Spaced-out Barcelona gets its groove on

The Catalan capital is famed for its summer music festivals, so can socially-distanced gigs replace the experience?

The spaced out tables and chairs in front of the main stage at Nits del Fórum in Barcelona.

The spaced out tables and chairs in front of the main stage at Nits del Fórum in Barcelona.

 

In mid-July of this year, I found myself in a situation I could never have predicted six months earlier. Standing at the turnstiles on a warm evening in Barcelona, I was supervised by masked men as a large machine doused my hands in sanitiser. The friendly but slightly tense ticket scanner informed me that my own mask was to be worn at all times. And then he let me in to my first ever socially distanced music festival.

I wouldn’t have predicted it two months earlier either. In early May, after the strictest lockdown imposed anywhere in Europe, residents of Barcelona emerged from isolation in their apartments, blinking in the post-Covid sunshine. The city was shorn of tourists, and all the more beautiful for it. Las Ramblas was a leafy deserted street and the Sagrada Familía towered over its residential neighbourhood in silence, with neither construction workers nor throngs of craning admirers flitting around its base. Bars and businesses reopened slowly and sometimes not at all over the following weeks and months. A crowded gig was unthinkable.

The very things that make music festivals such a vital part of Barcelona life – the sweaty weather, the sociality, the sense of community in a crowd – are pretty much exactly what disqualifies them from taking place

The sticky Barcelona summer is normally all about gigs and festivals. This goes for huge international festivals like Primavera Sound and Sónar which are attended by hundreds if not thousands of Irish holidaymakers each year, but also for the local Festa Majores, the annual parties that each neighbourhood celebrates as well as countless other little oddities. On a regular summer, you could easily attend a different festival every single weekend.

But this is not a regular summer. It’s been a summer of tempered hopes and cancelled holidays, of removing your obligatory face mask only when seated in a restaurant. The very things that make music festivals such a vital part of Barcelona life – the sweaty weather, the sociality, the sense of community in a crowd – are pretty much exactly what disqualifies them from taking place. Coronavirus has decimated the live music landscape in Spain, in Ireland and all over the world. From Electric Picnic to Coachella, festivals and tours have dropped like discarded plastic pint glasses.

And then Primavera Sound announced Nits del Fórum, a series of outdoor concerts throughout the summer specifically designed to comply with all social distancing regulations, capacity and hygiene rules. Each event would have a main act, DJs, food trucks, cocktail bars – effectively a mini festival. There were to be three or four editions per week, from July to September.

Given everything that had happened, it seemed incredible that something like this could take place so soon. But the desire to return to normal is a strong one, to reclaim the parts of our lives and communities we loved before. Maybe this is just what live music will have to be from now on?

These are the thoughts in my mind as myself and a friend hop on the Metro and make the journey to Parc del Fórum, the traditional location for Primavera Sound that was also hosting Nits del Fórum. The venue is a sprawling concrete event space, perched on the water’s edge in a quiet part of town that most people only really go to for festivals. On a normal year, this Metro is absolutely jammed with people impatiently counting the stops. This year it’s empty. We even have seats.

Everything about the experience invites nostalgia, invites comparison: even the familiar walk from the Metro to the gates of Fórum is evocative. It’s so nice, my friend and I agree, to be back here after being stuck inside for three months, at something gesturing towards normality. But it’s bittersweet too – the place is normally alive with festival-goers spread out from the gates like magnetic shavings. Now, it’s quiet and populated mainly by children playing and masked elderly residents out for an evening stroll by the water.

Groups mingle at a distance at Barcelona’s music festival.
Groups mingle at a distance at Barcelona’s music festival.
Concessions to our strange new reality are everywhere

Nits del Fórum has a flexible capacity, designed to be adaptable to the changing health regulations of the local government. The majority of the festival site is closed. There is one largish stage at the bottom of an amphitheatre, and a big common area with bars, food trucks, a DJ and lots and lots of tables and chairs, since being seated is the only time you can remove your mask.

