Barcelona, Spain is probably at its best in the summer, which is also when festivals are usually held for obvious reasons. But despite the winter weather, the city's massively good vibes were flowing through Estrella Damm Primavera Club 2008. Even though this sister/brother leg of the Primavera Sound festival was markedly smaller, it still boasted a ton of great international and local acts. The fest has a friendly format: a few bands on each night, spread across four nights. This year, there was a fair amount of variance between acts -- most of it was solid, but some of the lineup was a little uneven.
- Day 1
As the name Primavera Club suggests, the event is held in a club -- mostly. It started out low-key with some local Barcelonian indie rocky sort of stuff from (lo:museo), who kept the emotions slightly muted and the chord progressions subtle. The occasional scream added to the balanced set. Their set, however, didn't prepare us at all for a super triumphant return from 12Twelve, who then proceeded to ram color into skewed jazz explosions and melted downtempo ruptures. It didn't take long for the smell of marijuana to pervade the large room, which was perfectly suitable given the experimental nature of their jazz-rock permutation. With skittered hi-hats and blunted basslines, it occasionally veered too heavily towards the prog side of things, but I felt ecstatic to be hearing this band for the first time.
- Day 2
The second night was even more low-key. I'm not sure what sort of "music journalist" this makes me, but the next night was headlined by Darren Hayman and Jack Hayter of '90s indie rock band Hefner, who I've never heard of or heard at all. What a doofus! Well, I felt a bit like one in contrast to everyone else's familiarity with the songs. But Hayman pointed out that it was not Hefner The Band, just two guys playing "Hefner songs." Indeed, it was a very ‘indie rock' sort of night, with a couple of the guys from The Wave Pictures (who played a solid set of casual melodic indie pop first) helping out halfway.
- Day 3
The third night was the first to split across two venues, starting out at the much larger Forum Auditori. Despite its size, the seated venue was warm and cozy, with an ultra-modern exterior made of big block forms, slightly fragmented. Wovenhand was first, filling the venue with their gothic, strong-headed folk. The sound was crisp, illuminating the particular sort of energy behind their folk-ridden songs. Their music chugged pretty heavily, monolithic and spiritual.
The Dodos' melodies are spacious enough on record, but when given room to breathe, their sound billlows. Their set was amazingly lush for a three-piece, and after the heavy set of Wovenhand, it sounded particularly colorful and buoyant. I've always found their pop to be quietly experimental, filled with textures that rub a little off-kilter and melodies that feel partially unexpected. It's a distinctive sound, even if a couple of traits are reminiscent of some of their contemporaries. This quirkier edge stuck out against the rest of the night's sets.
Giant Sand's lead man Howe Gelb talked in a low drawl and sung with a similar husky texture. They played a solid range of material, very assured; Gelb's been doing it for nearly 30 years now, and the set felt as such in his quietly confident demeanor and perfectly played balads. Their country/rock and its desert-highway vibes fit nicely into the lavish, low-lit venue.
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan continued the slow mood, though theirs is obviously far less dusty thanks to the sound's crispness. The light was even dimmer now, with plenty of shadows for their stylish, sultry feelings to permeate. The pace of these last few sets was beginning to slow to too much of a lullaby, but let's face it: their music was easy to be restless to, because everyone knew Deerhoof were due to blast purple quirk rock out in the homelier Apolo venue. Deerhoof's set seemed particularly tight and energetic compared to the few other times I've seen them -- maybe because they were in Barcelona, maybe because they've gotten even better with practice, maybe because their new album, Offend Maggie, is full of especially kickin' jams. In any case, their wild distorted pop came out as frenzied as we'd hoped.
I've always loved The Thermals for their simplistic approach. These three from Portland play their chords in particularly inspired progressions with necessary grit, sounding great tonight, even if their obviousness seemed to detract a few people following Deerhoof's wide-eyed blasts. A select few went pretty wild when they played "How We Know," but halfway through their set, Mika Miko were due to start downstairs in the other section of the Apolo. They weren't on for a half hour or so, but a DJ somewhere was playing some terrific dance-y post-punk stuff and some great bratty party no-wave. This was delightful in contrast to the otherwise safe indie/folk choices on the speakers upstairs and at the Auditori.
The five-piece finally came on the stage, casually and armed with a bottle of whiskey (I think). It was all scruffy fervor from that point on, blasting out song after song while roughly 35% of the room went absolutely fucking nuts in a crazed mosh pit romp. Everyone was into it, although a few seemed to be trying to avoid the rather tumultuous (though nonviolent and joyous) front circle of energy, something that was infectious given the frenetic nature of Mika Miko's punk.
- Day 4
Saturday was the final night and host to a couple of bands who put out favorite records of mine in 2008: High Places and Abe Vigoda. Both are bathed in palm trees and distinct tropical tones, with High Places up first, playing a massively loud set, their clutter coming off crystalline in the large Auditori. Thanks to the emphasis on big bass, their sound was possibly even better live, emphasizing the percussive strengths as well as the bewildered melodies and exploratory textures. Kind of wish that it wasn't a seated venue so we could go and dance. Rob Barber and Mary Pearson were certainly feeling it.
Despite having major sound problems, Abe Vigoda sounded positively wild; their frantic, clamorous vibes and crazed mathy guitar rhythms came out in unpredictable ways. It's fair to say that their overt (and understandable) frustration at the sound marred the set a little, but their set was still completely engaging. What happened at the end, though, was totally eye-rubbingly odd: Velaquez's presumed frustration culminated in him sitting down, tearing the strings off his guitar, throttling its neck, bashing it on the ground, getting up, falling theatrically on his face, twice (staying there the second time).
After this immense set, it seemed a shame for this feeling to drop off with the next act, La Buena Vida, a group consisting of a dozen or so classical musicians backing a lounge-y, mild sort of folk. Compared to the gritty euphoria of the previous performers, it came off tepid. The set's failure wasn't only due to the contrast in vibages, but also because of the group's safe and traditional delivery.
Later, back over at the Apolo, scruffy and cheeky London punks Lovvers restored the previous edge, even furthering it a little thanks to the more personable venue with room to shuffle feet. As he often does, their lead singer made his way into the crowd, ruffling people's hair, flippin' off their hats, and keeping with his prankster stage presence that, in combination with the powerfully charged and hyper punk, gave the group's sound an edge that was equally fun and volatile.
Philadelphian surprise The Extraordinaires trod a fine line between novelty indie and real poignance, surprisingly. They resembled The Decemberists, with their acoustic bravado and vocal delivery, though they employed a different brand of theatrics: the lead singer wore a fluffy bear costume and had a guitar that looked like a fish. This was oddly impressive, as was the way they managed to wrangle their schtick into their solid, unabashed songs.
Between me and my (newly met) English-speaking pals, there was some banter regarding whether or not Mogwai would be good DJs or just play sad bastard tunes, as they were due for an late-night/early-morning 3 AM slot. Of course, they played bangers, starting out with song-based material -- Tom Tom Club, Joy Division, etc -- and later segueing into dance jams. It was then when I realized that the fest was drawing to a close. A lot of my friends had raved about the larger Primavera Sound festival in May, but I was capping off this four-day fest dancing to tracks spun by Mogwai, confirming that my visit to Barcelona was well worth it.