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Things Learned At: NOS Primavera Sound
Daniel Dylan Wray , June 10th, 2015 13:13

Daniel Dylan Wray reports from Primevera's Portugal edition, reporting on sets from FKA twigs, Patti Smith, Einsturzende Neubauten, The Replacements and Xylouris White

Almost every year since 2009 I've been attending Primavera Sound in Barcelona. The (almost) guaranteed good weather combined with the usually excellent line-up, beautiful location and fantastic place to go party quite hard has made it something of a go-to place for me over the years. However, is going to Barcelona every year and doing the same thing all that different to making an all inclusive in Benidorm your favourite annual outing and sticking with it year-in, year-out? Well, yes, probably a bit different. You can't see Antony & The Johnsons play with a forty-piece orchestra in Benidorm, and I've yet to see any 18-30 trips out there that include performances by: Shellac, Ride, The Replacements, Run The Jewels, FKA twigs, Patti Smith, Babes In Toyland, Pharmakon, Spiritualized or Einsturzende Neubauten. That said, in need of a change of scenery I decided to go and check out the Porto edition of the festival this year and I learned a few things along the way.

FKA twigs is Fucking Boss

Just as the sun has disappeared and a misty darkness forges with the billowing smoke machines, coating the stage, and an icy chill begins to permeate the once muggy Portuguese air, FKA twigs comes on stage with a sense of power and majesty that suggests she may have been responsible for changing the weather herself. Within minutes it's clear she's on course for something really special. The sparse, nocturnal ambiance of her recorded work is transformed into powerful, often pummelling, charges of industrial-tinged electronic densities that send quivering ripples of heavy bass through the floor up into your legs. They course through every ounce of your body until they reach the throat, the vibrations clasping it tight – a strange form of sensual sonic strangulation. Twigs sounds pristine and moves in gloriously fluid dance moves, occasionally in perfect unison with the fractured grooves that burst from the speakers but occasionally moving at odds with it. However, this only serves to create a powerful visual experience that emphasises the brilliance of it all, as Twigs sometimes looks like she's in her own world, dancing to the beat of her own tune in blissful ignorance of the audience.

What's so engaging about the performance musically is the miles it covers: within the space of one song you can go from feeling clattered by avant-garde industrial dark ambient experimentations, to being smothered by sugar-coated R&B - the back and forth and the melding of the two is utterly glorious and transfixing. As a performer she conveys such a sense of power and authority, an expelling of a singular artistic vision being fully realised whilst still clearly growing at the same time, it's both a complete and evolutionary performance to witness. Much has been written about the sex and sensuality of FKA twigs' work but the real force, and sexiness, of her material on stage tonight comes in the power, conviction and intensity of her delivery of those words and songs. At one point she crouches down at the front of the stage, legs spread wide, and slaps her crotch almost as a knowing nod and the crowd erupts in what feels like genuine universal understanding rather than collective boorish cheering. The very idea of going to watch Interpol run through their banal, dated indie straight afterwards is an almost laughable proposition, such is the power and magnificence of FKA twigs' performance.   

You can't doubt Patti Smith's sincerity

Although you can occasionally find her over-earnestness a tad cloying. However, during the rendition of her 1975 album Horses, it makes a rare change to see someone working through material from forty years ago and not only still giving a shit about it but still clearly having a deep-set connection to it. As a result she projects meaning, intensity and passion from it. Seeing Television run through Marquee Moon last year was almost a perfect lesson in apathy but, despite some occasionally wanky guitar from Lenny Kaye, Patti gives a hell of a performance and seemed to be rekindling an artistic relationship with her formative work, rather than just running through the motions for the payola.

When she sings 'Break It Up' (a track she coincidentally penned with Television's Tom Verlaine) it hammers home the difference in approach many of the reformed bands or 'play your classic album' bands have, as Smith wails gloriously and with a sincerity that is impossible to deny. During 'Birdland' she almost sings herself hoarse as she spits out "Up, up, up" over again until the near point of exhaustion and 'Land' is infectious and rousing. As she closes with 'Elegie' an ode to her fallen idols, a few more make the tribute as she reels off a list of the departed: The Ramones (one by one); Jimmi Hendrix; Lou Reed and so on. To us these are a list of musicians you'd expect Patti Smith to name check, no more than a remembrance of dead musicians from her generation that she's managed to outlive, yet about halfway through the rather long list there's a realisation from her tone that she's not just paying tribute to musical inspirations and idols but she is reading out a list of dead friends and loved ones and it takes on an emotional charge that's impossible not to connect with on some level.

Terrible clothes, smashing guitars and T-Rex – I witnessed the death of the Replacements (again)

Grizzly bar room rockers the Replacements were always associated with rambunctious, sloppy, drunken performances in their heyday. The mad surge of youth, carelessness and alcohol propelling their Big Star meets Springsteen meets the Ramones blend of alt-rock. So seeing how this would stand up some thirty years later as they move towards 60 would prove interesting. Paul Westerberg runs onto the stage to a surprisingly empty crowd (the lowest I see for a main stage act by some stretch) and the group – dressed in what is truly a horrendous collection of clothes between them – begin to tear through 'Takin' A Ride' with a pace that borders on the unfathomable. This continues for the first few songs as it becomes unclear whether they are attempting to channel the breakneck speed of their early work or simply aiming get through the set as fast as is humanly possible. They hammer through their catalogue in a mixture of thrilling bursts and forgettable standards. At one point Westerberg throws a guitar to his tech who drops it, he picks it up and looks to try again but instead opts for smashing it neck first into the stage, smashing it with ease like it was a toothpick. They continue onwards with flashes of brilliance lighting up the more forgettable and workmanlike moments. They throw together a sloppy T-Rex cover, bash out a couple more songs, finish on 'Alex Chilton' and then, as announced by Westerberg cantankerously, break up on stage (again).

