Primavera review: Matthew E White, James Blake, The Knife, Blur

Blur bring their festival form to the Primavera party, but it’s The Knife’s red-in-nature theatricality and James Blake’s glacial talents that are shining brightest

The Knife on stage at Primavera in Barcelona. Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns/Getty Images

The Knife on stage at Primavera in Barcelona. Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns/Getty Images

Sat, May 25, 2013, 17:00

It seems that there are two types of Kurt Vile in each set. There’s the solo Vile, a gentle soul, who plays the guitar and sings songs in a voice that seems broken and uneven, and works all the better for it. And then there’s band leader Vile, a sprawling, intricate and furious whirl of energy at the heart of a band with old school blues chops and plenty of power and menace at their disposal. You get mostly the latter live, the former breaks up his set nicely, and both are well worth seeing and believing. An excellent piece of musically controlled chaos.

You don’t expect Om to deliver a set of cheery, bright, festival songs – and if their relentless, drone math rock is exactly what you want of a sunny Barcelona afternoon, then this is the gig for you. It’s angry, loud, and broods and hums off the massive ATP stage in waves of post-rock intensity that no sunlight will penetrate. The band sit at the dark end of the instrumental guitar spectrum, and if you were intending on tackling the haut miserablism of Swans later, this is a perfect appetiser.

On the nearby giant Heineken stage, the contrast couldn’t be greater within this resolutely indie rock festival. Django Django are something of a counterpoint to the studied cool of the current crop of young rock musicians. They wear matching shirts that one of their mums may have made them. They rely on a percussive, African inflected sound and the chanting vocals of Derry native Vincent Neff to drive the whole show on. They’ve got one song that everyone knows and expect to hear, allayed with a relentless cheery attitude that has them bouncing around the stage for their entire set. All this energy has its effect on the huge crowd and makes the rarest thing happen to Primavera’s restrained audience: they all start dancing (and yes, it is Default that kicks the whole thing off). This is a fine festival shift of work by a band playing to their strengths.

At the opposite end of the Parc del Forum site are the smaller Vice and Pitchfork stages, which together corral and focus the energy that often dissipates in the larger, sprawling stages. On Vice, Dope Body are wrenching out their post punk and ripping off their shirts, to the reasoned delight of the hardcore fans at the front. Meanwhile, around the corner, Solange is selling her polished R&B pop with enough soul to keep it interesting, even if it rarely drifts into originality.

In a league of his own, though, is Matthew E White . The Richmond, Virginia singer delivered a stunning set in Whelan’s earlier this year that could well have been the gig of the year. Here, he rolls out his uplifting, soulful country, reared on heavy rations of gospel and given warmth and life through the swagger and roll of his terrific band. Bass player Cameron Ralston gets almost as big a cheer as the man himself, and it’s little wonder, given how he wraps the kind of grooves Marvin Gaye would recognise around White’s soaring, sanguine music. Big Love takes the mid set somewhere special, but it’s the stellar, all-star wig out on Brazos at the end of the set that knocks it out of the park. He might be singing about Jesus, but it’s Matthew E White we’re all believing in.

Local Natives are another band getting all the fundamentals right. There’s no reliance on bells and whistles: they’ve got solid, well crafted songs, the kind of driving low-end that’s worked so well for the likes of The National, and a keen ear for dynamic that has the crowd rapt from the start. It’s a good set that ends on a soaring high, a quality blend of upbeat West Coast folk, and darker, rockier roots. This is good value for your festival money as the sun slips down.

Panning the Primavera festival for electronica or dance music can be a frustrating business, but when the calibre of the act is James Blake , it’s worth waiting for. Blake has one of the most haunting, effective voices in British music, and around this he builds loops and samples live, held firmly aloft by the grit and bite of Ben Assiter’s dub step drumming, and the huge banks of noise being generated by Blake on keys and guitarist/keyboardist Rob McAndrews. Blake might be only 24 but over the course of two albums he has built a sound that’s resolutely his own, one that seems like the latest evolution in British dub step, and live he brings all this honed guile to bear. This is stirring stuff, subtle, edgy and powerful, from a man who must surely be the hottest ticket at next weekend’s Forbidden Fruit festival.

Back on the Pitchfork stage, Glass Candy are keeping the electronic fires fuelled with their exuberant disco house show. The straight-up two piece band of vocalist Ida No and multinstrumentalist/producer Johnny Jewels reveal a glittering set of songs that make the whole crowd sparkle. This is a set heavy on glitter and glam, designed to get tired festival bodies moving again, and it works an absolute treat. Primavera could do with more sets like this, scattered amid the swathes of guitar studies.

What can you say about Blur that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? Kings of the British rock pile, a band that went on from pitch perfect pop to reveal much greater musical depths, back on the road with all the pomp and swagger of their early days, and now with the craft to take the band in whatever musical direction they please. The set opens in a slightly more downbeat, instrumental fashion but Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Dave Rowntree and Alex James are much too smart to let good festival fodder go to waste, and it’s not long before the likes of Country House and The Universal are ringing out over Barcelona’s beaches. As solid a bet as you could ask for as a festival headliner then.

The Knife are much more of an unknown quantity. The band have studiously avoided the limelight, which inevitably builds up more mystique than any PR campaign could. Vocalist Karin Dreijer Andersson goes to great lengths to avoid being seen openly on stage, so how do you sell an electronic, stage-shy duo to a huge festival crowd at one of Primavera’s biggest stages?

The answer is dancers. Lots of them. And if you’ve got songs the size of cathedrals that whip up epic, waves of music that roll off the stage like a chilly brand of Scandinavian thunder, that will finish the job nicely.

On the one hand, The Knife are so ahead of the curve with their sounds and textures that they sit perfectly after a James Blake set. But there is an elemental, wilder aspect to their music, that drones and whips and whorls into something altogether more savage and raw. This is music that sounds like it was raised by wolves. As Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer go about constructing their intense musical journeys, a troop of musicians and dancers whip dervish-like across the stage, forming and breaking patterns, rising and falling with the music’s cadence, at one point making Irish step dancing look the epitome of cutting-edge cool, and bringing a rare sense of raw theatricality to Primavera. The show begins with a bewildering array of instruments on stage, but after about 30 minutes it’s the dancers that are leading the charge. It’s trancelike, enthralling and unlike anything else you will see. Just don’t expect them to play Heartbeats .

From here, it’s a short jump to the last set of the night. And who better to bring a 4.45am pulse to the Ray Ban amphitheatre at the heart of the festival than Daphni aka Daniel Snaith, or Caribou to most people. His DJ set is an apologetically upbeat collection of music raised on disco, with soul in its heart and fire in its lungs. This is a brilliant, colourful, feelgood funk way to end a festival that leaves a huge crowd lingering around a 6am arena, hoping for more.

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