Primavera Sound: Anything but Normal

With a fresh theme of The New Normal, the 19th instalment of Barcelona’s biggest musical bonanza delivers diversity and an array of international artists for a sun-drenched blow out.

Primavera Sound is one of Europe’s largest festivals, but don’t expect rolling fields, forest backdrops and pastoral farmland, as is the norm in the UK. The Parc del Fòrum is a sprawling, concrete, brutalist venue hugging the Med. While the nearby water glistens and allures, especially in the guaranteed heat, you don’t get near it. It’s cement and – new this year – a vast layering of astroturf that makes up the festival environment.

Once you accept the absence of nature then the focus really falls on the music, and this is why Primavera Sound is one of the continent’s most popular festivals. Since day one, back in 2001, when four friends booked 18 bands for less than 8,000 fans – Primavera’s line-ups have always been exceptional. A slew of big hitters balanced out with a healthy dose of obscure and underground artists. There’s more than merely something for everyone, there’s a shed load.

Proudly independent and with a reported €15 million budget, the founders deploy good taste and integrity in curating their line-ups, aiming for real eclecticism over merely profit alone. Altogether in 2019 there were 295 artists from 40 countries giving 331 performances across 22 stages.

This year’s theme, The New Normal, is a statement thatproclaims Primavera Sound a safe space for everyone. As one of the 45 worldwide festivals that has pledged to achieve a 50/50 gender balance in their line-ups by 2022, Primavera is already there, recording 50.77% female, 41.92% men, 6.53% mixed projects and 0.76% non-binary artists this year. Gender violence and discrimination feels totally unlikely and the all-round atmosphere over the four days is one of tolerance and inclusivity.

The event kicked off with the 10th Primavera Pro – the industry insider element held in the city at the Centre of Contemporary Culture Barcelona (CCCB).  Cinephile indie icon Stephen Malkmus treated us to a selection of his favourite musical moments in cinema and Neneh Cherry’s charisma and open attitude demonstrated why she’s had such a long career in the business. With subjects ranging from new revenue streams to awareness of mental health in the industry, it’s always an engaging way to get a macro-appreciation of the music industry.

The festival broke its own records in 2019, with Saturday being the largest attendance in its history, welcoming over 65,000 fans. On average, there were 64,500 people per day and over 210,000 people from 126 countries came through the gates. These numbers could induce dread at the thought of lining up for food or toilets or stages, but the scale of the site and the facilities offered thankfully means queues are perfectly fine.

The site was actually extended again for the second successive year with the ‘Primavera Bits’ area – an electronic music zone that featured a Soho House VIP section and four stages of DJs, hip hop, ambient sounds and performances by the likes of Princess Nokia, Jayda G, Sophie, Yung Beef and Lizzo.

As always, there’s an overwhelming amount of performances happening at any given moment, but some of the stand-out moments included the accidental discovery of Japanese girl-group Chai. Mana, Kana, Yuki and Yuna, all dressed in pink, served up a garage rock brew embellished with slices of Pop Staples guitar licks and soulful strains. They use psychological complexes as inspiration for their music and lead singer Mana at one point asks the crowd, who she has totally won over,

“Do you have body complex? I have body complex. Eyes… too small. Legs… too short.” Both funny and rocking, Chai are sure to establish a solid following in the West, where they are signed to Burger Records in the USA and Heavenly Recordings in the UK.

Loping into another of his signature stoner tracks, Pretty Pimpin’, Kurt Vile & The Violators proved to be just what a sunny afternoon needed and the audiences were beaming after his laid-back set. A similar crowd were lulled along but also blown away by another surprise highlight coming from Big Thief. The New York-based band haven’t actually seen much of their chosen city for a while as they’ve been on tour since 2015, amassing a legion of fans. Frontwoman Adrianne Lenker pours emotion into every performance and the audience are responsive throughout. It’s easy to see how this tight-knit gang have attracted a following and the material from third album ‘U.F.O.F.’ is so strong they will only get bigger.

British-Barbadian jazz saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings puts in two of the most impressive performances of the weekend, one with politically charged jazz supergroup Sons of Kemet, who go full tilt with their storming jazz-electro rock-outs, and another with Comet is Coming, the London-based trio who set the indoor Heineken stage alight with their pulverising psychedelic funk-rock electronica. Opening track ‘Summon the Fire’ did exactly that, and they kept it blazing for the best part of an hour.

Elsewhere, it was the delicate moments that thrilled the crowds, and the idiosyncratic shows by Aldous Harding are up there with the very best. At times seated and at others prowling the stage like a jaguar on ketamine, Harding is a compelling performer, her every emotional twitch, gurn and grin delighting the solid bed of admirers the Kiwi has gained over the years. She hits a gentle groove with ‘Zoo Eyes’ from 2019 release ‘Designer’ and whoops of cheers erupt for the album’s first single. ‘The Barrel’, which defies being overplayed.

The festival’s final night was left in the hands of the impossible to categorise cult legends, Stereolab. Sampled in recent years by the likes of J Dilla and Tyler the Creator, the random sonic swerves and alchemy of genres ensured music fans got an eclectic dessert to close the banquet. There was krautrock, twee pop and avant-garde trailblazing as the English-French five-piece banged out jams such as ‘Miss Modular’, ‘John Cage Bubblegum’, ‘Brakhage’ and ‘French Disko’

‘Lo Boob Oscillator’ is the cherry on top to sign off with, leaving some nearby fans looking stupefied with glee.

Primavera Sound is now a bonafide global brand, with editions in Porto, Benidorm and next year, Los Angeles. Whatever the plans are for next year, just get your tickets early – the 20th anniversary is guaranteed to be something unforgettable.

Colin Polonowski

Updated: Jul 23, 2019

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