Primavera Sound 2023 review: A return to form for the festival institution - Features - Mixmag

Primavera Sound 2023 review: A return to form for the festival institution

Primavera Sound made a blazing return to Barcelona after a troubled 2022, cementing its clout as Europe's most progressively curated and beloved summer festival for music heads, artists and dancers with the stamina to groove 'til sunrise

  • Words: Tracy Kawalik | Photos: Christian Bertrand, Eric Pamies, Paco Amate, Sharon Lopez, Gisela Jane, Sergio Albert
  • 22 June 2023

Serotonin-drenched synths melt in the air as waves from the Mediterranean Sea crash under brutalist solar panels, soaring over Barcelona's Parc del Forum. Primavera Sound hasn't even started yet, but the anticipation is building feverishly at a free concert on the festival site the night before its official open. Aussie electro-pop duo Confidence Man are kicking things off with gravity-defying dance moves during their anthemic Daniel Avery summer collab 'On & On.'

In the distance, large screens dotted across the 14-hectare coastal stretch encourage punters to reuse their pint glasses (€1 off if you do), not talk during sets and "dance hard and sing loud." Both prompt the wildly mixed, all-ages crowd of music heads, toddlers with ear-protecting headphones, Latinx Gen Z, die-hard fans and international festival-goers to erupt into a chorus. Side stage, a bartender passes out Estrella in reusable plastic cups emblazoned with a smiling sun from 'Primavera 2012'. Headline act the Pet Shop Boys steal the show with a tribute to Tina Turner that builds into a triple encore beginning with 'It's a Sin.' Kaleidoscopic lasers ignite. Stars pierce the sky. Damn, it feels good to be back.

2022 should have had this vibe. Instead, Primavera Sound's post-pandemic plans to rise from 2020's ashes and celebrate their 20th anniversary by extending programming across 10 days, citywide and two weekends, were ambitious, to say the least.

Technical glitches from the first beat caused majorly long bar queues, there were multiple cancellations from acts due to complicated travel restrictions, crowd bottlenecks off the back of bizarre layouts, and a ridiculously long bridge you had to cross to catch late-night sets with top DJs and producers (sometimes left playing to a half empty beach.) Worst of all, a slew of entitled industry folks attended who'd forgotten how to enjoy a festival.

Overzealous tweets saw Primavera hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons for the first time. Comparisons to Fyre Festival were off-key, especially given that Primavera corrected most problems by the second night and all (apart from the bridge) by the following weekend. Regardless, the team took note, and Primavera returned with a blazing 21st edition that cemented its clout as Europe's most progressively curated and beloved summer festival for aficionados and artists, dancers and sonic voyeurs looking to see their favourites and unearth future musical obsessions. The three-day marathon festival showcased a world-beating line-up of 256 artists, including headliners Rosalía, Blur, Depeche Mode, New Order and Kendrick Lamar.

Firstly, thank fuck the bridge was gone. Primavera boosted the number of on-site essentials (bars, food stalls, toilets, water points, and vapes, lots of vapes). Amazon, Estrella, Aperol, and Cupra locked down prime locations across stages and pop-up bars, yet Primavera maintained a level of commercialism (that paid the bills) but didn't descend into overbearing, soul-zapping sponsorship. They halved the overall capacity from 2022's 460,500 people to 253,000 attendees, and the cutbacks continued. Primavera's signature skills in super-dynamic programming were at maximum but way more concise, with far fewer clashes. The festival was scaled back to one weekend, with a twin event in Madrid a week later.

Fear of missing out was minimised thanks to almost identical line-ups in both cities, which gave Primavera its theme for the year: 'I'll Be Your Mirror'. (Also a homage to The Velvet Underground, with John Cale performing at Parc del Fòrum's Auditori Santander on the final day.)

Another mirror moment was the crazy amount of infectious love among the crowd for the music, first and foremost, and from the artists to be back at Primavera Sound. Nigerian superstar Rema set the tone by opening his Thursday night set saying, "You're not here for me; I'm here for you."

There were big slots reserved for international act like K-pop stalwarts Red Velvet and Japan's Perfume, who came armed with an arsenal of razor-sharp, Eurovision-worthy routines. At the same time, Sudanese-American R&B vocalist and experimental electronic violinist Sudan Archives played a golden hour gig on the seafront.

