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LANA DEL REY 006 c Hugo Lima

Despite many moments of joy, Primavera Sound Porto leaves many asking for more

11 June 2024, 19:36

Primavera Sound still has some way to go to make the Porto event as strong and essential as its elder sibling, writes John Bell.

Two years ago at Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona – waiting what felt like an eternity for a cold Estrella while others tweeted about lack of water – I was faced with a dilemma. It had become clear that post-pandemic, the festival I had long looked up to would never be the same again.

The Coachellification of Primavera wasn’t just evident in its extension to a double weekender, but in its new and unrelenting loyalty to VIP areas, its TikTok activations, its expanded list of influencer invitations and newfound friends from the crypto world. The need for brand partnerships to help finance or “power” the modern music festival had become a reality long before, and it needn’t take away from their credibility per se, but now entering Primavera felt like walking through the forced commercial corridor of an airport duty-free.

Everything was bigger. Two main stages became four, and yet it felt even harder to catch any of the artists I had come to see. The lack of water, adequate bar staff and chaotic crowd management was well documented that weekend. I’ll admittedly never know what it’s like to keep a huge festival afloat during two years of cancellations, but it felt like they had gone beyond recouping their losses and grown into an institution far removed from the cultural identity they had earned over the past two decades.

But then a late night, early summer Barcelona breeze blew me a kiss across the bar, I was finally served a beer and one of the best line-ups in the world awaited, even if I couldn’t get a glimpse of Tame Impala. Especially in the context of the early 2020s, why dwell on all of this when so much pleasure was there to be had?

PULP 012 c Hugo Lima

Two years on and Primavera Sound has made changes to correct some of these mishaps, with last week’s edition reportedly feeling safer and smoother as a result. 900 km westwards from Parc del Fòrum to Parque da Cidade, Primavera Sound Porto has throughout all of this managed to keep on with its head down, as visitors enjoy its smaller scale and a far more relaxed pace to its Spanish sister. And yet, at its eleventh edition this weekend, it felt at times like attendees had a similar dilemma to reckon with.

Some of the complaints or sighs of frustration that emerge from the weekend feel more valid than others. Many have replied to the festival’s wrap-up content on social media begrudging a lack of care around Lana Del Rey’s main Porto Stage performance on Friday night, implying she deserved to be over on the Vodaphone stage instead. Seeing Pulp perform there the next evening, it becomes evident why. Positioned in a natural amphitheater thanks to Parque da Cidade’s grassy banks, the sound for the majestic Jarvis Cocker and co.’s masterly performance is electrifying and vibrant, helping to make ‘This Is Hardcore’ sound as sexy and suspenseful as a James Bond theme tune, or ‘Babies’ a pure outpouring of Britpop bliss.

LANA DEL REY 008 c Hugo Lima
Lana Del Rey

But there is no way Lana could ever play here. Far from feeling alone on a Friday night, the crowd that amasses is easily the biggest of the festival, second only to Thursday’s Mitski-mania. The doors open at 4pm but a dizzying amount of young fans, most of whom had just bought Friday day tickets, arrive in the morning to queue for hours in the 30 degree heat for their chance to run straight to the Porto Stage barriers and make their base for the rest of the day while awaiting their icon.

The scale of it all actually adds to the prom queen melodrama essential to Lana’s artistic image and sound in a way it perhaps didn’t in Barcelona the previous weekend, where reports highlighted a lacklustre show and an uninterested performer. Here it feels like both parties invest in the act, with Lana even stepping down to meet her frenzied followers and collect gifts such as a garland crown. As if planned, during ‘Born To Die’ a quick-limbed stan manages to slip through security and almost reach out to the singer during the line “You like your girls insane,” in which moment she adds the ad-libs “She’s insane, I guess” with a professional smile. The festival is of course right to host Lana on the Porto Stage, and many seem to have the time of their life.