One of the first things you notice is the space. The tables are placed almost comically far apart from each other, as are the respective bars and trucks. The entire area could comfortably accommodate five or six times as many people, and it regularly did so in the past. Concessions to our strange new reality are everywhere. An extra barman scrupulously scrubs down the bar top after every (card-tapped) purchase. Various objects have hand sanitiser dispensers hastily welded to them, as if it’s the lubricant that’s keeping the whole show on the road.

With time to kill before the main show, we sip our beers and wander around inspecting the alien set-up. My friend meets some people he works with, and we stop and chat for a while about how good and weird it feels to be here. We also talk about the recent spike in cases in Catalonia, that has been sending ripples of concern around the city.

Every edition of Nits del Fórum has one main musical act. With respect to travel restrictions, the entire summer line-up is composed of Spanish and Spain-based bands. Tonight, we’re here to see Triángulo de Amor Bizarro, a post-punk band from the northwest of Spain. They got their name from the New Order song and toured with My Bloody Valentine, which isn’t a bad approximation of how they sound.

The whole gig is seated, although you can drift back and forth from the bar to your seats freely. Directly in front of the stage, dozens of little tables and chairs have been set up. Behind them on the tiered amphitheatre, individual spots have been demarcated at around 1.5m intervals. Every ticket has an assigned spot, but this does not seem to be policed too strictly; my friend and I are in different sections but the space beside me is empty so he joins me, no questions asked. Standing in your spot also seemed to be tolerated once the gig started.

By the time the band arrives, anticipation is high, both for the music itself and to see how it goes down in the circumstances. By and large, any initial awkwardness is overruled by the obvious nervous enthusiasm of both band and crowd. It’s been about six months since any of us have seen live music, a lifetime in a Barcelona summer. “We’re excited to play, and we hope you’re excited to hear us,” the band’s lead singer, Isabel Cea, tells us. “One of our most special gigs in…forever.”

Once the band gets into a groove it’s surprising how quickly the weirdness of the context melts away. Music festivals are of course partly about dancing in a packed crowd, but they’re mostly about music. Sitting back as the gauzy guitars and synths washed over the amphitheatre, the sea no longer really visible behind the stage as the sun set, it felt good and familiar. By the last few triumphant songs, most of the crowd was standing, dancing in little groups in their respective spaces, no longer feeling awkward and just happy to make the most of the situation.

The following day brings some unwelcome news. Due to that spike in infections, the Catalan government has imposed heightened restrictions for at least the next 15 days. This includes limiting outdoor activities, and Nits del Fórum is to be cancelled for now. It’s the first “backwards step” that Barcelona has taken since the rules began to be lifted, and it’s dispiriting.

Over the next 10 days, concerns grow about the potential return to a full lockdown, unthinkable in the August heat. More restrictions are announced bit by bit: gyms close, bars have a 12pm curfew, botellónes – the Spanish habit of drinking together in plazas or at the beach – are banned. The ambient anxiety of the city swells. Meanwhile, Nits del Fórum continues to aim optimistically for an early August re-launch.

If this is to be live music or public communion for now, embrace it and appreciate it while you can

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Nits del Fórum before I went. My friends at home in Ireland, eager for a glimpse at what gigs might look like for themselves in the future, asked me the same kind of questions I had wondered about myself. What’s it like? Does it work? Is it weird? Is it worth it?

What’s it like? It’s hard not to compare it to gigs and festivals from before, and it is different. As is present in most parts of public life now, there’s a back-of-your-mind awareness that things are not the same, a faint sense of surreality over the whole experience.

But it’s also lovely to sit in the sun and listen to music with your friends and with strangers, and it’s gratifying that so many people are still so invested in doing so after all that’s happened and continues to happen.

The temporary cancellation of the festival underscores this, as do our memories of lockdown. If this is to be live music or public communion for now, embrace it and appreciate it while you can. A socially distanced music festival sounds a bit like a contradiction in terms but the truth is the sociality is still there, in spite of the distance. It’s more than worth it.

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