Located on a waterfront site in Barcelona that has a slightly industrial feel to it, but at the same time provides excellent views across the sea. The festival is heavily corporate-badged, with each stage carrying a sponsor’s name. Seven principal stages, the two main ones ‘Heineken’ and ‘H&M” are located either end of an area the size of an enlarged football pitch with band sets alternating between the two. In theory this sounds like you could sit in the ‘centre circle’ and enjoy pretty much non-stop music. But in reality the sound desks and more particularly the bar areas do not make this possible. Additionally, with strong headline acts scheduled to play these stages it was necessary to get there early to get e decent position (i.e. for the previous band on that stage, meaning a wait of 2 hours).
Other stages are set in natural amphi-theatres giving an option to view from a seated position
The main festival area opens at 4.00 pm with bands on at 5.00. The main stage area opened just before 6.00 pm just before the first act. The late afternoon start time is entirely sensible given the heat, and it means the bands play through till 3.00/4.00 a.m.. Headline acts are on at 11.00 pm / midnight.
Organisation across the festival is very good. Plenty of bars plus vendors walking round serving beer from back-packs. Large beer is €5, with a €1 premium if purchased from a roving vendor. Only Heineken on offer - craft beer has not reached these parts (or maybe the sponsors are insistent on monopolising ?). This lack of variety is disappointing and after three days you are left craving something more flavoursome.
The festival ticket was €175. We purchased a package at £294 each which included 3 nights in a Holiday Inn - perfectly adequate. The festival ticket includes entrance to free gigs at venues in the city the night before the festival and during the afternoons while the festival is on if you are energetic enough and want to get some bands in before the 4.00pm opening time. Alternatively you could use your ticket for entry to the Beach Club, a chilled out area next to the festival site with DJ’s all afternoon.
There are 190,000 attendees across the three days, but it never felt too crowded, apart from the headline band sets. Food outlets were plentiful and provided good quality and value for money.
And so to the bands we saw:
Wednesday night - pre-festival gig at Sala Apolo
Stara Rzeka - a great deal of intense knob-twiddling creating soundscapes that somehow didn't seem to grip the audience. Penultimate track moved into Jonsi-esque territory and was the best song. Finished with a vocal-accompanied song which made for an eclectic mix.
White Fence - four-piece guitar band from California featuring Tim Presley on lead vocal. Good songs and would have liked to have stayed for longer than the 20 mins our schedule allowed
Younghusband - the smaller downstairs room (400/500 capacity) was full for this exciting English indie band. Their half hour set comprised mostly songs from their excellent 'Dissolver' album.
Suuns - took to the stage as a massive blow-up 'SUUNS' appeared which acted as a very effective back-drop for the light-show.
Beach Slang - Firestone Stage: Philadelphia four-piece guitars. Lead singer sported a shirt, jumper and blazer so must have been extremely hot in the afternoon sun. Opening number had overtones of British sea Power but as the set progressed the band moved into a post-punk groove. Included a cover of ‘Friday Night And I’m in Love’
Autumn Comets - Rayban Stage: Six piece with guitars, keys and violin. Saved best songs till end of the set, slow-building numbers with screeching violin, ok but a little reminiscent of Snow Patrol
Algiers - Heineken Stage: Started off as a taste of WOMAD in the Spanish sunshine. From Atlanta. Played a variety of styles, World, Rock, Blues and Soul
Car Seat Headrest - Pitchfork Stage: Opened with solo rendition of ‘Way Down’ with the band taking to the stage and joining in toward the end of the song. Voice has a 60s/Lou Reed quality. PA was not as loud as it could have been and people chattering was an irritant. This was the most inventive of the bands of the afternoon. Their first tour in six years, but they still look extremely young. Across the set the songs moved from mournful to anthemic. Additional entertainment provided by blow-up blue dolphin in the crowd.
Destroyer - Rayban Stage: Eight on stage included trumpet, sax and keys. Dylan-esque vocal. Glad to catch this band that we were due to see in London later in June, but we have had to swerve due to a clash
Suuns - Primavera Stage: this time the blow-up SUUNS letters appeared three songs in. Some good songs but they need to work a bit harder to achieve the artistry and charm of (say) a Hot Chip
Floating Points - Rayban Stage: Having caught the end of his DJ set earlier in the afternoon at the Beach Club it was intriguing to see whether this would be a true 'live' set. We weren't disappointed. Supported by a three strong band this was a find of the weekend producing a blend of ambient and rockin tunes
Tame Impala - H&M Stage: given the fairly specialist sounds this band create it is always surprising just how well the assembled masses know the songs. Centring their set on their excellent 2015 release 'Currents' the band were in fine form until, at the end of 'Eventually' the sound went bringing the set to a premature end. They tried to resume several minutes later but the vibe was lost.
Oh Pep! - NightPro Stage: a female duo from Melbourne, Australia; Peggy-Ann and Olivia, supported today by a couple of guys from Ireland on bass and drums. First set of the afternoon on this tucked-away stage so just 82 people there at the start (it filled up a bit during the set). Very good tunes, reminiscent of Emily Barker. Olivia was the main vocal lead. Peggy-Ann played excellent mandolin and made it sound like a plinky piano in places. Excellent set.
