Review: Primavera Sound in Barcelona cements itself as the world’s finest music festival

Over the weekend, I made my way to Barcelona in Catalonia for the second time; a return to the iconic festival Primavera Sound, a sprawling four day event that showcased the finest acts in the world, alongside the hottest, buzziest new acts to watch. With the main music starting around 7pm and running all the way until 5 in the morning, this is a festival like no other – one that starts as the sun is setting and pushes its way to the wee hours of the morning, on a slab of concrete (with a dose of a beach), sitting against the waters of the Catalan coast.

Comforted by the cool of the night, and the ease of the grounds, it’s a long festival that passes by easily as you enjoy great drinks, superb food and spectacular music. There’s even roving Heineken servers who’ll pour you a fresh pint in the mosh pit should you not wish to leave your spot. Making life this easy for its punters ensures that the crowd is happy, that the vibes are good and that no one is there to do anything but have a good time. And all this without any sniffer dogs! (Take note NSW Police). All this combines to make for what has to be the world’s finest music festival.

Headliners of the event this year included Björk, Arctic Monkeys, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and many more. Headliner Migos was a no show (with the announcement being made on the day), nor (initially) was his last minute replacement Skepta – though the late edition ended up closing the festival following A$AP Rocky.

Quite a few Australians joined Nick Cave on the lineup too. First, there was Confidence Man, who played to thousands upon thousands of punters in a 3am set that only saw the crowd grow as they opted to end their Saturday night with a dance courtesy of the Australian duo. Expect to see a lot more of the group in this region – the crowd couldn’t get enough, and were chanting for more after they left the stage.

Other Australians included Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, who saw a massive crowd descent on their stage, with plenty of fans singing along. There was Alex The Astronaut, whose witty banter and engaging music won over the crowd, Client Liaison who, like Confidence Man, had a growing crowd in a prime early morning slot that got the crowd dancing and the amazing Teischa, whose music soared beautifully against the stunning water backdrop of her “Night Pro” stage, that acts like Gang of Youths have graced in previous years.

Warpaint (Photo: Sergio Albert)

Honorary Australians Warpaint (with Aussie Stella Mozgawa on drums) were also a highlight of the whole weekend, playing a stellar main stage set which included some of their festival favourites like “The Undertow” alongside a slower number “Billie Holiday”, which was beautiful as the sun started to set. With all four members of the group adding to the harmonies of this number, I was totally floored by its inclusion – something they admitted wasn’t normally part of the set.

Speaking of beautiful performances, the tribute to Jóhann Jóhannsson was, unsurprisingly, a highlight of the weekend. Set in a beautiful, comfortable indoor auditorium just outside the entrance to the festival (which proved a bit of a pain to transit to, but was well worth the trip), the set featured the record Orphée in what I believe was its entirety. The music – which is already a powerful, emotional odyssey, is only amplified by his passing. With long time collaborators Echo Collective, Dustin O’Halloran and more incredible instrumentalists bringing it to life.

There were a surprising amount of performances through the week which you’d put in the “beautiful” and “instrumental” end of the programming, rather than the traditional festival set. Charlotte Gainsbourg, who said she was playing her first ever festival, was one such artist, playing a stunning set, with her and her band lit up in frames. Nils Frahm delivered his minimalist tunes with at least 9 keyboards on stage, all shown on the screen via a camera sitting atop. The crowd was massive for him, as it was for Jon Hopkins – whose “live” set still felt very much a DJ set, but it’s fair to say his new tracks were very well received, as he played one of the final sets on the final night.

Nils Frahm (Photo: Eric Pamies)

Liminal – a new project featuring Jonsi from Sigur Rós, Alex Somers and Paul Corley – was also a world of beauty, playing to a limited crowd in the indoor “Warehouse” space, where guests were invited to lay on the ground as people walked around with candles and the ambient music (which eventually grew to include Jonsi’s vocals) washed over the crowd. They were calling the experience the “Sound Bath”, so this might explain why. And then there was Grizzly Bear, who played tracks off their last three records, including favourites like “Ready, Able”, “While You Wait for the Others”, “Two Weeks” and “Sun In Your Eyes”, which ended the set. And then there was Slowdive, who sounded beautiful as the sun set.

