Primavera Sound 2009: Pop music versus the beards

Sunshine stage

British music fans have to put up with a lot. Crappy venues, the iron grip of rip-off ticket agencies, being treated with contempt by door staff, and paying over the odds to live in a permanent cattle class while rock hacks, industry hangers-on and slimeballs get to enjoy all kinds of perks for no outlay whatsoever. I reckon only football fans get treated worse.

Which is why you’ll be pretty damn unlikely to catch me at a British music festival. But four years ago, on my first visit to Barcelona, I couldn’t avoid ads for Primavera Sound – a stellar line-up in the sunshine for a bargain rate, and an excuse to return the city I’d had an incredible stay in.

A year later, I was watching the Flaming Lips by the Mediterranean at 3am. I was hooked. Primavera Sound’s philosophy is simple – bring in five or six massive names, add a few indie footsoldiers and then fill the rest with up-and-coming acts you’ve never heard of.

All quiet on the second stage

This year was my fourth Primavera Sound – the event’s a decade old, but even in the four years I’ve been, it’s grown immensely; and word has spread outside the Catalan capital; I swear four in ten of the voices I heard there were American, British or Irish. In my first year, I had to send the organisers £58 via PayPal. This year, I had to deal with Seetickets (boo!) for my £92 ticket (damn sterling). There’s now a winter edition plus a line-up of city centre indoor shows and free music in a park.

But wait- there’s a threat on the horizon. Part of Primavera Sound’s growth has been through a collaboration with UK promoters All Tomorrow’s Parties, whose musical outlook can tend towards the self-indulgently experimental. This year saw a tie-up with super-earnest US website Pitchfork. The trend to book US acts whose output resembles farting into a microphone and turning the reverb up (to the rapture of a hirsuite audience) had stepped up. I was there to see Jarvis Cocker and Bat For Lashes. Others were there to see the groaningly dreadful Deerhunter (a weedy Interpol) and Liars (self-indulgent guff). This was going to be Pop Music versus The Beards. I was relishing the battle. And you know what? I think the friction did the festival some good.

Bat for Lashes at Primavera Sound

Strangely for me, just about everything I’d planned to see had been scheduled for Friday night. With the exception of a rubbish performance phoned in by sometime US indie titans Throwing Muses, from 7.15pm to 3.15am provided eight glorious hours. Bat For Lashes were gleefully etheral and great fun, and my adoration of Natasha Khan was sealed by the puzzled looks on some bearded faces around me,

Then it was skiffle revivalists Kitty, Daisy and Lewis performing an acoustic set in a tiny tent, wowing a huge crowd. I met them briefly on Saturday after their “proper” set and they were good fun – yelling at me “you’re not from Spain!” And Brooklyn’s The Pains of Being Pure of Heart reviving another long-lost art – shoegazing – in exuberant style.

Art Brut at Primavera Sound
Art Brut at Primavera Sound

After that, Art Brut. Frontman Eddie Argos is one of a kind. “This next song’s about how I’m going to hunt down and kill Kings of Leon,” he announces to the crowd. Their sharp, witty pop music doesn’t pull a big crowd to the main stage – beards notably elsewhere – but for me they were the revelation of the festival. After that, a break for the news – in the form of Throwing Muses doing what too many US acts do here; not communicating with the crowd, just going through the motions. And no Not Too Soon either. Pchah.

Jarvis Cocker at Primavera Sound

Back to the main stage for Jarvis Cocker. Age has not mellowed the former Pulp frontman – like Bruce Forsyth, he’ll still be dancing like that when he’s 80. He chats with and chats up the crowd – accepting a banner from a fan. “Can I wear it? Like a middle-aged superhero?” Although with his beard and occasional hard stare, he’s reminiscent of a 1970s Open University lecturer about to go postal. Here he is asking if there’s a natural history museum in Barcelona…


His new songs are as urgent and quirky as ever, and it was great to see him in such majestic form. After that, down to the second stage for Saint Etienne; a joyous canter through their back catalogue at 1am, although breakthrough song Only Love Can Break Your Heart still sounds strange with Sarah Cracknell singing it – she hadn’t joined the group when it released the Neil Young cover back in (eeek!) 1990. South-east London connection: Girl VII from debut album Foxbase Alpha featured in the set, adding a mention of Plumstead Common to the balmy Mediterranean air.

And finally, Bloc Party – always dependable live performers and Kele Okereke is a terrific frontman; engaging with the audience, sounding surprised to be playing at 2.15am. “Wakey wakey! You’d think we were back in England!”

Of the other acts across the weekend – I loved French rockers Phoenix, their chunky sound working well live. I also found myself really liking Th’ Faith Healers, a band I missed first time around.

Neil Young at Primavera Sound

As for the big name headliners – I’ve never got My Bloody Valentine, and the only observation I can offer is that they were bloody loud (earplugs were offered at the gates). Neil Young may be a rock legend, but I found him dull, and for the festival not to have any other bands on while he was banging on wasn’t a good idea. A few hundred of us trekked over to the furthest point of the Forum site to escape him, feeling like naughty schoolkids avoiding Heritage Rock class, and were rewarded with free Jagermeister from a van – hurrah!

Kitty, Daisy and Lewis at Primavera Sound

I thought the collapse of sterling against the euro would deter many UK fans from Primavera Sound – but it seems more popular than ever. I might wait and see what the bill’s like next year, but I reckon the odds are on me returning for a fifth year running. Even doing the festival solo, there’s a lovely atmosphere there – summed up by the stalls next to the main stage where dead-keen Catalan music fans will try to sell you the latest local sensation. And when the bands are crap, you can always sit out and watch boats in the Mediterranean – or just head back into the city.

It was an fabulous few days in Barcelona – I also got to see the Barcelona team’s victory parade after they won the Champions League, and heading there via Montpellier meant a stop-off in a city that is both beautiful as well as young and vibrant. I’ll deal with the brilliance of train travel on the continent another time, though – there’s a little bit more of that to come for me in the next few days.


  1. Nice read! Primavera Sound 09 was my virgin year a long with 4 friends. We quickly agreed that we had found a new tradition (we used to go to Roskilde Festival, been going for almost 10 years straight). The only downsides for me was the sudden smell of shit, and the queues to the ticketmachines!

    Cheers from Denmark!

  2. Pleasure, Thomas – the festival certainly gets addictive… the ticket machine queues meant I drank almost no beer on Thursday (a good thing!) while smelly sewers are a Barcelona problem, mind – stay in the Raval and you get the odd whiff 🙂

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