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Primavera Sound Festival 2016: From Worst to Best

We return to the inimitable Barcelona fest that dares you to try and take it all in

Primavera Sound
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    After each edition of Primavera Sound, our team winds up leaving feeling as if there was still so much left to discover. We’ll hear about the one young Spanish band we didn’t see after catching a handful of others, the one experimental performer that graced the indoor stage at two in the afternoon, the international act we only heard raves about once we arrived home. But that’s kind of the thrill of Primavera, one of the most unique festivals on the scene.

    While the likes of South by Southwest and Iceland Airwaves pack dozens of venues with a dizzying scope of artists, there are tons of other festivals that rely on a handful of heavy hitters and then fill out a viable middle-card. Primavera sits somewhere in the middle. Sure, Sigur Ros, Radiohead, and LCD Soundsystem will steal the headlines, but they also provided some seriously unique choices on their park’s main stages, as well as the city-based events scattered throughout the week.

    Primavera provides such an intensely well-rounded experience that it’d be impossible to get a view of the whole thing. But that didn’t stop us from trying. Considering the massive scope of artists and how there were four or five playing at any given time, we were hard-pressed to find too many slots in which we were stuck watching subpar sets. That said, when pitted up against each other, some stood out more than others. Gracias, Primavera!

    –Adam Kivel
    Executive Editor


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    Alex G

    Best Ass (Apparently, We’re Told)

    Amanda Koellner-PrimaveraSound-Alex G 2

    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    “You guys seem really nice. We’re really nice too. We’re the nicest people I know,” Alex G began in a monotone, seemingly trying to find something to say while tuning. “We’re the sexiest people I know. What do you think of my ass? People tell me I have a great ass.” That sharp right turn is the kind of thing Alex Giannascoli has perfected in his off-kilter indie rock tunes over the last few years, building an empire on the outskirts with a plethora of bedroom pop records. But the tunes are often more fragile, open, emotionally available than that aside, as the evocative poetry of “Kicker” (“White bird in a black cloud/ Rain comin’ down, thinking hey/ Maybe we should turn this boat around”), which fared well especially when placed next to rawer screams. Tunes like “Bug” that required some studio tweaks for their recorded version felt rougher live, the vocalists recreating a pitch-shift with a strained falsetto. The set came across a little less emotionally connected than I’d have expected, almost even defensive, but the best songs still spoke for themselves. –Adam Kivel


    Beach House

    Most Suited to a Reclining Look at the Stars that Turns into a Nap

    Amanda Koellner-PrimaveraSound-Beach House 1

    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    Lets get this straight: Beach House have written some mind-blowingly good songs. Hearing “10 Mile Stereo” — at home, through a car stereo, on headphones on the train, through a massive soundsystem at a beautiful festival — will always send shivers down the spine. That said, there have undeniably been some diminishing returns for those of us lucky enough to have seen them on the festival circuit a few times since the 2010 release of their groundbreaking Teen Dream. The first time I saw them live, the set felt like it latched onto my heart and took it soaring. Though their Primavera set added on songs from three records since then, it didn’t feel all that different. It’s still beautiful music to get lost in and feel the world spinning, but personally it didn’t capture the same emotional connectivity that it once did. –Adam Kivel


    The Last Shadow Puppets

    Most Clumsy Sleaze

    Amanda Koellner-PrimaveraSound-Last Shadow Puppets

    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    There’s a very obvious leap between the massively packed field singing along together to “Creep” (the last song of Radiohead’s night, which ended moments before, across the field) and the remaining spectators trying to catch Last Shadow Puppets’ opening “Miracle Aligner”, as the majority flee the scene. On record, Alex Turner and Miles Kane’s music fumbles for words and oozes an uncomfortable pseudo-sex appeal. Live, that gets amped to 11, seeing Turner arch his back and grind his crotch against his mic stand. The band, including a string section, sounded professional enough, but the duo sounded like they were reciting someone else’s words, as on a binge-fueled karaoke session. That feeling was accentuated by professional, if rote, covers of The Beatles (“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and Leonard Cohen (“Is This What You Wanted”). But then again, covering The Beatles is kind of like a cheat code for a video game; sure, you win, but not of your own doing. –Lior Phillips


    Cass McCombs

    Most Likely to Make You Check Your Phone

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    Nina Corcoran, Cass McCombs 1

    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    The second day of Primavera Sound Festival is built to prove why the middle child matters — the first day of any festival is a given, and the second day has to back it up. Kamasi Washington, AIR, Tame Impala, and LCD Soundsystem stood tall, garnering all the limelight and justifying a return to the park — but unfortunately some lesser-known acts were then bound to get at least a little caught in their shadows. Enter Californian singer-songwriter Cass McCombs with an evening slot at one of the larger coliseum-style spots, the Ray-Ban stage. The poetic catalog he’s built over the past decade is full of evocative, intimate songs, but a stage like this on a sunny evening is ill-fit for an understated performance that revels in tiny nuances, the type that got lost reverberating against the concrete expanse in front of him. –Lior Phillips