Other highlights through the weekend included Wolf Parade, who opened the festival on the special free concert on the Wednesday night, including plenty of tracks from their breakthrough record Apologies to the Queen Mary, featuring tracks off it like “Grounds for Divorce” and “I’ll Believe in Anything” and “This Hearts on Fire”. The Canadian group proved themselves to be as strong a live outfit as ever, with the newer tracks from Cry, Cry, Cry also shining. Here’s hoping we can get them to Australia one of these days.

Hinds rocked out on the main stage, showing off their latest record I Don’t Run. Legendary in her own right, Oumou Sangaré felt like she was straight off a stage at Bluesfest, the Malian Wassoulou artist having everyone dancing. Hinds, playing as a five piece, were also one of the highlights, playing favourites like “Don’t Save Me” and “Want You Back”, alongside “Forever” off their debut EP. I should mention that the group have one of the best stage entrances I’ve ever seen, with the three frontwoman arriving separately, each coming to the front of the stage to take a load off on the drums. They certainly know how to get everyone’s attention.

Superorganism (Photo: Alba Ruperez)

Superorganism impressed with tracks from their debut record, as the Splendour bound outfit ran through tracks like “The Prawn Son”, “It’s All Good”, “Something for your MIND” and “Nobody Cares”, with lead vocalist Orono in excitable disbelief as she exclaimed the crowd as the biggest they’d ever played to. Get excited about their debut in Australia next month. And then there was Thundercat, who jammed his heart out while professing his love for Dragonball Z. Car Seat Headrest, meanwhile, rocked it with favourites like “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and (Sandy) Alex G proved a hypnotising performer, with “Bobby” among the best live tracks I saw all weekend.

Among my favourite discoveries over the weekend – Idles were a mountain of energy, delivering their punk-flavoured tunes, alongside a memorable cover of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas (Is You)” alongside tracks like “Lovesong” and “Rottweiler”. There’s a reason this UK group are amongst the most talked about right now. ACRA was a bit of weird and wonderful, with two on stage DJing, bringing us something along the lines of Opera meeting EDM.

Rex Orange County impressed with a massive crowd, the English group led by Alexander O’Connor playing an interesting blend of soul, pop and hip-hop. Though it was Jorja Smith who everyone was talking about – the buzz artist is sure to be a household name, delivering an incredible set that will put her up alongside the likes of SZA and Solange in months to come. And then there was Irish artist Roe*, who with a guitar, keys and a bunch of musical toys, came off as Ireland’s answer to Tash Sultana. Definitely check her out. Another act from the same region, Fontaines DC*, were a treat – a cool punk outfit who sounded like they’d been transported straight from the grimy bars of the 1970s.

Björk was a wild experience (a word I use quite literally), playing with a drummer, a DJ and a flute septet who were born in the on stage flowers – images of nature, and animal sounds pervading the entire set; the stage a garden for the Icelandic artist and her merry performers to frolic in. Before the show started, she set the stage with a bit of on stage messaging, “Let’s imagine a world where nature and technology collaborate and make a song about it… Imagine a feature. Be in it.” The set, which ran disappointingly shorter than her allotted time, featured predominantly lesser known, newer material, though “Isobel”, “Human Behaviour” and “Wunderlust” were included, and the highlights of the set – which often featured Björk putting the mic down and having a dance. Which was wonderful. But the short set time and the lack of known material definitely disappointed some.

