By Álvaro García Montoliu
Despite the hovering threat of rain over Benicàssim in the early afternoon, the sun took no prisoners, though it wasn’t as bad as the day after. The first notable performance on Friday was by O Emperor, the Irish band performing the tracks of their debut album “Hither Thither”. They started with “All Worked Out”, reminiscent of Elbow and a taster for what was going to be heard on the Maravillas Stage hours later. Then came “Po”, the track that made it obvious why Spoon chose them as their supporting act. On “Sedalia” we could hear their biggest influence, Grizzly Bear. Like Ed Droste’s band, the Irish like to play with the vocals and, though they don’t sound as emotive as the New Yorkers (maybe because of the tense outbursts of the singer), these guys are on the right track. They also sounded much more like Fleet Foxes than on record, which is always good news.
It was also a night for the nostalgics among us. First, they had a good ration of The Undertones, who showed why they’re still one of the greatest living legends of early punk. The crowd responded with surprising enthusiasm, as at the same time, on the Maravillas Stage, to a capricious Brandon Flowers was playing who, by the way, wouldn’t let the press take any photos of him. The band from Northern Ireland gave the audience all the hits: “Male Model” (with Paul McLoone posing model-style), “I Gotta Getta”, “Jump Boys”, “You’ve Got My Number”, “True Confessions” and up to the one everybody wanted to hear most, “Teenage Kicks”, in a feast of two-minute party tunes. Three quarters of that happened with the more sophisticated The Stranglers, although they showed their most aggressive side on the Fiberfib.com Stage. They didn’t mind getting out the big guns during the first part of the concert, with “Peaches” and “Golden Brown” played successively..
Elbow knew what they would have to do in Benicàssim: win over the crowd from the very start, and to do that they gave all the responsibility to the very talkative and lively Guy Garvey. From the touching “The Birds” onwards, they had the people in their pocket. They chose their most epic songs, but it was never too much, unlike other bands like Coldplay or Muse. They showed themselves to be a rarity among the great British bands of today. They didn’t shy away from their calmest tracks, either, like the brilliant “Mirrorball”. After warming up the crowd for a few minutes, Garvey sang the first verses of their big hit “Grounds For Divorce”, and he joined Richard Jupp on the percussion. The only flaw during the best gig of the night was that the violins didn’t sound as good as they should during several pieces, which lowered the quality level a little bit.
From then on we had to wait for the most anticipated moment of the night. The Strokes arrived on the Maravillas Stage eight minutes late, though the crowd didn’t seem to mind. By the time they played “Reptilia” (the third track on the setlist), the first people in the first rows started to faint. Six years of silence seemed like too much for their fans, walking around the festival sites sporting T-shirts of the band as if to show they hadn’t forgotten about them. What we didn’t really get is what The Strokes were doing there. Julian Casablancas was like an island in the middle of the stage, unaware of what was going on around him and absorbed by himself. There was no interaction with the rest of the band, which fed the stories about the band members not getting along too well and that they’re just doing it for the money. Who knows? The truth is that the tracks from the debatable “Angles” sound better live and stood proudly alongside the timeless anthems of their debut album.
And let no-one think there were no surprises on the second day. The Maravillas Stage was rammed during the Friendly Fires gig, a band we didn’t think would attract such large crowds. They don’t have the charisma of Hot Chip or the superb compositions of Cut Copy, but as far as playing live is concerned, they’re better than the Australians, at least in comparison to their gig during the previous edition FIB. It all sounded much more organic and it never seemed like they had pre-recorded stuff playing. During “Blue Cassette”, fireworks were exploding in the audience, literally. With the punters’ lust for party and the untiring enthusiasm of Ed Macfarlane they managed to make tracks like “True Love”, not more than notable on record, sound excellent. Another summer of love.