White Fence - Primavera Stage: Having seen the first 20 mins of their set the previous evening was glad to catch the second half this afternoon. Centre-piece of their set was a metronomic, floyd-esque number that saw the guitarist on drums (still with guitar) and the drummer playing feedback/scuzzy guitar
Ben Watt - Rayban Stage: Including Bernard Butler on a guitar who provided the best guitar-playing we saw all weekend on a couple of numbers. The bass player alternated between guitar and full double-bass giving breadth to Ben Watt’s feelgood yet thoughtful songs
Savages - Heineken Stage: Occupying the slot preceding Radiohead this had the feel of a support act. Not the band’s fault but this was a large crowd made up of people content to invest 3 hours waiting for the main act. With just pockets of interest, the audience showed polite appreciation to Jehhny Beth’s fantastic efforts at getting the crowd going with her multiple crowd surfs
Beirut - H & M Stage : Superb vocals harmonising with one another and also with the full-on brass trio that made up the six-strong line-up. The vocal sounded like Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip in places. A mix of waltz and paso doble rhythms
Radiohead - Heineken Stage: With the crowd now swelled to massive proportions we were understandably unable to retrieve the reasonable place we’d had for Savages so we ended up quite a long way back. Not a problem in itself but there was much chattering during the opening 4-5 songs which showcased their excellent new album ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’. The screens were a let down too, projecting the same as the stage back-drop (which everyone could see anyway) so no chance to see the band in action. We gave up on the set after 25 minutes due the chattering and constantly moving crowd, but we were still able to enjoy some classics (see below)
The Last Shadow Puppets - H & M Stage - Sat in front of this stage at the other end of the arena to secure a good space for this set. Fantastic festival moments when, despite everyone facing away from the Radiohead stage we all joined in with Karma Police. For a minute we lost ourselves. As for TLSP, the new sexy Alex Turner strutting around the stage owns this band completely. A lot of Libertines-style buddy-up moments with Miles Kane but you can’t get past this being AT’s side-project. A good mix of times with plenty from their solid 2016 release ‘Everything You’ve Come To Expect’.
Beach House - Heineken Stage: A shame that after the rest of the day running to perfect time this 2.00 a.m. set was late (they only started disassembling the Radiohead rig at 1.45). But it was worth the wait. Wonderful band, wonderful tunes perfect for a starry Spanish night. Chased away all feelings of tiredness.
Cass McCombs - Firestone Stage: Featured CM with bass, drums and keys. Chilled out indie tunes with a hint of Americana. Some impressive keyboard/guitar interludes and the keys-man added occasional falsetto harmonies
Joan Serat - Rayban Stage: Spanish female singer-songwriter supported by a 5-strong band that gave depth to her sun-filled and enjoyable tunes. Occasional overtones of a country twang
Wild Nothing - Heineken Stage: 5-piece indie guitars and keys. Nothing to get wild about apart from a stand-out track which had a keyboard intro, deeper vocal and a dancey middle section. Best tune of the day so far
U.S.Girls - Adidas Original Stage : Unlike American band ‘Girls’ and Ireland’s ‘Girl Band” these really are girls..... two of ‘em. Dressed in jump-suits, one white one black; put you in mind of Abba c.1974. A highly theatrical performance - both girls on vocals with back-up loops. Edgy, funny, quirky, raunchy in equal measure. Funniest moments were when a guitarist appeared from behind the PA sporting a cowboy hat and white trousers. The first time he appeared for no more than 10 seconds playing a riff and immediately disappearing. Two later appearances were slightly longer with slide guitar riffs complementing the loops. Different, quirky - great fun.
Autolux - Primavera Stage: Three-piece guitars with a female drummer who shared lead vocal. The two guys were all in black; she was also in black but with a fluorescent pink tabard which was particularly stunning when she took the lead vocal standing on the drum-kit. Could really play their instruments.
Richard Hawley - Rayban Stage: we have seen a lot of RH over the years and had there been a competing act we might have swerved this set but glad we didn’t. It was utterly brilliant. Really has moved on over the last 5 years, playing a rockin set with just the occasional crooney ballad. A fantastic musician and surrounds himself with great people to create his marvellous sound.
Chairlift - Pitchfork Stage : Curious line-up: vocals/drums, bass/sax. Energetic dancey tunes
Parquet Courts - Pitchfork Stage: Our original motivation for booking this festival was Saturday’s headliner Sigur Ros, so it had been a disappointment to see Parquet Courts were billed to clash with them. All things considered with the main stage layouts (and the fact we are seeing SR later in the year in UK) we opted for Brooklyn’s finest, Parquet Courts. Their 2016 album ‘Human Performance’ is also one of my very favourites so far this year. I had a minor reservation that the crowd would not be as ‘up for it’ as an English crowd as there had been little evidence of mashing/crowd-surfing all weekend. I needn’t have worried. The band opened with 4-5 songs from ‘Light Up Gold’ and the crowd was extremely lively from the off; and the mashing didn’t cease as they moved into songs from their latest release which were delivered with the now familiar aplomb from this excellent band. A wonderful set for us to conclude the festival with.
This is a great festival albeit we found it a hard slog. Fortunately we had had the foresight to book a further three days in a resort hotel which allowed us to recuperate and enjoy the sights of Barcelona, making this a highly agreeable trip.