An excellent festival. More completely organised than I expected. This came to prominence straight away, when a rather spacey lady handling our tickets failed to give us one of the essential ID cards that pair up with the wristband to allow entry and re-entry. A security guard stopped us from heading back in to point out the error. Anticipating anguish at the gate, and hoping that a single card and a friendly attitude might get us through, we were met by a super-friendly chap, speaking perfect English, who whisked us back to the check-in, where we waited for the woman to confirm that her stack of cards and tickets were out by one, and furnished us with the missing card. And then we were in. Things do not run that smoothly at Glastonbury when your credentials go awry!
The venue is good, purpose built, although admittedly it does have a slight air of NCP car park to it. There are three amphitheatres with banked steps of seating set facing out to sea. These make up the RockDelux, ATP and the VICE stages. The other two stages, namely the CD Drome, and the Estrella Damm stage are set up on the main paved area that links the first three, with the food market between them. There are two gigantic arrays of solar cells, apparently the largest in Europe, which at least made a handy shelter during the couple of light rain showers, even if they sadly aren't used to directly power the festival itself. There is also an indoor concert hall, the Auditori, which I didn't manage to set foot inside once, a combination of not being nearby when anything compelling was happening there, plus not quite being able to figure out where the entrance actually was!
The festival runs over several days, Thursday to Saturday, and keeps to a gruelling schedule, starting at four or five p.m., and running through till four or five a.m the next morning. It's really all about the music, as there is little else to do onsite, other than browse a few T-shirt and record label stalls, eat functional outdoor food, or drink expensive sponsor beer from plastic cups.
It's far less wear upon the legs and feet than the typical British festival, the proximity of the stages, along with the near-universal seating, and paved footpaths rather than clogging mud fields thankfully mean that it's just the marathon running time contributing to your fatigue, not trudging miles around countryside inbetween sets. The climate was pleasantly appropriate, a few spots of light rain but it was mild enough to be comfortable in light clothing all the way through the evening, so you could just stick to the basic set of clothes you came in wearing, not wrestle with lugging around cumbersome outfit changes to cater to changes in the weather.
It may be just a result of the lack of crowding, but the toilet facilites were fine, little queuing, and freshly clean each day. I recommend taking a little dispenser of handwash gel, you can pick these up in the chemists nowadays.
Another benefit of the close site is the number of acts you can practically watch. As the stages are just separated by a minute or two's easy stroll you can mix and match to take in as much, or as little of a set as you fancy. It's quite possible to watch the start of one artist's set for a couple of songs, and then wander around another three stages watching a couple of numbers at each, and still return to the start to catch the final few of the original. This all makes it incredibly easy to sample new or interesting acts on spec without having to miss out on much if any of your must-see sets. Over the three days we easily managed to see dozens of acts, with comparatively little effort.
It would take too long to run through them all in detail, so I'll just group the highlights into some buckets.
- Shellac completely rocked my world. I really only knew their material circumstantially before watching this set, but I'd marked their card, as they don't seem to play that often within easy reach. They were just spellbindingly awesome from the start through to the end of their set. By the time they wound up, they had the largest crowd I ever saw at the ATP stage, it seemed like more than half the festival had turned up. Converted me into a raving Shellac fan on the spot.
- Devo were a complete surprise. I only knew the two or three obvious Devo tracks, and I figured they'd be an entertaining novelty for at least a couple of tunes. They were far more tight and enthusiastic than I'd expected, great fun to watch, and had a surprising amount of the crowd singing along to pretty much everything. As the Friday evening seemed to have more Spanish attendees than I noticed at the other nights ( the festival audience seemed to be at least 30-40% English speaking foreign types like us, I'd reckon ), I was forced to wonder whether Devo had been absolutely huge in Spain back in the day. An unexpected joy.
- Dr Octagon aka Kool Keith aka The Ultramagnetic MCs. Another legendary name I'd be unlikely to see in any other context, who seemed worth at least a look, and kept me there for the whole of the set, and certainly provoked the most enthusiastic and sustained dancing. Kutmasta Kurt set it up brilliantly with the warm up DJ set, and Keith must be one of the few rappers I've watched who seem to rhyme as sharply and clearly onstage mic, as they do on record.
- Okkervil River. I really liked The Stage Names, when I got it, and I went along assuming they'd be one of my favourite sets of the weekend, but they far exceeded my expectations, with great sound, lots of audience interaction, big songs, and impeccable manners, including banter and songs in Spanish. They're playing the Trinity in a couple of weeks.
- Boris: One of my shortlist of must-see bands, I've really been enjoying Boris' varied output lately, and this live set didn't really disappoint. Conveniently loud enough to be heard starting up over Portishead's set on the adjacent stage, this was high-volume, high-energy noise rock, with added spangly costumes, extravagant percussion equipment and crowd surfing.
