Primavera has a particular reputation, as being one of the best, most interestingly curated festivals in Europe. (Or, anywhere, for that matter.) It earns it. Especially compared to a bunch of lackluster festivals stateside through the first half of 2017, Primavera’s lineup was characteristically crazy good, and more eclectic than, say, a Governors Ball type situation. You had room for festival field conquerors like Arcade Fire and the xx. You also had room for a legacy act like Van Morrison, or the Magnetic Fields bringing the intricate production behind their new record 50 Song Memoir to an auditorium at the festival’s edge.
The first night was a particular bit of sonic whiplash — you had Bon Iver’s warbly, woozy set followed by Slayer’s earth-rupturing one. Earlier in the night, the semi-reunited iteration of This Heat (sardonically labeled This Is Not This Heat) played a mesmerizing set on the Primavera Stage, their serpentine tracks tightening then unfolding at the first hints of sunset.
After that, things took a surprising turn. Arcade Fire weren’t supposed to play for another two days, but they suddenly popped up on a tiny makeshift stage for a surprise mini-set that included two new songs and a handful of fan favorites. Word spread, and for the second half of their set, people were sprinting from across the festival grounds to catch them. Arcade Fire are known for surprise shows, and for little stunts at festivals — they led a Second Line parade in tribute to Bowie through the dispersing crowd following their closing set at Panorama’s inaugural installment last summer — but the spontaneity and intensity of their surprise set on Thursday felt specific to the festival where it took place.
That was a hard standard to live up to, and some of the later acts on Thursday felt anti-climactic. After seeing the crowd jump and scream along to almost every song Arcade Fire played, it was hard not to find Bon Iver’s headlining set a little… sleepy. And if you did feel that way, you had the convincing option of going to see the perennially underrated Afghan Whigs instead. Towards the end of the set, Greg Dulli said “This is one of the most, if not the most, special festivals in Europe,” before telling the crowd “I know some of y’all missed Bon Iver tonight so I’ll try to help you out.” They proceeded to play a chunk of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”
There’s one downside to the expansiveness and quality of Primavera: It’s totally impossible to see everything you want. The conflicts are terrible, and the festival goes all night. It’s a lot to keep tabs on. But Saturday made it worth that effort, with Mitski and Weyes Blood kicking things off early (that’s in the 7PM range by Primavera standards) and a few excellent hours of sets back to back on the neighboring Adidas Originals and Pitchfork stages. First it was the cacophony of Shellac, then the humid, searching folk-rock of William Tyler, then the excellent Icelandic post-punk band Fufanu, then an even greater cacophony courtesy of a blistering, long set from Swans. (Elsewhere, people were dancing to the xx while a few of us got lost in Swans’ foreboding drones.)
Then Run The Jewels took one of the main stages. The duo also played Primavera in 2015, when they were still on the ascent following the increased exposure garnered by Run The Jewels 2. They played a decent sized stage and drew an excited crowd, but they weren’t on the big field. This year, they returned even more triumphant, one of the main headliners of the whole weekend, playing to a massive audience. If you’ve seen these guys over the years, you know they always deliver intense, nonstop sets. And if you’ve seen them over the years, you might be understandably weirded out at the prospect of seeing them on the biggest festival stage — there was always something special about being able to get way up close at a medium sized stage and be in the fray when “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” started up. Well, it is a bit weird to be far back in the field and not feel like you’re hanging with the two of them as they joke around onstage. But they sounded gigantic, fittingly ferocious and destructive for a group whose recent tour poster compared them to Godzilla. Not that there was any doubt that they could do it, but it’s a stunning thing to see an artist ascend to that level in a few years and suddenly sound as if they always belonged there.
Primavera’s final day had its fair share of highlights that are no strangers to the US festival circuit, like Angel Olsen and HAIM. (Though HAIM’s was a late-night surprise set, so that made it pretty unique.) But it may have also been the most idiosyncratic and interesting day of this year’s festival. The Magnetic Fields delivered a dryly hilarious and poignant set of chamber-pop in the auditorium. Thurston Moore played a hidden indoor stage under a bridge. Van Morrison brought old-school blues-rock to the mainstage — and even though they slowed down “Brown Eyed Girl,” it’s always cool to see people from all sorts of different countries singing an old, famous pop song together. Later on the same stage, Grace Jones was a complete force of nature, proving that at nearly 70 years old she has more power and presence than almost anyone else that was on the bill. Also, she at one point asked for a Coke from someone sidestage. It was hard to tell whether it was a joke directed at Primavera’s very visible brand presence, or whether she just really wanted some soda in the middle of her set. Later that night, Skepta — who literally couldn’t play US festivals last year thanks to his visa getting denied — played the same stage and threw a fervent party for everyone who was still around. Seeing a crowd sing a long to “Brown Eyed Girl” is nice, but seeing everyone go crazy to “Shutdown” was more fun.
As stacked as Primavera was this year, however, there was one band big enough to dominate the whole weekend. Even two days before their climactic headlining set on Saturday night, all roads seemed to lead to Arcade Fire. The internet lit up with the discovery that they were selling their new single “Everything Now” at their Primavera merch table. Then there was the aforementioned mini-set, where they premiered not only “Everything Now,” but another new song, too. When the moment finally came for their headlining set, they seized the moment by doing something that seemed totally insane: opening with “Wake Up,” the song they usually close with, a song most bands wouldn’t dare start a show with because where do you even go from there?
The answer, of course, is that it’s still an Arcade Fire set, and that meant something as cathartic and fervent as ever. Another headline coming out of the festival is that they played “Neon Bible” for the first time in almost a decade. But the impact came from the fact that they paired it with “Intervention,” a highlight from that album that hasn’t gone out of rotation but took on renewed resonance in today’s political climate. Win Butler introduced it by saying it was written during a time where the nation was going through a political nightmare; “We got through that one, and we’ll get through this one, too,” he said before one of the band’s most intense performances of the night.
At the end, there was the one-two of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies).” There are few things that come to mind that could top the sheer propulsion, catchiness, and universal appeal of “Rebellion” as far as a late night festival sets go. Primavera is a sprawling, busy festival. It feels huge, and can sometimes be exhausting. And Arcade Fire are the sort of band uniquely equipped to headline it, to harness all that energy into a set everyone wanted to be at. It was a hell of a way to end the weekend.