Wednesday, June 1st, 2011
Primavera Sound 2011 Day Three
Pulp, Belle & Sebastian, The National and more at Primavera Sound
Frank YangAsk me my dream festival lineup (within the realm of possibility) and I might well submit the four-block that was Primavera Friday night – you had The National as possibly my favourite act currently going and at the top of their game, Belle & Sebastian from the hall of all-time favorites, Explosions In The Sky to represent for my ambient/post-rock proclivities and as the hook – the mandatory reunion act – let’s say… Pulp. And this, in a nutshell, was why I was in Spain.
The previous night’s creep into this day’s morning meant a late start out of the blocks, and so arrival at Parc del Forum was timed just about right for duskfall and to see The National on the Llevant stage. This was the first time I’d seen them at a festival since they did a noon hour set at Austin City Limits in 2007 – clearly their stock had risen some in the interim. I’ve watched them at all levels since their days playing small bars circa Alligator and can confirm they already own in a theatre setting but dominating a major festival stage is something different. Or maybe it’s not, because The National had no problem at all with it. Even though their albums have gotten less overtly rock as you go, they have gotten more anthemic and that’s a trait that serves you well in these settings. As does having friends like Sufjan Stevens, who joined them to a roar of approval to contribute backing vocals on “Afraid Of Everyone”. Chalk it up as another glorious show from The National, even though those on the outskirts of the crowed seemed less enraptured, or at least more engaged in their own conversations. But in the heart of the crowd, there was nothing but devotion.
Like The National, I’d seen Belle & Sebastian many times but never in a festival setting. Unlike The National, big anthems weren’t exactly the Scottish pop outfit’s forte. But this didn’t prompt any sort of rejigging of their live show for the setting – they performed largely the same set as they did in theatres, clearly intending to draw the huge audience in rather than project out. They were stymied in this early on by a poor vocal mix, making them sound smaller than they should have, but eventually that got sorted out and their charms won the day. On the fan interaction end there was no autographed football tosses as there were in North America, but Stuart Murdoch did invite one audience member to apply some mascara to him during “Lord Anthony”, while inserting Pulp quotes into the lyrics to make things extra topical. On the downside, I learned that Belle & Sebastian fans can be seriously pushy jerks. Stop trying to get to the front – Stuart’s already has his makeover for the evening.
The last time I saw Explosions In the Sky was actually at a festival – albeit a midday, second-stage set at V Fest 2007 – but their stature has grown so much since then that comparisons are rather moot. Here, they were playing a midnight time slot at the grand Ray-Ban Stage, whose coliseum seating and massive floors area made it seem like a much more grandiose setting than the de facto San Miguel mainstage. It definitely suited the band, though, combining with their simple yet dramatic light show and massive, cinematic post-rock sound – now even bigger-sounding with the addition of a full-time bassist – and tens of thousands in the audience for a full sensory experience. Not easy for an instrumental band to do. I would have liked to stay longer than the 30 minutes or so that I did, but I’ll have a chance for the full show when they come to town in October and there was more pressing business to attend to. Business a long time in coming.
I had never thought I would ever see Pulp live, and I was by and large alright with that. Their hiatus in 2001 didn’t seem like it would be a temporary thing, as their career had already had an arc that many would envy, and I had adjusted my concert bucket list to just include Jarvis Cocker solo – which was already proving exceedingly difficult to check off. So when the reunion was announced in December, there wasn’t a lot of hesitation before committing to coming to Primavera. The final minutes of a decade of anticipation were heightened by a series of cheeky messages laser-projeted onto a scrim in front of the stage, behind which you could clearly see the letters “P”, “U”, “L” and “P” in giant neon signs hanging in back. Yes. And when they lit up and the band kicked into the totally appropriate His ‘N’ Hers classic “Do You Remember The First Time?”, it was showtime.
Pulp-era Jarvis Cocker was by all accounts a different creature entirely from post-Pulp Jarvis Cocker, but by god if he didn’t slip completely back into character more easily than anyone could imagine, particularly since one would assume that he was the main holdout in any Pulp reunion happening before now. With only the natty salt-and-pepper beard to distinguish him from his previous incarnation, he danced, leapt, strutted and vogued around the stage as if the halcyon days of Britpop were just yesterday and certainly didn’t look as though he were a decade and a half older.
His shedding the jacket and tie early on was the only warning that they were going to spring “Disco 2000” on us – with no asides about meeting up 11 years late – far sooner than anyone might have expected. But even when taken by surprise, the reflex of pretty much everyone at the sound of those opening chords was to dance, dance, dance. Another highlight was Cocker’s pulling out a prop video camera/flashlight for “I Spy”, with which he broadcast to all an in-audience wedding proposal between a couple from Athens, Georgia – major props to the guy for managing to orchestrate that.
That moment of romance led appropriately/inappropriately into “Underwear” which segued into the gloriously seedy “This Is Hardcore”, the only selection from their arguably best (if less festival-friendly) album. Part of this may have been because guitarist/violinist Russell Senior was back in the fold for this reunion and he had originally left the band after Different Class; he wasn’t even onstage for “Hardcore”, though he did step in to handle the guitar solo on “Sunrise”, from the unfairly malinged We Love Life. And I’d never particularly thought of Pulp as a guitar band, but when Cocker strapped one on as he did at a few points in the night, the seven member-strong band actually had four axes going at once.
The main set closed with an explosive “Common People” – dedicated to some of those very people who’d been assaulted by police in Barcelona’s Catalunya Square earler in the week – followed by a one-song encore of “Razzmatazz”, in honour of the club in Barcelona of the same name – and while it was a glorious performance, I couldn’t help but feel a touch of disappointment. Not in the show, but in knowing that I probably won’t see them again and won’t hear so many of those songs from the other records live. And while Cocker was clear that this “wasn’t about ancient history” but instead “making history”, for 90 minutes they did make it feel like it was 1996 again. And it was good.
An attempt to add Battles’ set as a nightcap proved futile – there would be no following Pulp.
BBC interviews Pulp about the lead-up to the reunion shows.
Gemma Hayes has just released her fourth album Let It Break in Ireland and the UK, though I’m in the UK and can’t find it… it’s due for a North American release later this year. There’s interviews with the singer-songwriter at State and The Irish Times.