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Primavera’s Expansive 2018 Lineup Proved Festivals Can Still Be Exhilarating

“Welcome to the best festival in the world,” Adam Granduciel said shortly into the War On Drugs’ set at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound. It was Thursday night, the first full day of the fest, and Granduciel provided a proper introduction to the weekend ahead. With the Drugs having grown into one of the most reliably transporting live acts around in recent years, they delved into a sprawling collection of songs as sunset approached. It was like a long curtain rise for Primavera. And from there, the weekend was full of performances of a similar caliber, with plenty of artists echoing Granduciel’s sentiment over and over.

After nearly two decades and a couple iterations, Primavera has built up a hallowed reputation — a festival in Barcelona, almost always in perfect weather, with the water to your side, an idyllic setting to house one of the most expansive, impressive, and creative lineups you’re likely to see in any given year. You can always expect Primavera to rival any other, but it especially stands out in a year like 2018, where many of the U.S. summer festivals look particularly anemic, repetitive, or simply lackluster.

In comparison, Primavera once more boasted a lineup that had a deep roster of big-name headliners, but also an idiosyncratic collection of smaller names and performances you’re just unlikely to see at a festival (or in general, anywhere). You could opt for Spiritualized’s choir- and orchestra-assisted performance in the auditorium at the edge of Primavera’s site; you could watch Jane Birkin sing over symphonic interpretations of her work with Serge Gainsbourg; you could try to greet the early morning while dancing to DJ Koze or Lindstrøm.

Given the eclectic range and sheer amount of artists to choose from, Primavera is a festival that you could easily get a lot out of without seeing a single headliner set. But this time around, they booked a pretty insane array of acts for the top of the bill — rising pop and rap titans, indie stalwarts, cultishly-beloved legends.

@FeverRay bringing “This Country” to @Primavera_Sound ✊🏻 [📹: @scottgum]

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The most striking example of Primavera’s adventurousness in this capacity came on Thursday night, when Björk and Nick Cave both played the festival’s gigantic main field. Given, Björk does play festivals, but it’s always strange to witness her elusive and enigmatic sets relative to more direct artists typically occupying the big stages.

In that regard, Cave was an even more stunning performance to take in. Here’s a guy whose legend seems to have multiplied in the last 10 years or so; he’s an infamously magnetic performer, one who deserves a crowd like this and yet doesn’t have iconic albums or hit songs in the way many of his more universal peers do. So it is startling, then, to see him take a festival’s mainstage as the night’s primary headliner, and for him to start the whole thing with the hissing drone of Skeleton Tree opener “Jesus Alone.”

It was, also, incredible — Cave getting his moment in the autumn of his career, and beginning his performance with a song that sounds like staring straight into the abyss. From there, he did piece together a set that, as far as the Bad Seeds go, approached a greatest hits run. They swaggered through “Do You Love Me?” and “Red Right Hand”; they spat their way through “Deanna” and rendered “The Mercy Seat” suitably mad-eyed and desperate; they brought their epic live arrangement of “Jubilee Street” to the huge crowd it always deserved. “I’m transforming! I’m vibrating! Look at me now!” Cave bellowed. It was simultaneously a perfect festival moment, and an inversion of it, just because it seems so unlikely to see his music in that setting.

When Primavera does include ever-present festival heavy-hitters, they do so with impeccable taste and curation. In past years, Run The Jewels have left the grounds as decimated as they do everywhere else, and Arcade Fire have kicked up the kind of entire crowd singalongs that so few artists can command. This year, there was the aforementioned presence of the War On Drugs, a crowd-pleasing HAIM gig, and a Friday evening set from Father John Misty.

It was the same day Josh Tillman’s new album God’s Favorite Customer officially came out, but it was a set that really worked as a summation of everything he’s done and where he’s gone. Tillman has become a mesmerizing performer, a truly impressive singer who’s also capable of frantic catharsis when he starts screaming his way through “The Ideal Husband.” It was an optimal fest set from him, spanning all his four albums fairly equally. And though closing with “The Ideal Husband” may have been the pinnacle, the live debut of “Hangout At The Gallows” was close — Tillman abandoned his guitar to swing a mic stand around, expertly directing the God’s Favorite Customer opener through its rises and falls.