    Angel Witch

    Most Ill-Placed Metal Show

    Amanda Koellner-PrimaveraSound-Angel Witch

    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    The Saturday afternoon performance from Angel Witch was the perfect case of the right band in the wrong space. While intimate performers like Cass McCombs struggled on large outdoor stages, classic British heavy metal outfit Angel Witch were stuck indoors at the Auditori RockDeluxe, their fervent fans stuck seated in theater seats. Powerful songs like “White Witch” and “Atlantis” rang out viciously into the large hall, yet all energy seemed drained by the lack of interaction with the audience. There were plenty of people walking around the festival grounds with cutoff denim jackets, long hair, and Angel Witch shirts all weekend, and it’s a shame that they couldn’t have seen the metal heroes in their proper element. –Adam Kivel


    GOAT

    Most Likely to Walk Barefoot Between Comparative Religion and Modern Dance Classes

    Nina Corcoran, Goat 3

    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    Theatrical and groovy, the heavily costumed Goat make for a strange experience. Their droning, classic rock-tinged jams are covered in the trappings of “world music” — a term that usually feels presumptuous or even proprietary. But considering the Swedish outfit’s jumble of beaded masks, colorful tunics, animal horn and shell necklaces, flip-flops, and hippie dance moves, it might be the most fitting use of the phrase, somehow of the “world” and yet nowhere very specific. That said, when their grooves hit, they hit hard, and songs like “Goatman” and “Disco Fever” will never cease to get hips shaking, no matter what part of the world. It should come as no surprise that I spotted multiple hula-hoopers in the crowd, a first for my time at Primavera. –Adam Kivel


    Richard Dawson

    Best Acquired Taste

    Nina Corcoran, Richard Dawson 1

    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    As an American at a massive European festival trying to get the most out of the experience, I found myself extremely grateful for advice from overseas colleagues on what to check out. One UK writer suggested checking out Richard Dawson. “Big bearded weirdo,” he said. “Elliott Smith meets Captain Beefheart.” With that, I was off to the Auditori RockDelux, excited but a little unsure of what was to come. And, frankly, after seeing the set, both of those emotions hold. Dawson wandered onstage, asked whether everyone could hear him without the mic, and then shout-sang a tune about, I’m pretty sure, going after a loose sheep, killing it, and bringing it home to share with the family. A fan calling out in a thick Scottish accent perked up his ears, and the two exchanged some friendliness before the music continued. Dawson then proceeded to pick up his guitar and go through outsider art-y folk-adjacent tunes based at least in part on re-tuning strings as he went. It seemed like an acquired taste, one I didn’t have going in but might be picking up, as I continue listen to his songs now a few days later. –Adam Kivel


    Vince Staples

    Most Hands Raised When Asked

    Nina Corcoran, Vince Staples 1

    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    Vince Staples consistently urged the Barcelona crowd on, trying to get them as pumped as possible — which, as is the norm in my experience at Primavera, consisted more of grooving and raising hands and giving it up when asked, rather than getting truly wild. They followed his directions to a T, gleefully chanting “fuck the police” back at him in a melange of various accents. Staples, meanwhile, was his usual explosive self, limbs flailing across every single available square inch of stage. The propulsive “Lift Me Up” and “Norf Norf” were absolute highlights, the bursts of flame projected behind him matching Staples’ style. Even if the crowd wasn’t as raucous as one back home, they certainly appreciated his energy. And now we all know where it comes from: “I drank some coffee, I drank some water,” he noted of his day. “I was offered some weed, but I said no because I don’t do drugs.” –Adam Kivel


    Battles

    Best Non-Dance Dance Set

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    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    If you’ve seen Battles once on a tour, it’s more likely than not you will see the exact same set any other night on the same leg. Over a decade into their career, Battles aren’t looking to throw in deep cuts. Instead, the art rock trio indulge the math side of their music by showing just how hard it is to match up all those time signatures and tempos in the live setting without samples being cued up a second too early. That precision allowed for a set of dance-ready rock at Primavera, from the giddiness of “Ice Cream” all the way to the choral chants of “Atlas”. Ian Williams, John Stanier, and Dave Konopka weren’t looking to try anything new, but rather to perfect what they know — and the audience was eager to revel in that right from the start. –Nina Corcoran
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    Dungen

    Best Wood Flute

    Nina Corcoran, Dungen 1

    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    It should come as no surprise to anyone that’s listened to Dungen that the most excited dude in the crowd was the guy with the paisley shirt and long, flowing locks gleefully jumping up and down. The Swedish psych rock outfit have crafted a long career out of freewheeling, jammy rock sounds, and to great acclaim, particularly 2005’s Ta det lugnt. The highlight of that album, and this set, was “Panda”, an effervescent jam with a big hook. Johan Holmegard’s bouncy, jazz-inflected drums kept things moving, and the group’s high harmonies carried well on the soft breeze. That said, frontman Gustav Ejstes’ turn at the front of the stage with a wood flute brought the most smiles, spinning hippy grooves into a prog rock jam that the whole crowd could get into. –Adam Kivel


