Portugal’s edition of Primavera Sound takes one of Europe’s best festival line-ups and strips away the rampant commercialism that has made Primavera Barcelona an expensive and exhausting affair, despite its epicness. This three day event is more in the vain of the festival-tourism “experience” package than a five day bender in the English countryside, so it’s definitely more civil - more “classy”, as Saturday night headliner Bon Iver put it. This may sound off-putting to a festival veteran, but this is the brave new world we live in where everything is safe, mainstream, and commercial. Case in point: the music starts each day at 5pm, so visitors have plenty of time to explore the home of port wine. Porto is refreshingly free of touristic pretensions, and cheap.
Festival camping is provided, however the campsite is a half-hour shuttle bus from the festival grounds, so for a bit extra, my friends and I went for AirBnB. We missed out on the characteristic festival grime and the intense feeling of the morning sun in a tent, and the apartment allowed us to cook our own food, so this attendee recommends the fancy-shmancy route, haters be damned. Do not, however, be fooled by the VIP package. Your augmented experience will consist of clean toilets close to the main stage (pointless, as all festival restrooms featured full plumbing), and a glowing viewing platform that will make you look like a very far away rich twat.
Immediately it’s clear that Primavera excels at organisation. The festival atmosphere is so pragmatic and relaxing that it makes Anglican festivals seem barbaric by comparison. Security was a breeze, and lines for food and drink were short. Water fountains were not available, which was a bit frustrating, but open containers could be brought onto the grounds. Lockers were available, which we used to store extra food, water, and...other stuff. There was also a refreshing lack of ads: no stages were branded with logos, and the only obnoxious festival sponsor was Super Bock, a Portuguese beer that seems like it would be bad given its ubiquity, but it’s actually alright. For the more determined drinker, the Caipilovers stand served double Caipirinhas with an enough alcohol to banjax an uber-full of uni grads or one middle-aged football supporter.
Most importantly, technical problems were kept to a minimum. Stages were all less than five minutes walking distance from each other, and stage times were organised so that barely any overlap occurred. Also, despite the proximity, there was no audible sound leakage. Every band started their set exactly on time, emphasising Primavera’s stringent professionalism. Also, the main stage showed a video feed of other acts, so fans waiting for their favourite could check in on the other stages.
This year’s line-up could impress the snobbiest underground head. There wasn’t much in the way of DJs - it was typical festival fare like Mano Le Tough and Bicep - but in the live department the festival didn’t disappoint. Big names like Justice, Run the Jewels, Bon Iver, Nicolas Jaar, and Aphex Twin played impressive sets. Japandroids were another crowd favourite, making everyone feel wild and innocent like a Canadian Bruce Springsteen combo. Some relatively unknown acts shattered expectations as well. Songhoy Blues, a fiery “desert rock” group from Mali, shared songs from their upcoming debut album, and had the whole crowd dancing silly in the middle of the afternoon. Miguel is an R&B veteran in the USA, but it took him little time to win over the Mediterranean crowd, who were clearly uninitiated. Sampha and Mitski were scheduled at the same time - the one criminal clash - but we caught half of each set. Both were young artists that owned their sound, with powerful voices, strong dynamics, and good stage presence.
Primavera had enthusiastic, responsive crowds throughout; happy to hear new music as long as it kept the party going. For the most part, this rule held. A few performances missed the mark. Cigarettes After Sex were a dour ensemble, a look which did their boring music no favours. Wand straddled Pablo Honey-era Radiohead and a noisy Bradford Cox impression with ease, but they couldn’t seem to decide when their songs ended. Weyes Blood went for a quirky, ironic vibe that didn’t personally resonate, and ultimately added up to a performance as fake as the electric candelabras she decorated the stage with. Tycho, who played the last live set of the festival, were surprisingly standoffish. The crowd, eager to dance, were not happy that they kept stopping in between songs. I was unimpressed as well - surely a four piece band that plays in the same key and tempo could segue seamlessly between tracks? I’ve always thought Tycho’s graphic design work is superior to their music anyway, and the videos - of canyons, Holy Mountain, deserts, and oceans - were indeed stunning, but no less superficial than the music.
Other artists made excellent use of the Primavera’s powerful video screens. Flying Lotus placed one in front and behind him, creating a three dimensional illusion that accelerated the vertigo already present in his genre-mashing set. Some acts didn’t need any visuals at all. Run The Jewels were charismatic, and encouraged the crowd to go nuts (but be safe!). Death Grips slayed just by doing their thing, and Zach Hill proved he’s one of the most exciting drummers in the game. Although Japandroids only used their murdered-out bodies and some oversized camera flashes as visual stimulus, the duo’s energy was positively infectious, and they stood out as the festival’s most exuberant act. Mitski crushed a set full of teen angst and old wisdom, finishing with a stirring solo number on electric guitar.
NOS Primavera Sound, though smaller than its Spanish cousin, is in my opinion a real contender for festival of the year. It curated an unparalleled line-up of stellar music, and the whole event went off without a visible hitch. The commercial presence of the festival sponsors was kept to a minimum, and the city of Porto should be lauded for encouraging such an “indie” event in their beautiful city. The link to the 2017 photoset is currently dead, but you can read more about the festival on the NOS Primavera website.