Optimus Primavera Sound festival at Parque da Cidade, Porto on 30th May – 1st June 2013
It’s now the second year of Optimus Primavera Sound, sister festival to the perennially popular Barcelona event. Perched at the corner of Parque da Cidade on the Atlantic coast, this festival in the hilly, jadedly scenic city of Porto is a world apart from its Barcelona counterpart. Whereas that festival has increased in size as the years have progressed, Optimus Primavera has scaled things right back with one of the best locations we have had the pleasure of attending for this type of event. Last year’s inaugural outing was a triumph in every respect, so it is with high expectations that we return to Porto once more.
Three outdoor stages sit in close proximity at the bottom of natural amphitheatres. While the two main stages of Superbock and Optimus alternate bands side-by-side, the ATP stage lays a hop and a skip over the hill. Dotted in and around these stages are secluded hideaways comprising stone seated sections and secluded tree-dotted enclaves where punters relax on swingchairs and cushions, and all around the venue you are never too far from…anything else. Admittedly, noise bleed becomes an issue at certain times – certainly an inevitable price to pay for this level of intimacy and compactness. And so, with suncream in one hand and a cold Superbock in the other, we wander once more into the fray to see what’s in store for us this time around…
Day 1 – Thursday 30th
The sun is blazing as we enter the venue on the opening day to catch Guadalupe Plata, who has the honour of opening this year’s festival. The Spanish trio are heralded by a smattering of applause by the folk lounging on blankets on the gentle hill, and begin a bluesy instrumental. The drummer thumps out a tribal beat and the bassist plays a washtub bass – basically a one-stringed folk instrument consisting of an upright stick with a string leading to a resonator on the floor – while the guitarist sets the tone from the start. Ambient dustbowl sounds, blues hollers and abrasive fretwork ebb and flow throughout a set where the blues gradually gives way to a more rock’n’roll Ronnie Hawkins style as things progress. It’s a rocking start to the festival even if the crowd is relatively quiet, but they’re filtering in at a steadier pace at this point. Over on the neighbouring stage Florida’s Merchandise are starting up, so over we go – first impressions are of some sort of very early Radiohead/Franz Ferdinand affair, but it’s a lacklustre set. In any event, they have the weather on their side, and as only the two main stages are in action on this first night there’s no competition.
A more respectable audience has assembled for Wild Nothing, who deliver a highly enjoyable set despite The Cure/New Order derivations. Final number Ride goes out on a lengthy instrumental that drifts in and out of the krautrock arena, and it’s trancey, motorik end to a serviceable gig. One of the more anticipated happenings of the day is about to begin as dusk begins to fall, and a crowd has begun to assemble well in advance of The Breeders who are here to run through their ‘Last Splash’ album. They’ve condensed the gear into the middle of the stage, creating a more intimate playing space. Kim Deal introduces the band in Portuguese and they begin New Year. Inevitably, Cannonball is received raucously by the crowd, and each well-know section receives a cheer – Deal’s distorted vocal; Jim MacPherson’s tapped drum intro; Josephine Wiggs’ iconic bassline. The festival’s first transcendent moment – hell, yeah!
The breeze billows around the backdrop as MacPherson toys with his wind chimes before No Aloha, whose first line is appropriated by the crowd. The drummer, having outshone all in the previous song, swaps instruments with Wiggs for Roi before they revert to tradition for a rowdy Flipside. Kelley Deal has spent most of the gig with head down in concentration up to this point. “That’s Kelley. She’s my sister. She’s gonna sing!” Says Kim as Kelley takes lead on I Just Wanna Get Along. Wiggs, generally stock still with a don’t-fuck-with-me glare steps up to the mic to say hello. “She’s English, I don’t understand a word she says” teases Kim.