The third day will be remembered as one of the hottest in the history of the event. The people were hiding in the shadows and the bands were complaining about the sun, trying to be as cool as possible with their shirts off. Around 8pm the heat was over, on different levels. Tame Impala’s show was devastating, taking the psychedelic rock of their debut album “Innerspeaker” to the highest level. Their gig was much anticipated and the boys confirmed themselves as one of the best debutant acts of 2010. And with their youthful looks, their delivery was astonishing. Intoxicating instrumental passages, Cream-like riffs, countless nods to the 1966 Beatles, great improvisation and never-ending reverb made for one of the best performances of FIB 2011. They played “Skeleton Tiger” and “Half Glass Of Wine” from their eponymous 2008 EP, but they didn’t do their version of Massive Attack’s “Angel” so many people talk about.
After the heavy riffs and psychotropic excursions of Tame Impala, the happy-go-lucky, refreshing and summery music of Spectrals was brilliant. We still didn’t believe the guy’s from Leeds and not from California, but his accent gave him away. Among the legions of fans we find Bethany Cosentino, which doesn’t surprise us, as the leader of Best Coast and the Briton share similar musical tastes: they both play the field of lo-fi pop with influences from the fifties and sixties. The Briton is more than talented – “Dip Your Toe In” can stand beside any Girls track. Apart from playing the best stuff off of “Extended Play”, he also did a few unreleased pieces, which we hope will be featured on his much-awaited debut album. What I don’t understand is why his gig didn’t get a better reception, especially when the alternatives were nothing special.
If there was one artist I really wanted to see, it was Beirut. At FIB 2008 he escaped many people’s attention and this time, nobody was going to miss out on his gig. As usual conflicting stage times forced the audience to scatter more than they would have wanted, but those who stayed saw a very active Zach Condon, sometimes with a trumpet, sometimes with a ukelele. As expected, the display of instruments was spectacular: tuba, trombone, horn, xylophone, viola, accordion and probably some more we forgot. It made the band sound very rich, in spite of the weak acoustics of the place. The brass instruments created a lot of passion during “Postcards From Italy”, as if it were some incredible Arcade Fire anthem. But the best was yet to come: “Nantes” was received with incredible enthusiasm. They played tracks from every album, from the lesser known “Mimizan” to hits like “The Gulag Orkestar”. With hardly time to savour the delicious “Cherbourg” and feeling like staying to see what else the New Mexico band had in store for us, we had to leave hastily to see Arctic Monkeys, who’d already started..
Arctic Monkeys are, without a doubt, the best British band of the moment, still getting better with each album. They came to Benicàssim with some extra pressure: to defend “Suck It And See”, a great collection of songs that are a summary of everything that’s defined the Sheffield band over the years. And they did it in front of a mainly British audience – so they were playing a home game, so to speak. The repertoire bordered on excellent. They allowed themselves the luxury of playing their hit “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” halfway through the gig and finishing with the exquisite “505”. Along the way, stoner rock pieces like “Crying Lightning” and “Brick By Brick”; the amiable “Suck It And See”; the tribute to decades past that is “The Hellcat Splangled Shalalala”; and a timebomb (“When The Sun Goes Down”) before getting to the encores. Colossal.
The crossovers in the time schedules can be painful at any festival, but it’s a real shame that two of the best artists on this FIB 2011, Big Audio Dynamite and Primal Scream, were playing at the same time. We tried to see as much of Mick Jones’ gang as we could, but we could only see three tracks, because we needed to get a good spot at the Maravillas Stage. However, “Medicine Show” alone was worth the 20 minutes with the former member of The Clash.
And it turned out all the haste was unnecessary. Five minutes before the start of Primal Scream’s gig, the Maravillas space wasn’t even half as full as a few hours earlier when the languid Mumford & Sons played. Which is worrying, as Bobby Gillespie and his mates came to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of a key records in pop history, but it’s probably a sign of the times. They couldn’t connect with the crowd during the lesser known tracks from “Screamadelica”, and it wasn’t until the hits at the end (“Rocks”, “Country Girl” and “Jailbird”) that the audience finally got going. And it wasn’t because the Glaswegians didn’t try – they did a great job with a difficult album. They deserve all the glory in the world for “Movin’ On Up” and “Higher Than The Sun” alone.
