Live Review

Primavera Sound 2012: Day One

Barcelona’s Primavera Sound marks the start of Europe’s festival season proper, an urban, and urbane, soirée by the sea.

So, it’s been hot in London eh? Muggy. Sultry. It’s not really ‘till the mercury first nudges past 25 that winter becomes a dark and distant memory and thoughts can properly turn to summer. And, in the same way, Barcelona’s Primavera Sound marks the start of Europe’s festival season proper, an urban, and urbane, soirée by the sea where the mud ‘n wellies glamour of Glastonbury et al is replaced by a cooling breeze and fashions best described as north of ‘alternative’. The balmy conditions and lack of camping lend a rare sophisticated air to what is now one of the most established events in the music calendar. For artists, it’s become essential, an opportunity to cement that Best New Music tag or rage against the dying light and the oppressive weight of a legacy. Primavera’s appeal has always lain in its diversity and commitment to artistic integrity, in seeking out artists who push the boundaries and believe in themselves and a quick look at past headliners – Pulp, Pixies, My Bloody Valentine – shows that, while commercial considerations undoubtedly come into play, the organisers are cognisant not to sully their reputation with popularity for its own sake.

It’s a tricky balance to maintain, and the ambition – in both scope and breadth – can have some curious consequences. It’s all well and good keeping one eye on the zeitgeist, but inviting raw young bands to open large, outdoor stages at 7pm is hardly ideal, something that New York’s Friends cope with admirably. They attack their set with gusto, their unique brand of funk-heavy calypso-indie quickly winning over a sizeable crowd despite the lack of recognition for everything bar ‘My Boo’ and, of course, ‘I’m His Girl’. They look completely at ease with expectations, sharing jokes and banter with the crush down the front, Samantha Urbani even hitching an impromptu ride on one lucky punter’s shoulders during ‘Friend Crush’.

The Pitchfork stage is, unsurprisingly, home to some of the weekend’s – and the year’s – most hyped acts. Trouble is, curated along these lines, it feels like more a list of what you should see, rather than who might blow your mind. Grimes should fall into both categories, the continuing success of ‘Visions’ and its futuristic melding of dance, electronica and pop giving her the perfect platform, but here the material lacks emotional depth and euphoria. I hate to use the word ‘cold’, and certainly ‘Circumambient’, ‘Eight’, and ‘Genesis’ get people moving – not least her impromptu group of stage dancers – but the constant loops and effects are all too clinical to be truly affecting. Two false starts owing to glitches with the monitors and her headphones don’t help, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion she’s yet to work out how to fill a space like this, something she all but admits when nervously gushing ‘This is the biggest show I’ve ever played… ever!’.

Perennial attendees Thee Oh Sees also start with sound problems, John Dwyer gently prodding their sound engineer to ‘Let’s go man, let’s do this!’ while treating us to a few classic, garage rock riffs. Having finally sorted Petey Dammit’s overhead drum mic, they tear into their set as if to make up for lost time, barely pausing for breath between tracks. The crowd respond in kind, and even security realise the futility of attempting to pluck crowd-surfers from the heaving mass of sweaty bodies. A joyous mash of their unique, psychedelic rock, their set ends on a bittersweet note – with Mike Patt of Sugar, due to take up the baton next, having been rushed to hospital, a visibly shaken Dwyer obligingly responds to the clamour for more. ‘Hopefully, this is what they’d [Sugar] want, I guess’.

It’s always interesting to see a band return, several years after debut success, with renewed vigour and ambition. The xx’s 2010 set here is the very definition of low key, swamped in smoke and darkness. With a new LP due later this year, they’ve upped the scale of their production, aesthetically if not sonically. Dominated by a massive, translucent ‘X’, the light show is stunning, by turns bathing a slowed-down ‘VCR’ in an icy-blue while ‘Crystalised’ gets the blood-red treatment. A near two-year hiatus hasn’t blunted their sharpness – witness the beautiful tension between Romy Croft and Oliver Sim on ‘Infinity’ – and they sound better than ever. They’ve grown into their material – slowing the seductive, central refrain of ‘Shelter’ (‘Can I make it better / With the lights turned low?’) almost to a standstill a neat, playful touch – and the new songs on display, among them an instrumental number and a winding, intricate ten-minute number thus far known as ‘the steel drum song’, hint at a subtle evolution of what made them so unique.

From the moment Franz Ferdinand launch into ‘Darts of Pleasure’, it’s evident we’re getting – insofar as it’s possible from a band with three albums to their name – a career Greatest Hits. Clashing with A$AP Rocky’s first European appearance led to a tricky dilemma; those who sneered at the revivalist nature of their post-punk disco missed a jubilant set which perfectly ramps up the party atmosphere. The early hits – ‘Take Me Out’, ‘40”, ‘Jacqueline’ – find a harder, deeper groove, and this new-found love of disco spills over into the new material on show, most notably one that borrows the pulsating bassline from Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’. Ditching the angular, brittle guitars for a beefier, more rounded sound serves them well on outings such as this, and despite a heavy cold, Alex Kapranos delivers on that oft-repeated promise to make girls dance.

For some reason I’ve never been able to fathom, Primavera insists on scheduling some big-name, heavyweight electronic acts and DJ’s very late on the Thursday. Last year we had Girl Talk, this year Rustie (4.30am, too late even for me) and John Talabot. The latter’s dreamy re-imagining of deep house has already landed an early contender for album of the year, and is perfectly apt for the 3am haze most people find themselves in. More of a straight up DJ set than an interpretation of album material, the gentle loops and samples neatly update the Balearic vibe, and even when he kicks up a gear, the beats are never harsh or obtrusive, buried instead under melting synths and dub-heavy bass – a comforting lullaby for a party by the sea and under the stars.

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