Divine Hammer is another expected crowd-pleaser, with violinist Carrie Bradley hammering a tambourine into submission. Wiggs and MacPherson cast glances at one another through the set as if mentally ringing in the changes, but they’re rock solid, and Wiggs receives a cheer for Divine Hammer’s brief bass solo. A crowd surfer appears from Drivin’ On 9, of all things, as Kelley and Carrie take turns to pluck out the song’s sweet refrain. Bradley disappears for the encore of Limehouse from ‘Pod’ and a cover of Guided By Voices’ Shocker In Gloomtown, but she’s back on tambourine duties for the Wiggs-sung Don’t Call Home, and the crowd claps time for the last hurrah. There’s a lot of love in the air after this one.
If The Breeders play the most smile-inducing set of the day, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds take things along a more intense path. Cave stalks the stage like an animal, an animated and charismatic presence that jumps behind the piano to etch out a few notes before going back on the prowl. Out of nowhere Jubilee Street erupts, as do the band, with Warren Ellis hunched over his violin as Cave gyrates and throws shapes all over the stage. He’s down standing on the barrier for From Her To Eternity, wearing a garland of flowers on his head, and it’s a journey he makes time and time again feeding of the crowd reaction as myriad hands prop him up. Red Right Hand is a masterful model in restrained tension, whereas a theatrical Tupelo and the outright tour-de-force of Stagger Lee is a band working at maximum engine strength. The Bad Seeds are just as violently emotive as Cave – although there’s a lot of fun to be had in the set with Cave playfully kicking Ellis up the arse at one point, and falling off the stage at another – what’s known in the business as ‘a shit-hot band’. The gates have only been open for seven hours now and already the title of ‘gig of the festival’ has been claimed – simply one of the finest performances we’ve ever attended.
And yet there’s more to come, with Deerhunter largely giving a run through of ‘Monomania’ on the other stage. The new songs take on a heavier hue live. The crowd gives the bass player a rendition of Happy Birthday – “it’s not your fucking birthday” shouts Cox. He’s wrong though – before Back To The Middle. The song’s final section is feet on the monitors garage rock, as strobes and feedback give way to Monomania. It’s a noisy one this, with the band turned away from the crowd, eliciting more and more volume from their amps. And that’s how it ends – the band exit, guitar alarm tones wail and spotlights spin on an empty stage. James Blake rounds of Thursday’s selection with an erratic set that courses from plodding to outright rocking beats, and while most populate the hill for his set, a large exodus make their way out for the road home.
Day 2 – Friday 31st
The hot weather hasn’t abated for round two of proceedings, and Goldenplec makes it to the venue in time to catch Portuguese instrumental duo Memória de Peixe. Once more the crowd lounge on the ubiquitous orange bag/picnic blanket hybrids that are handed out by volunteers as the band play their brand of post rock. It’s the talented drummer who adds the flourishes, and accentuates the changes within each song with fills that subtly accelerate and decelerate, or just lifts them clean off the ground. Time signatures chop and change, while midway through they are joined for one number by a bass player to add a new texture. Songs move through various musical motifs, but as interesting and worthwhile as the experience is, Om are starting over on the ATP stage so it’s time to vacate.
As we enter into the tree-lined area Cisneros’ bass guitar is rumbling through ribcages like a DC10. Robert Lowe sits at a synth to the right of Cisneros and drummer Amos, providing tambourine and guitar flourishes, throwing both around him during the set. His organ sound is as much at odds with the deep, unrelenting bass of Cisneros as the band’s music is to this sunny day, fine counterpoints both. As the band churn out deep grooves between drum fills and more ambient sections, heads in the crowd variously sway and move more vigorously back and forth. Every so often the jarring ‘crack’ of a rimshot from Amos jolts the crowd from the cyclical bass rhythms, and often a frenzy of tom fills elicits a response during these lengthy numbers. Amos disappears at one point to let his colleagues grapple with a bass/organ moan that weaves in and around itself; he returns and…bam! The organ screams and we’re back in headbanging business to round off the set.