Black Country, New Road gave a raucous performance that harked back to Primavera's indie rock roots and sprayed champagne into the crowd next to posters reminding music fans to "enjoy the party responsibly!" Before Baltimore, hardcore heroes Turnstile electrified a mosh pit of smiling faces.

Opening headliners New Order delivered a slick 12-song, maniacal laser storm, and Blur played their first set in 15 years laced with rare B-sides and heart-soaring moments. Damon Albarn gushing, "It's so lovely to be up here with my old friends again."

Friday night was definitely "lit". Temperatures started rising when Baby Keem came out and test-drove his and Kendricks's freshly dropped joint, 'The Hillbillies', leading to heated rebellion from Philly rockers Soul Glo's rowdy performance mere inches from a pop-up crèche. Synth-pop gods Depeche Mode followed with a jaw-dropping spectacle, strutting the stage, commanding attention, hip-thrusting and melting the minds of their obsessive day-one fans while making new ones out of us who'd yet to have the privilege to witness a 10-minute version of 'Personal Jesus' IRL.

As Depeche Mode's fans filtered out, Kendrick Lamar arrived to play his first Primavera show since the 'Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City' era. Kendrick gave one of the most revered and talked about sets in the festival's history and a masterclass on why he's considered the G.O.A.T. Unlike his lauded Glastonbury debut, he performed a stripped-down, 90-minute version of the Mr Morale tour. Hitting the first six opening tracks completely solo in front of a billowing painted backdrop of two Black figures, like an old-school hip-hop P.A., he had the complete assurance of a man who doesn't need help from anyone.

The crowd bounced and belted out bars during 'A.D.H.D.', 'LOYALTY', 'ELEMENT', and 'ALRIGHT', building up to his cousin, Keem returning to rap the penultimate tracks 'Vent' and 'Family Ties', which clocked the same decibels of applause as 'HUMBLE'.

Four Tet, Fred again.., and Skrillex swerved the Coachella hype to play separately rather than together. Fred opting to play a live set that flexed his prowess as a multi-instrumentalist and reputation for a collab with music's finest by projecting mates like Obongjayar on stage. His earnest and emotional appeal transfixed thousands of adoring fans, who continually echoed what "a nice guy" Fred was between tracks. So much that when a sound issue cut his closing track, a Londoner was on the verge of tears, only for Fred to return moments later with a reprise... again... to thunderous cheers. Skrillex was more unpredictable, hitting the stage with a feverish, thrilling set that was cut short when a lighting rig caught on fire.

Read this next: We have entered the era of 'Fred againia'

Late-night plans continued drawing hoards of dancers to the outdoor auditorium for the 4:AM, two-hour B2B with LSDXOXO and VTSS, at the "secret" underground carpark rave sponsored by Stone Island. Others worked their way into Boiler Room's caged stage, designed as though Cyber Dog and Mad Max opened a club.

All three days had a different sonic aesthetic and flavour that attracted like-minded audiences. Occasionally you'd be hit by the realisation that you and this mad spectrum of people were all at the same festival, not just crossing paths. Because of this, the late-night electronic sessions turned into a super special space which united every one on the dancefloor.

Inclusivity has always been critical fuel for Primavera Sound. Back in 2019, it became the first major music festival with a gender-balanced line-up. More than half of the 226 acts were women, including one of Rosalia's most powerful performances, FKA twigs, Solange, Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu, Robyn and Kali Uchis, among others. Since then, the head of international press and public relations at Primavera Sound has spoken about women's safety at live music events and gender equality in festival programming at the UK parliament. This was part of an enquiry for Preventing Violence Against Women and Girls alongside the Misogyny in Music Committee and the UK Parliament's Women and Equalities Committee.

Primavera Sound has always been conscious of the community and in the early years, Barcelona locals who acquired a wristband (from departing international guests) could attend live music at venues around the city for free for a year. There were also discounted rates for locals. has always been reusable plastics, and never a trace of face glitter, which is majorly harmful to the environment at most festivals.

Read this next: Tulum's party scene is characterised by waste and disrespect. Can Day Zero change that?

