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Things Learnt At: Bilbao BBK 2017
Patrick Clarke , July 20th, 2017 14:43

Nestled in stunning surroundings and with a line-up led by the divine Depeche Mode, Bilbao BBK had many things to teach us...

Photo by Dena Flows

Bilbao is an understated, but artistically vibrant city

The site of Bilbao BBK finds the perfect middle ground between accessibility and scenic isolation. Nestled deep in the hills that loom large around the edges of the city, with regular shuttle buses and cheap taxis regularly ferrying festivalgoers to the summit, once arriving on site they're greeted by a quite spectacular view of a sprawling cityscape.

When walking around among the streets of said sprawl, Bilbao is less scenic. Its joys are not to be found in broad, majestic views, but on smaller, more intimate terms, in the slow realisation of the fact that hundreds of flags speckle the balconies of myriad apartment blocks to welcome refugees, and in the dive bars hidden down back streets, their counters littered with pinxtos – small dishes to be plucked and enjoyed at leisure.

Louise Bourgeois' 'Maman', outside The Guggenheim in Bilbao

The exception to Bilbao’s small-scale charm is the Guggenheim, the sublime, headspinning structure that single-handedly makes the city one of Spain’s foremost cultural destinations. Guarded by Jeff Koons’ gargantuan puppy at its entrance, and by the fog-enveloped ‘Maman’ – a giant spider by Louise Bourgeois - at its rear, the inside of the building is stunning in itself, a Frank Gehry-designed labyrinth of beams and staircases, while the art it inhabits – which includes exhibitions of the French Fin de Siecle, and the great post-expressionists – is worthy of its venue.

Depeche Mode are as perfect and grandiose as festival headliners come

‘I’ve heard they’re only playing new stuff’, mutters a concerned companion as we await Depeche Mode’s headline slot on the opening night. He needn’t have worried, for Dave Gahan and Martin Gore could play almost anything they wanted and leave the stage triumphant, such is their inherent showmanship.

Photo by Tom Hagen

With the whole band clad in magnificent leather vests and Gahan strutting with infectious glee, the opening half of their set is indeed heavy on material from this year’s Spirit, but its carried both by sheer showmanship and by stonking, hefty instrumentals that lather on the melodrama. When the hits do appear – and there’s a fair amount – they sound even better still. Depeche Mode are the consummate showmen: pomp and grandiosity helmed into total headline perfection.

Idles might just be the best live guitar band in Europe

Waiting for Idles’ 2am Friday morning slot is an unusual experience. Word has it they’re one of the best live bands going, and excitement’s running high for their set throughout the first evening. When we arrive at the Ron Matusalem stage, however, there’s a crowd of around a dozen. There’s ‘intimate’ sure, excitement swiftly plummets to a dollop of awkwardness as the 12 of us look round at each other with edgy smiles.

Photo by Dena Flows

The five-piece must conjure an atmosphere themselves, and it says much about their careening live abilities that almost every passer by seems to be drawn in by their furious, frenetic magnetism. Before long they’ve started leaping into the crowd themselves, and are greeted by a sense of hectic, ecstatic energy. Despite, or perhaps because of, a swift clock on the nose from the headstock of a guitar that leaves this writer bloodied, bruised and possibly broken, Idles depart the stage as possibly the finest guitar band I’ve seen on stage this year.

Jessy Lanza capitalises on a stunning Starman stage setup

Opening our Friday evening, Jessy Lanza takes to the Starman stage to a healthy crowd. It’s the best live music stage on the site, an immense triangular greenhouse that boasts sound as fine as a festival can possibly offer, given she’s the best artist we catch on the stage all weekend, it follows that her set is something quite sublime. Visually simple in the broad early-evening daylight, with the world outside the greenhouse draped in a slight, rainy haze, her set is hypnotic, understated but deeply affecting, free of frills but utterly absorbing.

Photo by Rock In Focus

Elsewhere on the stage the likes of Austra, Jens Lekman and Blonde Redhead all meet similarly joyous receptions, and it soon becomes clear there’s a something certain about the Starman. Like much of Bilbao BBK, there’s no frills to the set-up, just a sense of pure enjoyment, aided by some of the finest live sound engineering this writer’s ever heard.

Fleet Foxes’ new album is their best so far, but it’s the old material that means the most to their audience

Crack Up is a fantastic record, the sound of Fleet Foxes emerging from turbulence with an immense, ambitious sweep of musical fortitude, a step up from the simple, if moving folk of their debut and the noble, if slightly incomplete feeling, experiments of its follow-up. Yet when they play that material to an audience of many thousands, it’s nothing but dry; still impressively written, sure, but lacking in anything resembling the intimate connections it forms on record.

Photo by Rock In Focus

Their set is saved by those twee compositions of old, the sweet, naïve songs about swallows and ships with which the band laid the base for their recent proggy-folk wanderings. This material has neither the structural complexity nor the lyrical depth of their latest guise, but it’s better suited to its main stage surroundings.

Andrew Weatherall caps off a weekend’s stellar dance programming

2017 marks only the second year that Bilbao BBK has boasted its transporting woodland dance grove, Basoa, but it’s impossible to imagine the festival without it. Whether a blissful groove in the glade during the day, or an unhinged rave into the early hours as stunning light shows stream through the leaves, it feels like something of a cherry on top, especially given that for all its strengths, Bilbao BBK is sparse when it comes to finding much in the way of entertainment away from the bands.

Photo by Dena Flows

As we power through the final day, closing the live line-up with a commanding Primal Scream set made all the more moody by lashings of torrential rain, Andrew Weatherall takes pride of place as our closer of a weekend’s worth of faultless dance programming. With sets from Lena Willekens, Daphni, DJ Tennis and The Black Madonna all brilliant in their own right, it’s hard to say if Weatherall is the best of all, but as a closer for the festival at large, it’s more than worthy.