The contrast couldn’t be more marked for the next act on the ATP stage. Daniel Johnston takes position with his three-piece backing band, towel draped around his shoulders, and kicks off with Love Not Dead. Immediately it’s clear that this gig is going to be a power pop joy as he runs through some well-loved numbers. “What’s your favourite song out there?” he asks the crowd, before playing Speeding Motorcycle, beginning a capella before the band join in. “How much of you believe living is vain?” before Life In Vain, and it’s easy to forget with this weather and this infectious music just how dark a lot of Johnston’s lyrics are. Of course for every downbeat theme there are those of love and music – a particular highlight is an impassioned delivery of Rock’n’Roll Ega, as daylight fades and the light show adds a new dimension. It’s never going to about a perfect vocal performance with Johnston – parts aren’t always in key, a few lines are fumbled, a few false starts ironed out – but the crowd know this, and his set ends with the roar for the first encore we seen so far. And it’s a roar that only gets louder the longer the band stay offstage. Johnston obliges with Devil Town and True Love Will Find You In The End, and uttering a humble “Thanks everybody”, closes his lyric book and walks off.
Once again, the disparity between what is to come and what has just been is immeasurable as we head along to catch the most divisive band of the weekend. Swans take over the main stage for an astonishing set of repetitive, tribal, carnal noise that begins with To Be Kind and from here demolishes all in its path. Synth drones snake out as percussionist Thor Harris, surrounded by cymbals and gongs, appears to play some form of portable dulcimer and the band add layer upon layer over him, building a wall of wavering sound. Things grind and wind down to a crawling pace, single chords crashing to the point where the spaces between them are almost implausibly long and songs are stretched like an elastic chord. Second guessing a beginning or end is futile as things ever so gradually re-accelerate and Michael Gira – a demented conductor throughout – shouts “Turn the fucking lights up!”, illuminating the crowd. This is dense, tense and thunderous stuff from Swans – time for some sweetness and light.
The Pitchfork tent – the festival’s only indoor venue – is playing host to Melody’s Echo Chamber as we enter to the baroque lilt of Bisou Magique. The eponymous Ms Prochet stands stage front with a synth to her side, and a pretty full tent to her front – “biggest crowd we ever had.” The trip-hop drum intro to You Won’t Be Missing That Part Of Me leads to a hair flailing performance from Prochet, before a nicely swaying Quand Vas Tu Rentrer fills the spotlit stage. Crystallized begins in hazy fashion, solidifying halfway through as the drums take on a regular beat before the song transforms once more to rock-out – it seems as if the band have taken a leaf out of the Spiritualized book, with a strobed, wig-out ending that sees Prochet leap around the stage. It’s on this impressive note we must go out on, though, for there is an unwritten commandment that thou shalt never miss Shellac at any Primavera, ever.
The first few bars of Squirrel Song blare over the hill as we make our way to the ATP stage. Steve Albini and Bob Weston stand to either side of Todd Trainer’s drumkit (as always), wearing flower garlands in their hair (this is new), and proceed to run through a set of classic Shellac songs and shenanigans. Albini howls through Canada, powered by Trainer – as is everything – while Weston’s bass comes in LOUD at each crucial moment on Prayer To God. As is tradition, while Albini tunes up Weston hosts an audience Q&A – no, they won’t do a two-hour set; he hasn’t a clue how much he can bench press; no, he won’t marry the audience member, but he does accept a bunch of flowers. The Shellac Q&A – if it ever bears something worthwhile we hope we’re there to witness it.
During Steady As She Goes Albini and Weston retreat to the back of the stage and let Trainer do his thing, then literally run forward to join him. They flank him on Watch Song, both picking up sticks and hammering cymbals as he hits one directly above his head. Then they’re lined up behind him like The Three Stooges. One more question for Weston, though, and in case you were wondering…yeah, he can do a somersault. The two guitarists ham it up for Wingwalker as Albini creates an engine drone, and Weston runs all over the stage, arms outstretched. The only bad thing about the End Of Radio is that it generally signifies the end. Trainer is upstanding, snare aloft, throwing sticks into the crowd as he moves around the stage rattling off erratic rolls and Albini improvises lyrics. “Todd Trainer play the goddamn drums!” shouts Albini as the set draws to a close, and the most dependable drummer in the business plays alone as his band dismantle his kit around him. Finally it’s just Trainer standing, sticks in hand. There aren’t many things in life that are certain, but this is one – Shellac will never let you down.
