To get to several of the stages at the 15th Primavera Sound in Barcelona, you have to walk over a giant concrete esplanade that is underneath a monumental arch of solar panels. It's a little trippy – the angle of the structure at the Parc Del Forum site makes it look like the street is swaying, and at night it takes on an eerie silhouetted gleam from the Barcelona waterfront.
But with a crowd of almost 100,000 fans beneath it, some of the best acts in independent music around it and with a resplendent scene of downtown Barcelona just over the bridge, this monolith appeared to be metaphorical. Primavera has used the global music-festival explosion to become a sustainable, essential source of power for Spanish tourism, and for Barcelona's brand among young music-fan travelers.
For curious Coachella fans, much here will be familiar. But Primavera has a fundamentally different relationship to Barcelona than does Coachella, Bumbershoot, SXSW or any number of other festivals prominently tied to their hometowns. And unlike the recent Rock in Rio, which tried to transport some of its Brazilianness to Las Vegas with mixed results at best, Primavera is convincing fans to get to Barcelona to see it for themselves.
Spain, with its near 50% youth unemployment rate, was perhaps a more improbable place for a global indie music success story (even if the region of Catalonia's done better, and is just a two-hour flight from the rest of Europe -- evidenced by Prima's 46% rate of foreigners).
But Primavera has grown so fast and become so prominent among the type of fans who build years schedules around these fests that its success -- 40M euros of audience spending in and around the fest, and 95M euros in total economic impact according a fest-commissioned study -- can't help but spill out into the city streets along with all those kids buying one last can of beer from a roadside vendor for the walk home.
For those used to Coachella's impossibly sylvan environment, Primavera might initially come off a bit more imposing. The Forum grounds are almost entirely concrete, which makes for some tired walking but ultimately compliments the industrial urbanity of the setting. From the walk in, the view isn't mountain ranges and date palms but a working waterfront and the spires of new hotels and modernist museums.
Festival logistics have become an ever-more-crucial element of concertgoing (just ask FYF, whose founder Sean Carlson was at Primavera and likely taking notes), and Primavera's were a breeze. Because of its location and its access to subways and trams, there is almost no parking nearby, and none was needed. Nothing caps off a positive festival experience like walking out the gates, turning left and being back in a pedestrian-scale city, as opposed to miles of I-10 or the Las Vegas Strip.
Even better? A festival that treats fans like adults. Yes, this is Europe, and America would pearl-clutch to death before it allowed music fans to have a beer and freely wander a festival. But nursing a G&T while soaking in the suave disco of Jungle under the glow of an outdoor amphitheater after 2 a.m. -- no cordoned-off VIP tent mixologist can match that.
There's also a refreshing lack of posturing from the crowd here. Not to denigrate the huge and influential sub-industry based around Coachella fashion (and documenting such that celebrities wear there). But the lack of an all-consuming aesthetic of flower crowns, underbutt shorts and parasols made Primavera perhaps less Instagramable but a lot more loose and comfortable for fans to see music. You didn't have to worry about catching a glimpse of Poppy Delevingne and wanting to dive into the Mediterranean out of inadequacy.
Of course, there's a whole other particular local fauna here -- blacked-out British chavs in rayon Hawaiian shirts puking on the lawn, for starters. But on the whole, it really did evoke the easygoing mood at Coachella before it became a perfectly engineered triumph of global Californianess.
The music? It's an extremely competent slice of modern experimental indie and electronica, with a few top-tier rock headliners. It's a common formula, but Primavera does it as well as anyone. Brand New's revived '90s screamo punk bled into Tyler, the Creator's late 2000's screamy noise-rap, which shifted to Spiritualized's dazed space gospel. Maceo Plex's sexed-up machine riffs pivoted Simian Mobile Disco's thumps of jubilant contemporary techno. Sunn O))) torched its stage with doom-metal so slow and grinding it felt more physical than musical; across the waterfront, the Black Keys played a nimble set that, in this new context, imbued their blues-rock with fresh surprises.
Walking back into the city around 3:30 a.m., with the Spanish noise duo the Suicide of Western Culture throttling a heavy-lidded crowd of Primavera lifers, the festival seemed more of a complete entity than just an event to come and go to. Spain is famous for its long parties, but this festival seems to have knit its days and nights, its grounds and its city, into one whole idea that I have not seen in a decade of festivalgoing. Even before the fest started, Interpol (like many acts at Prima) played a free capacity-crowd set at the lovely Sala Apolo theatre in the middle of the afternoon, just as a free preview of the nights to come. There are three more nights to come, but it still feels like the last one never really ended.