Whether you were staying in a hotel or camp site, you’re going to step onto the festival site with aching muscles and bones. But the closing day is usually the best, so off we went. If there is one person who stands out at this year’s event for unbeatable charisma, bottomless enthusiasm and extreme friendliness, it’s hurricane Ritzy. The singer of The Joy Formidable is a force of nature, even with her stature. Her power and skill on the guitar bring her close to goddesses like Marnie Stern or Kelley Deal. The flashes of sound coming from the stage blew everyone’s socks off and, not satisfied with just shaking them with her guitar, she picked up a drum stick during “Buoy” and started beating on the drums and her own instrument. An infinite “Whirring” was the cherry on the cake. The Welsh girl put her guitar against the amp and began torturing the crowd with feedback.
Despite Noah And The Whale’s music sounding quite calm at home and the band sporting fine suits on stage, the concert was everything we didn’t expect. Their uplifting and euphoric folk-pop songs are more intense when played at high volume, they sound more electric, and leave behind part of their intrinsic delicacy back in London. Despite the operatic feel of the violin on “Just Me Before We Met”, the track sounded like The National at their most epic. The group grows on stage, they’ve become more mature, but that’s logical, as the recent “Last Night On Earth” is their best work.
Portishead must be one of the few bands that can afford to appear as one of the headliners of a festival after three years of silence and present no new material - the almost two decades of impeccable career are enough. They offered a tracklist that was near-identical to their one at Primavera Sound 2008. In fact, most surprisingly, they didn’t play “Chase The Tear”, the only track recorded after “Third”. So the material came from the first and the third album (there were only two tracks from the second, “Over” and “Cowboys”, but they were probably spot on, judging from the cheers for Geoff Barlow’s scratches). The naked, almost acoustic version of “Wandering Star” was surprising, with Beth Gibbons’ voice sounding like a spectral whisper. She changed the register completely on “Threads”, where she sounded more ferocious and showed off a vocal virtuosity that landed her a warm applause. Let them come as they please.
Arriving late at the The Go! Team gig after the ecstasy of Portishead wasn’t supposed to be a big drama, but it is when you hear they’ve already played “Secretary Song”, one of the freshest and most fun songs of the year for yours truly and, most likely, the best track the Brighton band have ever written. However, if anything, they have loads of hits (they played “Huddle Information”, “Buy Nothing Day” and “The Power Is On”, among others). And if that weren’t enough, there’s always the energy of Ninja. The singer and frontwoman was cheering on the crowd non-stop, like Yelle would have. She became the indisputable centre of attention during the gig, only taking a breather for the few minutes of the instrumental “Yosemite Theme”
Another band who came to Benicàssim with an almost identical setlist to their previous tour (although in this case, that was only eight months ago), were Arcade Fire, the biggest headliner of the lot. The concert had absolutely everything you can ask from a band that’s supposed to be at the top of the current alternative scene. There were intimate moments with “Crown Of Love”; epic outbursts on “Rebellion:Lies”; sweet pop on “Haiti” and “Sprawl II”; and anthems like “The Suburbs”. What did change was a very cinematic stage design reading out “Arcade Fire Presents The Suburbs”. The Canadians seemed even more enthusiastic than usual, but Win had already warned us before playing “Keep The Car Running” - this was the last gig of the tour and they were going to go all out..
PlayGround is a media partner of FIB
The last three days of the FIB happened as we might have predicted: The Strokes were disappointing, but other headliners offered spectacular performances. The small print (O Emperor and Tame Impala) were very impressive, too.
Photo by Noelia Rodríguez
Big Audio Dynamite
Noah And The Whale
The Go! Team