The Porto edition is a like a more civilised, cheaper and greener version of the Barcelona one

If you're heading to a festival and looking for the party then Barcelona is the one for you. It's bigger, it runs later, there's more people, more stages, more bands and DJs and you receive an offer of drugs roughly once every thirty seven seconds. Porto, on the other hand, is smaller (roughly around the size of Green Man or Beacons in terms of UK comparisons – minus the camping sites) and a little more relaxed. Despite Porto having decriminalised personal drug use/possession many years ago, there's nothing doing the rounds (that I encounter) other than a few joints here and there. If you're looking to trade in your MDMA for a nice glass of wine, then Porto could well be for you. It has a vibrant and energetic atmosphere but it's not frenzied and depraved. The lush green site (in particular the ATP Stage which is encircled with beautiful trees to create a forest-like setting for watching bands) is pretty and wonderfully laid out with almost all stages on a natural slope, allowing excellent view points throughout. It's also very cheap. It's about half the price of Barcelona (both in ticket prices and drinks) and considerably cheaper than nearly all UK festivals. A pint of beer will set you back €3.50 (£2.58) and a glass of very good, local, wine €4.00 (£2.95). Accommodation in the city is really reasonable and, as a result, it's really not inconceivable - in fact it's entirely feasible - that you could fly to Porto, rent an apartment for a long weekend, go to the festival and spend less money than a typical weekend at one of the many bigger UK festivals where you have to camp and endure the midday-hammered, shit-spraying, violence-goading uber-lads that seem so fond of attending music festivals in England these days.  

All hail the Octopus Man

There are not many things in life more satisfying than watching Jim White drum. Xylouris White, his latest project with the Cretan lute player, George Xylouris, draws the sparest crowd of the weekend by some stretch, yet it's also easily one of the most magical performances. As they begin in the burning afternoon sun White outstretches his arms, wriggling and writhing, thrashing and twisting, his arms and drumsticks wild and unpredictable yet fluid and graceful, as he moves between tickling the drums skins and hammering them with force, he resembles a sort of octopus man with tentacles waving slimily. Xylouris is less animated in his approach but no less effective. He sits with his lute on his lap, picking delicately and impressively and also strumming with venom and speed.

The dynamic between the two is relaxed and playful, it has all the charm and spontaneity of a front porch jam between friends and the beaming smiles on their faces throughout suggests that may well be the case. The seemingly improvised performance moves from jazz-tinged avant garde folk to Turkish-toned psych and in between it hops continents in its stylistic touch points. They dance around one another as musicians, they are deeply playful and teasing in their approach and it builds an immersive, vortex-like atmosphere that sucks you into their grooves and interplay. When they do hit their stride together it's enthralling and they latch onto one another for an intense ride as White's drums pound and hiss wildly and Xylouris' lute is put through its paces. They get tangled up in themselves in the last song and it fizzles and collapses rather then explodes in cacophony but it's still as enjoyable nonetheless as it seems perfectly emblematic of the unpredictable and improvised nature of the project.

Death Cab For Cutie and Einsturzende Neubauten do not mix

Sound bleed from neighbouring stages at musical festivals is generally considered par for the course and whilst this festival largely does an excellent job of avoiding it - with the odd exception of getting some of the Superbock Stage interfering with the ATP Stage - one such example is wafts of Death Cab's tepid indie floating over and plugging the gaps that should have been filled with tense silence or the atmospheric whir of Neubauten's machinery. The band take it in their stride in good spirits, mock dancing to the invading sounds. It then makes it all the more brutal when they do kick back in with volume - the heavy thwacks of metal, razor wire guitar, or the grumbling bass of Alexander Hacke seem more malevolent, like a response, a giant German hammer caving in the skull of Ben Gibbard and co. There is still nothing on earth like a Blixa Bargeld scream, in the band's early days it felt like it was the shriek of an untamed, feral, animal. One that's been brought up on speed and the produce of backstreet garbage cans but in his older age it goes beyond animal-like qualities. Blixa has learnt to sing, to breathe, to perform properly and the length and intensity to which he can now let out a lung-puncturing scream is utterly incredible and the effects rip through you like cheese wire. Of course noise and intensity is only a minor part of Neubaten's overall output (as fantastically dissected by Sand Avidar recently) and despite them only having an hour to play with they glide gloriously from the charmingly lugubrious and melancholy to deeply considered, constrained and thoughtful industrial ambiance through to skull fracturing noise and the biggest problem in the end is not Death Cab's murmur but the desperate desire for more. Top marks to Blixa's sparkly suit too.        

Porto is a feast for the eyes

Porto is an incredibly arresting city, visually. It is one of the most architecturally diverse cities I have ever visited: wonderfully old dilapidated town houses crumble by road sides in the heart of the city; grand, classical churches and cathedrals punctuate the city's skyline; gargantuan modernist buildings lay side-by-side humble homes and villas and port wine cellars look like they stretch across the city for miles with their unique, and very long, roofs. It's a hilly city which means an astonishing view is never far away and with the festival not really starting until 5/6pm it means there's ample time to become immersed in the city, which I do with pleasure.  

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