Rocking the ATP stage soon after in jocular fashion are Meat Puppets, fitting in Oh Me amidst the hoedown of Hey Baby Que Paso and their mix of blues, country, reggae and good time rock. Already though, it’s headliner time – a dapper Graham, a grinning Alex, a sombre Dave and a buoyant Damon take to the stage at 1:30am to play host to a mass Blur karaoke session that kicks off in earnest with Girls and Boys and runs through every song you could want to hear at this point of the night. Beetlebum, early in the set, feels like the point where the gig moves to the next level, as Coxon’s squalling guitar part comes in with four backing singers towards the coda. Between time on his knees at the pedals, he takes his first vocal of the night for Coffee & TV, during which Albarn saunters over to share a cheesy meaningful gaze.
The crowd is way ahead of the band for Tender, taking up the “Oh my baby” refrain, and follower Country House is another uproarious pleaser. Albarn finds an extra boost of energy for Parklife, bounding all over the stage, then tellingly changing End Of A Century’s “…closer to 30” lyric to “…50”. This Is A Low is dedicated to the Portuguese, “being influenced by the sea…and things like that”, and it’s a suitably epic closer. The band leave, the crowd break back into the Tender refrain and Albarn returns to the piano for Under The Westway, with Turner resting a foot nonchalantly on the monitor in what is a quiet triumph in the set. The encore finishes with Song 2, an extended drum intro letting the crowd sing. Somehow, it’s not as raucous a rendering as it seems it should be – although the crowd reaction might suggest differently – but it rounds of a celebratory set from Blur.
Having been set up nicely in goodtime party mode, we decant to the Pitchfork tent for Portland duo Glass Candy. Johnny Jewel takes synth duties while centre stage Ida No provides the audio and visual entertainment, dancing about and dispensing banter between yelps and fuzzed-up vocals. At one point she disappears down to the barrier and crowdsurfs back an admirable distance, before being delivered back to the stage for another bouncy sliver of Italo with a Karen O slant on the vocal. She inhabits the smokey stage, a presence all in white, and if sonically things get a bit same-y it’s never less than entertaining. She counts the crowd down into shouting happy birthday to her bandmate, before pulling a girl up from the audience for the finale of Love Is In The Air. It’s a fun time for all concerned.
Day 3 – Saturday 1st
We don’t know who they are or what they are singing about, but Manel have the small crowd of main stage early birds on their feet and dancing, with the perfect type of power pop to ease us into the final day. The Drones follow them on the neighbouring stage, their singer immediately offering an “Olá!” to the crowd in front of him, while extending his middle finger and shouting a “Fuck you!” to those on the other hill. Theirs is a heavy mix of psych-blues and swampy rock’n’roll, enjoyable for a time if not a bit formulaic. “You can fucking clap now you fucking Portuguese cunts” says the singer to a subdued crowd – it’s hard to know if this is normal banter or if the local Superbock has been imbibed, but we suspect the latter. They’re passionate about what they do, clearly, but something doesn’t quite ignite.
Over on the mainstage J. Mascis, Lou Barlow and a Murph substitute – “Murph ran away and we have Kyle here today” – get to work blowing off the inertia as Dinosaur Jr deliver a blistering set. Whether you are standing down with the crowd or sitting at the top of the hill, they are one of those bands whose presence and volume isn’t diminished by topography or distance, and it’s a typical powering performance. Mascis and Barlow swap vocal duties, the former’s face obscured by hair and the latter swinging his arms at the frets in that distinctive fashion. The band are hard hitters, one and all, whether it’s on string or skin. Mascis doles out solo after savage solo, grunging up a cover of The Cure’s Just Like Heaven, before they are finally joined by Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham for Chunks.