    Pusha T

    Best Use of Kanye West

    Nina Corcoran, Pusha T 2

    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    While Vince Staples’s best cuts hold up in comparison to Pusha T’s “Numbers on the Board” and “Untouchable”, it’s undeniable that the former Clipse rapper had an advantage at Primavera: the massive hits he’s featured on. Anyone able to throw their portions of Kanye-led cuts “Mercy” or “I Don’t Like” into a set will get a bigger response from a festival crowd, where vaguely familiar listeners frequently outnumber the fans who know every song. But the ones that did know every word certainly appreciated the classic “Grindin'”, the single Clipse track to make the setlist. Framed by giant neon crosses with “Sin Will Find You Out” inscribed on them, the “Last Cocaine Superhero” got the large, dedicated crowd grooving via the familiar stuff, but kept them there with his own superstar presence and growing batch of scene-stealers. –Adam Kivel


    Explosions in the Sky

    Best Immersive Experience

    Amanda Koellner-PrimaveraSound-Explosions in the Sky

    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    To get the most out of an Explosions in the Sky show, you have to give yourself over to it fully. You can’t be at the edges of the crowd, walking back and forth from the beer tent, chatting with pals. It’s like Plato’s cave — the ideal of music at its core is out there, but you get stuck with only a shadow of it unless you let it overwhelm you entirely. And when you do, you’re rewarded with eye-bulging tidal waves of beauty and noise. It’s like the opposite of a sensory deprivation tank — you feel everything all at once. The Austin four-piece sounded tangled and tight and yet paradoxically also airy and ethereal, stitching each song together intricately and on a grand scope and then stitching those songs together into one breathing mass. The band spent half their set on the recently released The Wilderness, but spryly wove in older material like fan-favorite “Your Hand in Mine” and “The Only Moment We Were Alone”. As with the best of post-rock, that immersive experience works on record (tuning out the world with your headphones) as it does in a live setting, where the sound can literally wash everything else in the world away. –Lior Phillips


    Animal Collective

    Most Normal Weirdos

    Nina Corcoran, Animal Collective 2

    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    The Ray-Ban stage is, essentially, a giant concrete bowl accessed via a massive set of concrete steps, a perfect spot in which to get lost in Animal Collective’s swirling psychedelic world. It’s not that the mad geniuses get any less weird with each successive album; it’s just that more and more people catch up to their weird. Animal Collective’s set commanded one of the largest crowds at the stage (it doesn’t hurt to have the exodus of Radiohead fans avoiding Last Shadow Puppets, but I don’t want to chalk it all up to that), and the Painting With tour continues to gel into a cohesive experience. Where once their live sets would jam and experiment on new tracks, they’ve worked backwards to the point that the Painting With songs are set, and now they’re figuring out ways to break them open and connect them to old favorites. Speaking of which: “Loch Raven” will never fail to get a crowd bobbing and weaving, especially in and around midnight dusk right on the seaside. But Avey, Panda, and Geologist didn’t need to dig into their deep bag of crowd favorites to succeed — I didn’t hear anyone booing about not getting to hear “My Girls”, instead grooving out to the sublimely timed rises and falls of yet another crowd-pleasing Animal Collective set. –Adam Kivel


    Drive Like Jehu

    Hawtest Stuff

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    Photo by Amanda Koellner

    Two years ago, it took an organ to reunite beloved post-hardcore outfit Drive Like Jehu. Their first set back together came accompanied by an organist at San Diego’s Spreckels Organ Pavilion, the novelty of the idea enough to convince them. Since then, they’ve popped up here and there, looking like dads though driven by the same fury and raw nerve emotions they had back in their teen years. Rick Froberg’s evocative howls led the way (as might be expected), but John Reis’ lead guitar (gold-flecked and emblazoned with the words “Hawt Stuff” and a sticker of a marlin) did plenty of heavy lifting on its own. The quartet sounded like they hadn’t lost a step, matching the hairpin turns of their classic cuts inch for inch, but I guess that’s what happens when you’re considered one of the major touchstones for the emo scene — there’s always something to get riled up about. –Adam Kivel


    Andy Shauf

    Most Casual Serenade

    Nina Corcoran, Andy Shauf 1

    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf has gotten some serious buzz on the heels of his recent May release, The Party, and the twentysomething, extremely elfin chamber pop folkist — who handles all the instrumentation on the album — at times comes across like a mishmash of an indie Tony Bennett and an infinitely cooler John Mayer. At the Auditori Rockdelux on an obnoxiously humid Thursday afternoon, standing beneath a swirling, fog-lit spotlight, Shauf started an intimate but penetrating set with eyes closed as if to ward off any unwanted moxie. “Well, this is really nice, isn’t it?” he shrugged, finding his voice before heading into “The Magician”, much to the crowd’s agreeable euphoria. Shivering, folk-inspired rhythms were threaded through legato vocals and woven through a rich yet compact layered percussion. While he’s a member of the reedy Elliot Smith-like singer-songwriters club, with a low-slung onstage style, his music has a dark, cagey cast, and he’s not ashamed to expose it. –Lior Phillips


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