Right afterwards, the National took the mainstage opposite. These guys have become consummate professionals when it comes to headlining festivals, tailoring their sets for all the right dramatic payoffs, balancing the majesty of their music with Matt Berninger’s deadpan quirkiness. Having lost his luggage in Chicago, one of Berninger’s recurring topics was that he was wearing a new suit he had just bought at Duty Free, and he couldn’t figure out how to open the pockets. By way of setting up “Fake Empire,” he quipped “We wrote this song a long time ago so it has nothing to do with the current situation,” before almost introducing it as Quiet Riot’s cover of “Cum On Feel The Noize.” And when it came time to introduce the band, he pointed to his right and explained “That’s Lindsey Buckingham … yeah, we miss Bryce, but Lindsey, he’s just more better.” (It was, in fact, still Bryce Dessner and not the recently-fired Fleetwood Mac guitarist.)

Berninger’s wit is always a counterbalance to the National’s music, songs that can go in dark and unsettling directions as they pry open the worst parts of human nature and interactions. But there was also a moment of gravity at the end. “This is for Scott,” Aaron Dessner said, before stumbling over explaining that he didn’t mean Scott Devendorf behind him on bass. “This is for Scott Hutchison,” Berninger explained, with a seriousness he’d rarely put forth otherwise that night.

Then the band closed their set with the always-transcendent “About Today.” It was not the festival’s only tribute to the Frightened Rabbit singer after his recent, tragic death — his old friends in the Twilight Sad also offered up their take on the FR classic “Keep Yourself Warm.” Personally, I missed the latter. But I can say that the National’s dedication of that particular song, to their lost friend and collaborator, was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen within the confines of a festival ground.

Outside of the mainstages, there was a dizzying amount to try to catch, with a particularly packed Friday night. Thundercat’s warbling space-jazz-funk rumbled out of an amphitheater stage near the water; it was particularly great to see the set-closing “Them Changes” go down as a true festival hit. Next door, Ibeyi offered a soulful, groove-driven, genre-exploding set that was equal parts spiritual and dance party. Meanwhile, Ride played at a tiny stage with a 1,500 person capacity — it was a pseudo-surprise set announced the week of the festival, and a more intimate setting than the mainstage the British shoegaze outfit took over in preceding years.

Soon after, Charlotte Gainsbourg played nearby, unveiling a set of smoky synth-pop in front of neon lights; it felt incredibly French, and also ideal as we tumbled into the late-night sets. If you survived until the early morning on Friday, the great Atlanta post-punk trio Omni offered the kind of spirited, emphatic set that leaves you a whole lot more wide awake than you should be at five AM after a day of running around trying to see as much music as possible.

Sometimes the final night of Primavera is a free-for-all of options, sometimes there is a unifying artist to which all roads seem to be leading. Last year, Arcade Fire created that sort of atmosphere. This year was more of the former. There was a handful of big draws on one edge of the festival, but a lot of stuff to take in before and alongside that, too. Ariel Pink did his usual batshit anarchy thing while wearing a Call Of Duty shirt, Grizzly Bear brought their expertly intricate indie to the same stage, and another old shoegaze favorite, Slowdive, drew a sprawling crowd and subsequently proved they could turn “Star Roving” and “Souvlaki Space Station” up loud enough to wash over even those of us watching from far back upon a hill.

On the other side of the festival, one major set followed another. First, there was Lorde, who you may have heard had trouble selling out arenas on her recent tour. But as our own Chris DeVille has already pointed out, Lorde is an idiosyncratic pop hurricane onstage. She has charisma and electricity to spare, and her set — whether revisiting old favorites like “Team,” covering Frank Ocean, or triumphantly closing with “Green Light” — was exuberant, exultant. And I don’t know how many people were there, but it sure looked like more than enough to fill an arena. It was one of the best performances of the whole festival; it felt like watching a slow-burn ascension in real time.

Then there was the one-two of Arctic Monkeys and A$AP Rocky. While the Monkeys’ recent Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino has proven divisive, they draw a crowd at European festivals. They are, after all, one of the last big rock acts to emerge from a younger generation in recent times, and there’s some currency in that — enough currency that they can get away with playing “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” three songs in and reminding you that they have a lot of ubiquitous singalongs left in their arsenal. Somehow, moving between their stranger new material and the old rockers worked pretty well — while the Monkeys have sounded a little different from album to album, it all comes together logically when you see them onstage once again, as reigning festival conquerors.

From there, Primavera went out with one final bang. A$AP Rocky delivered a fervent, no-bullshit set that crested into a run of old favorites at the end, the kind of move where you can watch an artist take total control over a crowd. It was deep into the night at that point, but there was still a Skepta set and a handful of DJ sets to keep you going until sunrise, if you were looking for that. Perched on a walkway, I watched a steady stream of festivalgoers make their way to Lindstrøm’s set as his beats bounced out across the water and back. Sometimes the final nights of a long festival can look a little bleak, people having pushed it a little too far. That wasn’t how it felt as this year’s Primavera drew to a close. The sun was still a couple hours away, and excitement still crackled all around us.