- De La Soul: De La Soul do their thing to perfection, every time I've seen them. It's amazing how well they can conjure up a party atmosphere in front of a giant outdoor audience, with all the call and response, and hands in the air, and picking people out of the crowd to shout out the words (wrongly as it rather embarassingly happened in the case of one young lady). Essential.
- Caribou: (Formerly Manitoba), I hear a lot of Beta Band in this intriguing Canadian outfit. Had to miss them at Dot To Dot the weekend before, but made sure to catch the majority of their set in Barcelona. Loops, multiple drummers, folky vocals and an excellent light show.
- Man Man: Crazy monkey energised tribal circus jazz , with no track breaks, instrument swapping, and leaping over drum kits.
- Prinzhorn Dance School: Shouty chants, angular riffs, big beats and a lady bass player.
- Fuck Buttons – loud noise loops, distressed vocal monkey dancing, synchronised bowing and drumming fuelled more by enthusiasm than precision. Rather a one trick act, but it's a pretty good trick played large, at volume by the seaside, aside a Spanish sunset.
- The Go! Team, are party by rote, second time I've seen them, and they don't do anything for me.
- Strange Death Of Liberal England just came across as a poor Arcade Fire tribute act, trying way too hard.
- The whole 'Legends of alt.-rock' segment, with Dinosaur Jr., Buffalo Tom, Sebadoh etc. just left me cold, reminding me of why I never really cared much for that family of bands in the first place. I'll let the Bob Mould band have a free pass though, as I like quite a few of his songs, and he rocked.
- Likewise, I think Portishead don't really bear up to repeat viewing, on stage I find them dull rather than atmospheric. Beth Gibbons was on the same EasyJet flight we took back to Bristol, disconcertingly, which made me feel a bit embarrassed to be wearing a Primavera T-shirt.
- Tindersticks were boring, and seemed unenthusiastic. I wasn't that surprised, because I've struggled to get much out of any album since 'Curtains'. I don't think they really suit a large outdoor show, especially with sound spill from noise bands on adjacent stages.
- Om were a bit of a let down, I think a combination of my high expectations, along with a difficult slog through to wait to the start of their 3:30am slot, and the fact that they seemed to be playing much more briskly live. I only managed a couple of songs. I may try and catch them at ATP release the bats 2008, later this year ( Shellac! ).
- Six Organs of Admittance were not what I was expecting at all.
- Public Enemy just looked a bit panto to me, with all the marching and shouting and uniforms. They weren't helped by an extended intro set from the Bomb Squad that was really excellent, leaving them a bit upstaged by their own DJs when they finally arrived.
- The Vice stage was a bit of a pain to get to, with the steep steps down, narrower than most of the linking pathways forming a bit of a bottleneck. The setting was nearly worth it, a stage surrounded by water, with sailing boats cruising past the acts as they played, but it was a tiring climb, and tended to clog up with people just deciding to take advantage of sitting on the steps, as the evening marched on.
On balance, it's a superb showcase for the live music, and so long as you're mostly motivated by that, I'd recommend it to anyone. I'm already making sketch plans for 2009! If you're more interested in soaking up some outdoor festival ambience, then not so much.
It took me a while to figure out the best approach to a city festival like this. I was still a bit consumed by the idea of kitting up trekking out to a remote site, and staying onsite and within the compound for the duration. I think a better approach may be to attend in two or three waves. There even seemed to be a few natural pauses in the lineup, a couple of times around about 8-9pm on various days, I found brief windows where I was wandering between completely empty stages.
It's trivially easy to pass in and out, assuming you have the pass card with it's barcode for scanning, it's just a breeze through the turnstiles. The site is incredibly easy to get to via the underground train. Even though it looks like it's on a remote stop, it's really just ten minutes or so ride out from the centre and the trains are very regular. You could easily manage an early session catching the opening acts for a while and enjoying the sun, wander off for refreshment, dip back in for a couple of hours, take a break again, and then head back to dig in for the headliners. You can get transit tickets that cover ten journeys of any length on trains and buses from vending machines in the metro station.
Getting home at the end initially seems more tricky. The event runs through till 4 or 5 am in the morning, but the handy metro stops at either 2 am or midnight(on Sunday), apart from Saturday night which has a 24 hour service. There is a night bus system, but I didn't manage to figure out either the routes or the numbers. A definite mistake was trying to walk back along the coast – although it's not a huge distance, and the early morning climate is accommodating, the terrain is not very friendly at all, it's a poorly lit mixture of rough tracks, unpaved land, and arterial roads.
There's a festival sponsored bus service that takes you from right outside the gate to the PlaÃ§a de Catalunya, every fifteen or so minutes. As well as the terminus for all the unintelligible Night Buses, this is fairly central. We did this one evening, and then walked back through Barcelona to our apartment, which was far easier going than the coastal route. Too late to take advantage of it, we realised that the Metro opens for service again at 6 am in the morning, I would say that the easiest option may even have been to hang on through to the end of the event and then wait for the metro to start up again. If I go next year, I'll definitely give it a try.