Arctic Monkeys (Photo: Sergio Albert)

It was Arctic Monkeys, however, who proved one of the weekend’s disappointments. While I’m a big defender of the latest album to the respect that a) they couldn’t repeat “AM”, b) diversity in a band’s catalogue in a good thing and c) I actually like a lot of the songs, there was never any argument to suggest that Tranquillity Base Hotel + Casino was going to be a festival record. Sadly, their set at Primavera proved this to be the case. While the opening tracks “Four out of Five”, “Brainstorm”, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”, “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” got things rolling well, and they closed out strong with “The View From The Afternoon” and “R U Mine?”, everything in between felt like a yawn between a couple of good drinks.

The new material lacked the energy needed of a headlining act, and while there was plenty of bravado, the band haven’t yet worked out how to amp the tracks live (nor did they seem to want to). This bled into some of the older tracks, too, which seemed slower and lacking, even favourites like “One for the Road”. I will say though that I loved the stage design, and in an intimate setting this would have been a great set. But playing to the biggest crowd of any act over the whole weekend, and seeing a thriving, moshing crowd who had literally broken down barriers to get a good spot, go from excitable to certifiably lacklustre did little to help matters.

I’m sure this set will develop over the months ahead and they will build it back up, but who knows, maybe part of the reasoning behind this new record, and a set like this, is that they really don’t want to. And in that respect, they’re as entitled to do that as we are to be disappointed by it.

On the other end of the spectrum there was Father John Misty, who delivered one of the best sets of the weekend. The American artist hit the stage at Primavera the same day his new record – God’s Favourite Customer – dropped, and he included songs from the release such as “Hangout at the Gallows”, the album’s opening track (and admittedly its best), which he played here for the first time.

Accompanied by an orchestra, material both new and old was amplified powerfully, as the stoic frontman elegantly and expertly won over the crowd, building up to “The Ideal Husband”, the perfect set closer if there ever was one. Elsewhere, tracks like “Greatest Story Ever Told”, “Mr. Tillman”, “Pure Comedy”, “Hollywood Cemetery Forever” and “Honeybear” impressed, in a set which was the best I’ve ever seen the artist deliver at a festival. You should be very excited about hearing these new songs live – they go down a treat. I’d even go far to say that “Hangout at the Gallows” was the peak moment of the set, in spite of no one yet knowing the material.

Father John Misty (Photo: Eric Pamies)

But if we’re going to pick a favourite of the weekend, the highlight of the whole weekend had to be Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, who delivered a set which grew from an emotional powerful undertaking, to a triumphant explosion of sound, bravado and stage guests. And by stage guests, I’m talking about this in the Iggy Pop sort of sense; the Australian frontman inviting what seemed to be at least 100 people from the front of the crowd onto the stage to dance and sing with him (and in one case, cry on his shoulder) during the epic “Stagger Lee”, a track which had the stunning “Jubilee Street” precede it, and “Push the Sky Away” follow it as the night’s closer, with the on stage guests asked to take a seat (on stage).

Earlier in the set, tracks like “Loverman”, “Come Into My Sleep” (which Nick said was, “Fucking wonderful, which is why you don’t know it”), “The Ship Song”, “Mercy Seed” (which started solo on keys and let into a full band performance), “Distant Sky” and “Red Right Hand” had the crowd transfixed. It’s no easy feat to move between the emotional undertones of tracks off their latest LP, to the energy and vigour you’ll find in tracks like “Stagger Lee” – yet as something like “The Ship Song” goes to show, this has always been a line the band have expertly walked. There’s certainly stronger undercurrents to the emotional qualities of the show now, but this only proves to make the moments at the other end of the spectrum even more powerful. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are hands down the best live act in the world, and Primavera Sound is the best festival… so it was something of a match made in heaven.

*Bands mentioned in this article with an Asterisk played during the Primavera Pro day conference, rather than at the Primavera Sound event itself. The day conference offered a stage that was free for Primavera attendees and non-attendees to enjoy, set in the sun of the CCCB, closer to the centre of the city. 

Image of Nick Cave courtesy of Eric Pamies.