Friday, June 3rd, 2011
Primavera Sound 2011 Day Four
PJ Harvey, John Cale, Fleet Foxes and more at Primavera Sound
Frank YangAt the entrance to Parc del Forum is a typically strange-looking piece of Barcelonan architecture, wedge-shaped and indigo-coloured, and within it is a series of stark white hallways leading to a huge auditorium. This is the L’Auditori and on the Saturday afternoon of Primavera Sound, it hosted the performance that I had been looking forward to only a little bit less than Pulp the night before: John Cale leading the BCN216 orchestra in a performance of his Paris 1919 album – a recipe for greatness if ever there was one.
The ingredients for said recipe were the kilt-clad Cale handling vocals and keyboards whilst leading the 19-piece orchestra and a three-piece rock band through a sumptuous reading of his 1973 album, with Cale’s huge voice carrying its musical riches, both joyous and melancholic, to the furthest corners of the packed concert hall. Also, I’m used to hearing the album with the clicks and crackles of the LP and its seventies-era studio fidelity – to behold it in such bold, rich and three-dimensional tones was really a revelation. Truly, this is an album that deserves to be ranked as one of the all-time greats, and anyone who disagrees simply hasn’t heard it.
It’d be nice if the same could be said about the material that Cale used to pad out the set; after the orchestra decamped, Cale strapped on a guitar to kick off a set that was both traditional and experimental rock. I won’t claim to be anything resembling an expert on Cale’s solo repertoire, but while some of it was interesting and there were indisputable moments of beauty contained therein, the strongest impression was that it was musically overcooked thanks to some excessive solos. It got better when the orchestra returned to fill things out, but the remainder of the set certainly didn’t measure up to the album recital that preceded it – that was just magical.
It’s a shame I didn’t sneak out of the theatre earlier because it would have meant catching more than a couple songs of Warpaint’s set over on the Llevant stage. I was surprised they were playing the second largest stage at the festival, but perhaps I underestimated the benefits of all their European touring. Our time together wasn’t long but a little bit of their intensely chilled-out space rock is better than none, and few bands look like they have as good a time on stage together as Warpaint does. Bonus points to Jenny Lee Lindberg for rocking the Rosie The Riveter livery up there.
It’s kind of a shame there’s so little grass at Parc del Forum, as lying on a patch of green watching the sun set behind the stage would have been the ideal setting for Fleet Foxes’ Spanish debut (according to them). After all of the big productions that the San Miguel stage had hosted thus far, their stripped down yet soaring folk-rock was a nice change of pace. Robin Pecknold’s voice not always able to soar past the dense instrumentation in the mix, but when needed, like on “White Winter Hymnal”, the extra lift from the band’s harmonies and audience singalong saved the day. It was also interesting to note that “Helplessness Blues”, the title track from their not-even a month-old new album, has already been elevated to set closer. Bold.
The original game plan had been to pop back to L’Auditori to see at least some of Mercury Rev’s live recreation of Deserters Songs, but an excessively long turnover between the audience for the last show and this one prompted me to bail and instead indulge my German industrial rock joneses with Einstürzende Neubauten back at the Ray-Ban stage. Except it turns out I don’t actually have and German industrial joneses and so after a couple times it was time to head back to the San Miguel stage and grab some pavement in anticipation of PJ Harvey.
As keen as I was to finally get to see Polly Jean Harvey live and as much as I liked her latest album Let England Shake, I was well aware that this latest release might not be the best album to see her perform live, particularly in a festival setting. And any hopes that she might revert to rocker form for just one evening were shelved when she took the stage, resplendent in white Victorian gown and armed with an autoharp, under intense spotlights at far stage right while her bandmates were set up at far stage left and opened up with the title track of the new record.
The stark, restrained performance was as theatrical in its own way as the Flaming Lips’ set a few nights earlier, with Harvey’s movements and positioning onstage extremely calculated and deliberate and interaction with the audience kept to an absolute minimum. The set comprised almost all of Let England Shake, with its meditations on war and history setting an odd tone against the Primavera backdrop – particularly for those in the crowd trying to dance to descriptions of the horrors of World War I battlefields, but also a fascinating one.
Even when Harvey delved into her varied back catalog, with the oppositely-themed To Bring You My Love the most visited, the songs were recast in Let England Shake dress, some even rearragned to be led on the autoharp. Trying to reconcile the chasteness of what I was seeing with the sensuality of Harvey’s persona circa 1995, from whence I remembered those songs, was an interesting exercise. Some of the old Harvey raucousness began to creep in later on with Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea‘s “Big Exit” and To Bring You My Love‘s “Meet Ze Monsta” proving that for all the white she could and would still get dirty, but rather than mark the mark the start of a fresher, rawer and more crowd-pleasing portion of the show, it was the end. There was no encore.
And there, at a little past midnight on Saturday evening, did my first Primavera Sound experience end – while there was still plenty to see, an early morning flight out dictated that getting out then to be the prudent thing to do. I won’t say it’ll be my last Primavera, though – besides the perks of getting to visit Barcelona, it was an impressively-run festival (I can say this because I didn’t partake in the cash-card fiasco that marred day one for beer-drinkers) with a ridiculous lineup.
Big but not too big, if they assemble another perfect storm of acts I want/need to see (Ride/Slowdive/Lush reunions in 2012 holla) then I can certainly see myself returning. And if you’re never been but have considered it, I heartily encourage you to do so. For the curious, all my set and atmosphere shots (from the crowd) are up on Flickr, as are all my pics from Barcelona and London over the last couple weeks. If you’re a holiday snaps kind of person.
And the wrap out the week…
Exclaim reports that New York Euro-poppers Ivy have completed a new album, their first in seven years since In The Clear. No title or release date as of yet but the first single will arrive next week.
Video: Emmy The Great – “Iris”