Other grievances feel totally avoidable, though. “Amateur hour,” one attendee says after hearing that Justice will no longer be playing on Friday night. The news comes unfortunately while This Is The Kit plays on the Plenitude Stage, with people seeing the notification on their phones and passing the message along like it’s the final matchday of the Premier League. Kate Stables and her band’s performance is nevertheless one of the most affecting moments of the festival, a delicate triumph of furtive folk-rock peppered with sweetness and gritty-edged guitars.

WOLF EYES 001 c Hugo Lima
Wolf Eyes

The festival explains Justice’s absence “due to unforeseen technical issues beyond our control,” hoping, I imagine, that the ominous weather warnings of a serious storm might fill in the blanks. Speaking to security guards by the Vodaphone Stage, it appears that actually the French duo’s several-ton backdrop was mishandled and significantly damaged the stage earlier that afternoon; though this could not be officially confirmed, stage technicians working on the stage all night seem to confirm this. The festival declined to comment further on the matter when offered – the less said the better is likely a lesson learnt for the brand in the last couple of years – but it is odd, too, that the message is only communicated via social media and not anywhere around the site.

It’s a disappointment felt palpably for basically anyone not here to see Lana, and the rest of the evening feels a heavy lull as a result, one that the experimental noise (to put it lightly) of Wolf Eyes does absolutely nothing to remedy. This speaks to a wider issue in the billing. The relaxed schedule definitely has its benefits, especially when it comes to seeing everything on your planner without any queuing. But when there’s an unexpected mishap like Justice’s stage accident or acts such as Lankum and Ethel Cain need to pull out for personal reasons, the lack of depth is compounded.

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Amy and the Sniffers

More importantly, where is the dance music? In previous editions, festival goers could extend the party in Palco Bits, which last year hosted Daphni, Teki Latex, Jayda G and more. The site where this was hosted belongs to Sport Clube do Porto, who reportedly wished to close the space for construction works. But an alternative is exactly what is needed to give a bit of edge and bite to the many who want it; there is an afterparty in a club near the Parque da Cidade, sure, but who would be in the mood for that after a two hour set from The National, which itself feels jarring after the euphoria of Pulp?

And yet again in spite of all of this, I am having a good time. There are moments of sheer joy from the off, with Amyl and The Sniffers tearing open Thursday afternoon from start to finish. The 18:40 slot on the Porto Stage is another hotspot, seeing Militarie Gun, Crumb and Mannequin Pussy all step up to the challenge and stir a sense of excitement in what the night ahead might hold. The Last Dinner Party is the perfect entrée for those awaiting Lana, already seeming the complete main stage package as they win over new fans with an endearing swagger.

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Nigerian Londoner Obongjayer’s Thursday night set is a face slap of rhythm and bounce that puts the vibe at SZA’s headline show to shame. Singing from her nautical themed stage to a sea of phones, Solána Imani Rowe’s voice is glossy and powerful, but except for the harder-hitters such as ‘Low’, each song seems to rely on the old faithful session band breakdowns to create excitement.

Locals Expresso Transatlântico deliver on their promise of a picture-postcard sonic journey, while a sizable crowd gathers for a Shellac listening party, honouring the late Steve Albini and his band who have been part of the Primavera Sound furniture since the start. American Football open their set with the lesser-spotted ‘Five Silent Miles’, which precedes the seminal debut LP that they’re here to play in full. Argentinian born, Lisbon-based SOLUNA even reemerges on Saturday afternoon for a much deserved encore, having shooed away the murky weather with her trilingual Afro-Latin pop fusion and summery, euphoric beats.

Primavera Sound Porto is clearly an important institution for alternative music fans in Portugal. Despite being a bustling city with an ever-growing cultural calendar thanks to promoters and labels such as the established Lovers & Lollipops or new kids on the block SALIVA DIVA, festivals like these don’t come around here often. Whatever complaints, old or new, there is still an overall feeling of gratitude here in Parque da Cidade. More reason, then, for the Primavera Sound brand to continue to work on returning to the principles – and practicalities – that have made their Porto wing as strong and essential as its elder sibling.

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