After last year’s cancellation, Texans Explosions In The Sky may feel that they have something to prove – it certainly seems as if they are out to conquer, throwing everything into their performance as bodies bang into guitars and all manner of textures are wrung from them. Likewise the drummer coaxes percussive embellishments from his kit with brush, mallet and stick, and songs move through dramatic, physical segments to quieter melodic post-rock picking. The crowd spontaneously begins to clap time at one point in a gig full of uplifting moments – any thoughts of last year’s no-show may be considered banished.
A weight of expectation lay on Savages in the Pitchfork tent, as evidenced by the capacity crowd that awaits them. And it is deserved, it turns out. Singer Jenny Beth is an intense enough presence onstage, full of jerky movements and glares, dancing on the spot in a fashion that calls to mind Ian Curtis. Drummer Fay Milton behind her seems at times as if she’s about to hop out of her drum stool, such is the energy with which she hammers the toms. It’s a performance full of attitude, a full-on punk rock gig with an absolutely electric atmosphere, but once again an unforgiving overlap in the timetable means it’s time to tear ourselves reluctantly away and head for the Superbock stage.
Liars waste no time in getting straight to the point, with a relentlessly dance-oriented set keeping in line with their latest album. All three men play synths, with Hemphill and Gross also playing guitars and percussion respectively. Repetitive loops and Angus Andrew’s distorted vocals meld with the electronic and organic sounds in a largely seamless set, and the singer seems to enjoy being unfettered from the guitar in this set up. He’s all over the stage for Broken Witch, twirling the mic, and running over to hammer cymbals on WIXIW as the percussive rumble goes on around him. They end on a new song (“hope you guys don’t mind that”), just a repeated synth line and intoned vocal, and it’s a sombre finish. Liars are a band constantly moving forward, and this is as dance-y and pounding as this reviewer has seen them – a dark and thrilling highlight.
It’s with no small level of anticipation that My Bloody Valentine headline the closing night, with a set that touches on all their past releases. As the guitars pull on the chord pattern of I Only Said, and the iris-like visuals pop in the background, MBV unleash the decibels to a densely populated main stage. Kevin Shields and Belinda Butcher swap vocals throughout, and after an opening duo from ‘Loveless’ the band stretch out. Cigarette In Your Bed from ‘You Made Me Realise’ builds into something special, before Shields takes the reins again for Only Tomorrow. The momentum is interrupted by some pedal issues and Shields guitar sound is not to his liking in advance of Come In Alone. Crew appear and it’s soon sorted, with Thorn then upping the tempo; the spell has been broken, though, and it’s as good a time as any to steal away to catch the tail end of Titus Andronicus.
It’s only when leaving the main stage and walking into the ATP stage that we realise just how loud My Bloody Valentine actually are – they are all you can hear to one side of Titus Andronicus’ soundstage. As their song ends, singer Patrick Stickles quips “My Bloody Valentine, ladies & gentlemen” They battle on though with Titus Andronicus, but you have to feel for them – at every space in a song, or between songs, the only thing to be heard is MBV blasting over the hill. The gods of scheduling just weren’t on TA’s side tonight. It’s a tough slog for a great party band, and onwards they march regardless. Titus Andronicus Forever comes complete with drum solo in what is the apex of a hard won, great fun, but ultimately unfortunately timed set. The crowd sings “You will always be a loser” from No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future back to the band – oh, the pathos – and it is indeed appreciated by Stickles, but that’s our lot.
Our hearts go out to anyone who goes up against MBV’s PA system (Dan Deacon had the added protection of the Pitchfork tent at least) but them’s be the breaks. Such is the way with any festival – bands will clash and overlap to the detriment of the punter or the performer, but it’s a testament to the size of Optimus Primavera that these issues were at a minimum over the three days. There are so many small details that go into making a festival something special – the flower garlands on many a head; the late night dance-offs in the Pitchfork tent; the good-humoured bar staff; the flashing LED balloons that sporadically appeared around the venue; the friendliest of crowds – and this one has them in spades. Did we mention the propensity of quality acts? Really, it’s something we think you should check out for yourself. It’s early days yet in festival season but this one has set the bar – if anything tops Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds it will be something special indeed.
Optimus Primavera Sound 2013 Photo Gallery
Photos: Hugo Lima