Festival review: Primavera Sound, Barcelona, June 2-4, 2016

Whether it's the metro strike or the fact that it's the night before Primavera Sound takes off, with the likes of Goat and Suede playing free concerts, Barcelona's Parc del Fòrum is packed with people trying to wobble their way towards the festival area.

It's true that over the span of its 15-year lifetime, Primavera Sound has grown from a small urban festival for music enthusiasts to a major European event catering to an audience of 200,000. Still now, while they are bringing in huge acts like Radiohead and LCD Soundsystem, the festival has maintained a strong sense of relevancy through its smaller stages and top slots for popular indie newcomers. It is no wonder, then, that the Night Before draws in huge numbers of both festival-goers and those without a ticket, trying to catch a glimpse of Primavera Sound before it shuts its doors for anyone who lacks a wristband.

While Goat deliver a showcase of their talent, complete with catchy riffs, the screeching vocals become tiring after a while and the crowds go back to chatting about their plans for the week instead of listening. This is mostly corrected when Suede take on the stage after sunset to play their first show of the week. Ahead of their performance of Night Thoughts and its accompanying film on Thursday, they deliver an energetic set full of their recent hits and 90s classics. Frontman Brett Anderson spends a considerable amount of the gig being touched and adored by the audience, eventually leaving with a fully unbuttoned and ripped shirt; if anyone considered Suede a nostalgia act, they have been stripped from this delusion, as the band do a skillful job in preparing the audience for a heated festival.


Thursday

On Thursday, one of the most anticipated acts of the smaller stages is Car Seat Headrest, whose recent album generated a huge amount of hype and conversation in May. Despite a relatively early time slot by Primavera standards, where performances continue until sunrise, the entire area in front of the stage is filled, with the crowd staying until the very end of the intense set that finishes with a short 'Paranoid Android' rendition. 

The volume levels at the festival are much quieter than at most concerts, but you don't really notice it during Car Seat Headrest, whose sound is not overpowering but reaches across the audience. The sound levels have their benefits, clearly, and it is possible to listen to any of the stages without it mixing with sounds from other stages. Moreover, it ensures that the festival doesn't cause too much disruption and is likely to receive fewer complaints than most urban festivals. However, as Destroyer step on the Ray-Ban stage, the downsides of lower volume levels become obvious: the subtlety of Dan Bejar's vocals becomes difficult to catch unless at the front, as it is being swallowed by the chattering crowds. In ideal conditions, with a quiet and focused audience, the volume would work, but with a festival crowd happy on their Heinekens, it just doesn't – it's a shame, because Destroyer certainly charm with tracks from their 2015 album Poison Season as well as much-loved gems from Kaputt.

Perhaps the best surprise of the festival Thursday comes afterwards: AIR's dreamy performance on the H&M stage at sunset creates a calm yet captivating ambience, with the French band exceeding any expectations of mediocrity. Giving the audience a much more interesting concert than Explosions in the Sky who still gather a larger crowd, AIR's set is not only clean, but it is also impressive, leaving treats like 'How Does It Make You Feel' imprinted in your ears.

Out of the bands that follow, Tame Impala and LCD Soundsystem were always going to be the most popular choices for festival-goers and both live up to the expectations. Tame Impala deliver a tight performance full of crowd-pleasers, showcasing their skill despite power issues onstage. Following this, LCD Soundsystem prove that they are, however, in full power. Genius tracks like 'I Can Change' and 'Daft Punk Is Playing At My House', paired with a huge disco ball scattering light all across the stage, reclaim all guarantees of a dancey, energetic atmosphere and make them tenfold.


Friday

Strangely, LCD Soundsystem still don't seem to appeal to as many as the top billers of Friday: Radiohead and The Last Shadow Puppets. After a slow Friday that builds up to a busy evening with performances from the likes of Dinosaur Jr. and Primavera veterans Shellac, it is still the two main acts that generate the most hype – perhaps of the whole festival. While many leave Radiohead's set disappointed at the sound, especially at the back among a chatty audience and with screens displaying videos rather than what's happening onstage, Radiohead still spoil the audience with a show that is far from lazy. The band could rely heavily on new material and old fan favourites, but their setlist is still varied, comprising big hits and treats. From 'Karma Police' to 'Idioteque', 'Burn the Witch' to 'No Surprises', the audience sing along to every word. For their second encore, Radiohead return to perform the seldom-played 'Creep'. Despite its rarity at live shows, it comes across as a slightly disappointing move aimed solely at pleasing a festival crowd. Its lo-fi sound works, but it seems forceful and lacks any connection with the band. Nonetheless, their set is admirable and it works for everyone.

By no means are Radiohead easy to follow, but The Last Shadow Puppets' arrogance, charisma and in-your-face, entertainingly over-the-top sex appeal verging on sleaze (or perhaps sleaze verging on sex appeal) seem surprisingly apt after the melancholic Radiohead spectacle. As sections of the audience make their way to smaller stages, The Last Shadow Puppets take over with confidence and a solid performance, balancing their stage time between older tracks and new favourites like 'Miracle Aligner' from their new album Everything You've Come to Expect. As specialties, Alex Turner and Miles Kane also tackle The Beatles classic 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)' and Leonard Cohen's 'Is This What You Wanted?', almost as a further display of their arrogance. A calmer end to the night comes with Icelandic duo of Ólafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen's Kiasmos whose set works almost as a dreamy lullaby.


Saturday

The last official day of Primavera Sound is also the day of the only nostalgia trip of the festival: Brian Wilson's performance of Pet Sounds. Still, the hits are performed in a surprisingly solid manner, entertaining the audiences and putting them in a happy mood for the rest of the night. It is Deerhunter that give one of the best sets of the day though, and Bradford Cox seems genuinely humbled and impressed by the festival, thanking its integrity. Having recently focused on other projects too – such as 'Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films' – there is never any disconnection with Deerhunter material.

PJ Harvey, on the other hand, has given us some of the most interesting albums of the last years, but her set doesn't seem to fully reflect this and drags on. The performance is without error, but feels like it's sung through without much emotion either, not quite meeting the high expectations held for her performance.

Unsurprisingly, Sigur Rós prove that they deserve their top, late night slot more than anyone. A remarkable show with impressive lights and stage layout, the ambience is perfect for the end of the festival and you would be happy listening to them until the early hours of the morning. They are however followed by the electronic Moderat hailing from Berlin and Ty Segall and the Muggers on the Primavera stage. While they both treat audiences to intense sets, and especially the latter feels nothing like a festival performance, but a full gig, they seem more like an extension to a festival that already finished with Sigur Rós.

Overall, Primavera Sound grows in stature and standard again: while it's impossible to see everything, the whole line-up is so solid there is little fear of error. Anything you can listen to will give you something, whether it's a new musical discovery, a dance party or simply an emotional experience. What remains to be seen, though, is whether Primavera Sound is starting to take bites too big for its teeth and go from a festival for music lovers to a festival for party-goers – and if this is a development that will be welcomed or not.