Primavera Sound review: Phoenix, The Postal Service, Jessie Ware

The Barcelona festival kicked off with some heavyweight, guitar-driven, bona fide rock stars, but away from the arenas, Jessie Ware was stealing the show

Fri, May 24, 2013, 16:00

Primavera is a festival with big ideas. Huge, solid concrete ideas, given shape and form in the epic Parc del Forum. At one end are the sprawling Heineken and ATP stages, which have the look, feel and charm of a rough car park. From there, it’s a 10-minute walk back to the forum proper, all on permanent pavements and tiered bleachers, to several other amphitheatres and a clutch of smaller stages that sit under the gargantuan Blade Runner-esque solar panels.

Walkways loop off into strange mid-air stops; the Primavera Pro space has it’s own sea-filled swimming pool; those enormous solar panels are propped up on concrete struts that a spaceship could moor off. There’s not a speck of mud in sight, and you’re rarely more than a stone’s throw away from sea. There is a logic at work here, but it’s a strange logic on a grand scale.

That said, there’s not a lot of accidental exploring to be done at Primavera. Where a wander through many Irish festivals will reveal small nooks and crannies, hidden stages and strange seating arrangements in unlikely hidden shelters, here a few, lengthy laps of the Forum are enough to get your bearings. But when the sun is in your face and your feet are welly free, who is really going to pine for the damp seat of a hacked-off log on a Co Laois hill?

Wild Nothings are the first heavy hitters to take to Primavera, bringing their New Order-esque groove to the Heineken stage at 6.30pm. There is plenty of head-nodding and swaying in the crowd, but this has the feel of a crowd limbering up for a long night ahead. The band themselves go about their business efficiently enough, with bass player Jeff Haley lending plenty of drive to proceedings. It’s a pleasant set of dream pop tunes, with Paradise a particular highlight, but no world’s are set alight at this early stage by Jack Tatum’s crew.

At the other end of the venue, and the musical scale, are Savages , who bring energy and attack to their set, on the much smaller Pitchfork stage. Dressed mostly in black, throwing out cool shapes, cold looks and tight riffs, the all-female band are one of the slickest-looking acts at Primavera, and have the musical chops and tunes to back up the swagger.

Fay Milton threatens to bounce out of her drum set with nearly every beat, while Ayse Hassan rips out bass lines that could sink the luxury yachts moored in the nearby harbour. Jehnny Beth leads from the front with her soaring vocal and infectious charm, a fine counterpoint to the glacial cool of Gemma Thompson’s scrawling, distorted post-punk guitar lines. When Thompson’s guitar refuses to work, the band chug on regardless, and after a few minutes she’s back up and running, with barely an eyebrow raised.

This band manage that rare trick of looking like they’re enjoying the gig more than anyone, while bossing it like bona fide rock stars. Intense, enigmatic and very enjoyable.

Back over on the enormous Heineken stage, Tale Impala are luring most of the festival crowd to their psychedelic, shimmering set of intricate, melodic rock. Here, their blissed-out tunes are leant heft and muscle by a band who look like old hands at the festival game. Each dream-pop track is built up, groove by Laurel Canyon groove, into an intense, thing of musical beauty. Kevin Parker frequently parks his vocals and lets the band’s instrumental wandering take centre stage, and all this is complemented by some far-out multicoloured visuals that burst from the stage with all the richness of the band’s music. The influence of producer Dave Fridmann is felt here, a Flaming Lips-esque sense of wonder bringing colour to the whole process. Unlike many acts here, Tale Impala have the nous to build dynamic through the set, a smart move in a festival setting. This is a lush, bluesy performance that builds to epic proportions – perfect summer festival fodder as the evening is drawing to a close.

Jessie Ware might still be somewhat on the make, but here she looks and sounds like a total pro. She takes to the more intimate Pitchfork stage in flowing black robes, and lets her extraordinary vocal off the leash, while backed by a whip-tight band fuelled on R&B grooves, soulful beats, samples, string and loops. She has poise and control, taking takes the edginess of trip hop and smoothing it out with R&B textures, all played with total professionalism by her in-the-pocket band. Ware loops and samples her vocal and the players around her mid-song, lending texture and depth to tracks that are well built to begin with. She has a fine CV of collaborators (her guest appearance on SBTRKT’s last album is one of its standout moments), and here drummer Dominic Lee stands in on vocal duties for Sampha on Valentine . It’s an elegant touch that is upstaged later, when the band shift from a verse in one song to the chorus of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You without missing a trick. This is a brilliant set that sets the bar for the smaller stages.

It’s 10 years since The Postal Service released their one and only album, but it’s an album of such quality and musical precedence that they are one of the prime draws at Primavera. When the band announced they were going back on the road, rumours of that fabled second album began to circulate again. For the moment, though, we’ll just have to satisfy ourselves with some quality live sets from a band that seem like they’ve been touring with each other for years.

Ben Gibbard, parking Death Cab for Cutie duties for a while, and Jimmy Tamborello, on day release from Dntel, produce music that sounds like it hasn’t aged a day – and when you’ve got Jenny Lewis stitching the whole thing together, satisfaction seems inevitable. They close their set, inevitably, with Such Great Heights . When they can hit them so effectively, you can’t help but wonder why they don’t do this more often. Will somebody please lock these people in a studio and throw away the key?

Another act that Irish people in particular have been waiting a long time to see is French rock royalty Phoenix , and they get the biggest crowd of the night when they walk on to the Heineken stage at 1.40am. This band seem custom built for festivals: catchy pop tracks that could move feet made of clay, building into anthemic choruses that demand to be sung. So it’s little wonder that when they bounce into their set with controlled energy and tempered swagger, the response is feverish.

All the signs are good that Longitude will be a belter, and here Phoenix’s headline show doesn’t disappoint, with vocalist Thomas Mars climbing into the crowd, looking as cool as a French cigarette throughout, while his band rip it up on stage. Okay, so their latest album hasn’t quite delivered the goods for many fans, and here the highlights are certainly more familiar tracks, such as Girlfriend and Lisztomania . But this is a crack outfit well used to getting festivals on their feet. Mission accomplished.

From there, it’s a slow enough musical spiral into morning. Animal Collective put on a big show on the Primavera stage, though at times it seems a little indulgent and the noodling musical diversions a little too frequent, especially for a set that starts at 3.10am. When the clock strikes four, the substantial crowd that’s left heads to the Ray Ban amphitheatre for home-town favourite John Talabot , who brings the festival’s first night to a close with a groove-laden DJ set of upbeat house tracks, shot through with edgy, darker elements. It’s a welcome, early morning shot of electronica amid the embarrassment of guitar-driven riches.

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