This year, Primavera upped their efforts on sustainability, persevering with reusable plastics as well as having a stage powered by 100% electric energy in Barcelona and Madrid and six additional spaces generated by solar panels. They also secured 24-hour train/tram service throughout.

Furthermore, for 2023, Primavera was passionate about demonstrating that they are a festival space especially conducive to breaking down prejudices and standards. Within this, they brought together a diverse staff. They set up numerous points across the site to reaffirm Primavera's zero tolerance to sexual aggression and harassment, transphobia, homophobia, and any other attempt that might negatively impact someone's experience at the festival with assistance should any of the above be compromised.

Diversity, empowerment and fierceness peaked on Saturday night. While Primavera boasts a particularly low-key crowd most nights when it comes to styling, the final night was filled with extraordinary, high-voltage, high-fashion, high-sex, high-heeled "lewks" from Barcelona's Latinx community, international club kids, and "Motomami's" alike.

Sevdaliza brought the main stage to a boiling point with an entirely backless dress and surprise DJ set amid her own music. iPhones illuminated as a giant, blood-orange full moon appeared, adding further to the magic and resounding love in the air, which set the mood for the plethora of insanely opulent and out-of-this-world performances about to begin. St Vincent, Caroline Polachek, Nia Archives and Kelela gave spine-tingling, headliner-worth shows.

This gave way to probably the ONLY and most noticeable crowd divide when Kelela fans got disappointed by Italian pop-rockers Måneskin, who cut her set short, followed by the Death Grips fans booing when Måneskin subsequently overran.

On the flip side, the final night was when significant moments of togetherness took place. Dominican rapper and singer Tokischa unquestionably gave the most hyped and unexpected performance of the weekend. Not only was she accompanied by dancers but nearly the entire festival who chanted lyric by lyric, hip to hip, sweat-drenched until minutes before Rosalía stepped out into position. At 1:AM, tens of thousands rushed to the main stage for the most anticipated act of Primavera Sound 2023. Rosalía transported her hometown fans and international masses beyond the stars to her 'Motomami' era.

Vertical-mounted cameras beamed her performance in close-up onto the side screens while she slayed intricate choreography, worked wind machines and played with stage props like salon chairs for 'Diablo' and scooters for 'Chicken Teriyaki'. Her remarkable vocals captivated during 'Malamente' and melted into moments between ballads for Rosalía to pour her heart out and reflect in Spanish and Catalan about her meteoric come-up, becoming an international star and what returning to perform at Primavera Sound meant.

Waved and riding on a high, the crowd dispersed to end the finale evening at either Charlotte de Witte, DJ Coco or Overmono seaside, before collecting en masse for enigmatic duo Two Shell, who closed the entire festival and played well after 6:30AM under a blistering sun.

It was one for the books, and the future of Primavera Sound looks as bright as that last set. The festival has grown significantly since its inception, but manages to evolve successfully as it swells. It started in a small format in Barcelona in the 90s: The first "official" Primavera took place in an open-air architectural museum in 2001 for 7,700. By 2004 attendance had increased to 40,000, and international acts were vying to be booked, such as Aphex Twin, Andrew Weatherall, Mogwai, Sonic Youth, Green Velvet and PJ Harvey.

In the decades that followed, many cult acts performed, such as Björk, Portishead, Beach House, SOPHIE, Arca, The Smashing Pumpkins, Lou Reed, Justice, Orbital, Moderat, Radiohead, Nick Cave, Tyler the Creator, Wu-Tang, Public Enemy, Grace Jones — and that's a mere few.

In 2022, the festival hosted its first editions in Los Angeles, São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Santiago, adding to other cities that Primavera Sound had touched down in, such as Porto and now Madrid. While it may appear Primavera Sound could be at threat of being diluted with the expansion of the brand to other Latin cities, the organisers are keen to state that will never be the case. Primavera Sound may be venturing beyond the margins of the original site, but at home, in 2022, the festival racked up €349 million ($367 million) to the city of Barcelona.

Primavera Sound's organisers concluded that each new place around the world will take aspects of the original concept with an expertly curated line-up, but be a smaller, boutique experience that's unique to the local vibe of each city. No place can or ever will replicate the magic of where it began, Barcelona, which will always be the home of Primavera Sound.

Tracy Kawalik is a freelance music journalist, follow her on Twitter

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