“Do animals find us cute? That’s my question of the night.”
Julian Casablancas smiles clownishly at the crowd. It’s late on a Friday night on weekend two of Barcelona’s Primavera Sound music festival, and the singer from The Strokes has come onstage sporting a wonky mullet, a camo jerkin, and a goofy, silly mood.
This is obviously a band synonymous with early Noughties indie cool, but with a frontman currently resembling a Margate-breakfast-era Pete Doherty, it feels like deadnaming to call them The Strokes. Until, that is, they break into opener “Bad Decisions”, and remind everyone in the crowd that not only are they still extremely tight, but Casablancas sounds almost as good as he did back at the turn of the millennium.
More than any other, The Strokes are the band that epitomises indie. So when they were forced to cancel one of their two scheduled gigs at Primavera because of Covid, the organisers considered it so problematic that they promptly offered every ticket-holder free entry to the band’s second date the following weekend. Which might explain why, by “Reptilia”, the jagged standout from their second album Room on Fire, the whole place is jumping and screaming “Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo” like a Noughties kazoo flash mob.
The set goes down so well that they just about get away with skipping anthem “Last Nite”, then coming back for an encore, only to drop the relatively obscure “Threat of Joy” from 2016 EP Future Present Past. If Casablancas is feeling a little giddy, perhaps he’s just tuning into the vibe of the festival. Primavera has long been regarded as the ne plus ultra of festivals for discerning musos, with a line-up cribbed from Pitchfork’s Best New Music tab and an imposing home in Barcelona’s brutalist Parc del Fòrum.
In recent years, however, it has welcomed more pop acts into the fold. And this year, in what may be interpreted as an attempt to recoup some of the money lost over lockdown – or a flex for its 20th anniversary – it runs over two weekends, with a truly excellent line-up that also includes a selection of some of the biggest pop acts in the world: Dua Lipa, Megan Thee Stallion and Lorde.
It’s a pleasure to see south London four-piece Dry Cleaning early on Thursday evening, lead vocalist Florence Shaw affecting an elegant sprechstimme. Gorillaz pull out some of the stops with a cameo from Mos Def. To be real, though, today they are not bringing enough fire to skip their most famous single, “Dare”. Midway through the set, Damon Albarn says he is “not entirely convinced by this two-stage thing”, referring to the side-by-side stages for the headline acts – executed, according to director Gabi Ruiz, to “reduce crowd pressure” (but also appearing to allow for rapid-fire changeover of the artists).
There has been some concern over the arrangement, on Twitter and elsewhere, because it creates an overall bigger crowd at the main stages, and longer queues for the bars in that area. But there does seem to be a benefit to the ticket-holders: no long breaks between the headline acts, a shorter and therefore less chaotic journey between headliners, and less mid-set pushing to the front from the serial moshers, who can if they wish just shimmy sideways instead.
The crowd certainly feels big when Dua Lipa hits the main stage. With a claim to being the biggest pop artist in the world, she clicks through her routine like a consummate professional – perhaps a little more so than usual because, as she admits halfway through the performance, she has begun to lose her voice. There are more than enough people here to help her out – this is one of the busiest gigs of the weekend – and she lays down banger after banger after banger from her back catalogue.
Released in 2020, Future Nostalgia was for many the unofficial soundtrack to lockdown. So most of the fans here won’t have heard live versions of tracks such as “Levitate”, “Love Again” and “Hallucinate”. Her brand of highly produced, synthy space-pop is complemented by a clutch of giant moon-pattern beach balls she scatters through the crowd towards the end of her set.
The staging of femmebot pop phenomenon Charli XCX midway through Dua Lipa’s set on the opposite side of the festival is the one clanger of the weekend, meaning that at around 2am there is an exodus of their overlapping fanbase. If they’d stuck around, though, they’d have seen another of the most fun performances: Tyler the Creator bounding on at 2.25am in the 23C Barcelona night, wearing hiking boots, a gold puffer jacket and a fur hat on a stage set that looks like a bucolic landscape. The weird-but-good hip-hop star is goose-stepping across the stage, with a call and response of “Where we at wit it? Barcelona bitch!”
2manyDJs, playing at 3.30am, mark the beginning of the early Noughties revival with a set of chopped and screwed electro. Nostalgia for indie started in lockdown, thanks to the popularity of Instagram account Indie Sleaze, and it’s in full swing here, with MIA, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Phoenix, and of course The Strokes among the acts.
By Friday, the site feels very busy. The influx of Strokes fans afforded free tickets after their disappointment the previous week may be contributing to the feeling that it is oversold.
At the two headliner stages, even Lorde says she is anticipating The Strokes, who are due on next. The folk leanings of her lockdown record Solar Power may have felt a little safe and woo-woo for some, but Lorde’s crowd-pleasing 9.30pm set in a cool black jumpsuit dispels any sense that she’s getting comfortable. The envious trill of breakout single “Royals” still slaps.
Once midnight hits, the crowd has to choose between MIA, Burna Boy and Johnny Greenwood/Thom Yorke outfit The Smile. Julian Casablancas will later describe the latter as the best thing he’s seen in years. But there is something magical about Burna Boy’s lilting “Dangote”, which hits just as we’re crossing the bridge over the harbour to the stage, and mellows the crowd – at least until the artist demands everyone remove their shirt and swing it round their head. Afterwards, synth appreciator Grimes goes full goblin mode, pulling out her wind machine and squatting on the mixer in reverse cowgirl to play techno and glitchy pop.
On Saturday, Sky Ferreira’s long-awaited new album gets an airing. Ferreira seems to be experiencing sound issues that lead her to terminate opener “Boys”, and she appears a little uncomfortable as she plays her brand of grunge-flecked pop. But it’s a treat to see her on stage, and she does a good job teasing a few new tracks from her much-anticipated record.
Straight after on the main stage, there’s a triple threat of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Tame Impala and Phoenix. Sandwiched between the two indie giants playing all their biggest hits, Tame Impala are surprisingly overshadowed by a crowd hungry for Karen O’s squealing of “Date with the Night” and the joyous 2009 Phoenix single “Lisztomania”.
Nobody’s overshadowing Megan Thee Stallion, though. She goes harder than anyone all weekend, shutting the place down with a closing-night 2am set of stone-cold hits and the most energetic set of backing dancers on site.
It’s down to DJ Coco to drop the birthday bombs, reminding everyone that this is a 20th-anniversary celebration. When the fireworks hit as dawn breaks in the amphitheatre-like Cupra stage on Sunday, it’s to the strain of the biggest, most basic pop music around: Katy Perry’s “Firework” and David Guetta’s “Titanium” featuring Sia. Primavera used to hit different; these days it’s playing the hits – but it’s all the better for it.