into the first licks of “VCR.” The xx are lush and beautiful live — Sims vocals volleying with those of Romy Madley Scott’s with almost recorded clarity. And their sets are an emotional extension of their catalog, seeming especially fresh with tracks from this year’s I See You album (including “Say Something Loving,” “Lips,” “Dangerous” and “Replica”). Sure the snuggling vibe can get decidedly nappy at a festival, especially for an 11 p.m. set on a Friday night, but for those watching the encore of “On Hold” it was clear The xx delivered what people wanted.
In a ritual that is becoming Barcelona legend, hometown hero DJ Coco closed out Primavera Sound on Sunday morning. His close-out 6 a.m. sets on the Ray Ban amphitheater have become the stuff of folklore at the festival, and once again Coco delivered with hit after hit lifting the exhausted crowd to the brink of ecstacy. Starting with a Led Zeppelin acepella and leading into a string of house-rinsed classics (Beastie Boy’s “Root Down,” The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face,” Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and an explosive remix of “Smells Like Ten Spirit”), Coco showed off his immaculate party rocking skills for those who just didn’t want to let the weekend end. With the stage packed with hundreds of festival staff finally enjoying their moment of festivity, it was a sublime way to close out the f