While most of the Drowned in Sound staff spent last weekend getting sodden at Latitude, David Edwards was faced with a slightly different problem at the fantastic Festival Internacional de Benicàssim. Namely, how to keep cool in the sweltering heat amongst so many superb performances…
Arriving on site Wednesday, there was time to set up the camp in the absurd heat of the Spanish summer before enjoying the wonderful atmosphere onsite. At an (estimated) mix of 60/40 British/Continental population, the site has a comforting feel of home but with absolutely none of the aggravation that can at times pervade British festivals. In fact, the whole vibe of the weekend was one continuous party with everyone simply looking to enjoy the marvellous weather and surroundings. And also duly noted was the exceptional sound mix on the stages. I’ve noticed this before at continental festivals - generally, they mix the sound perfectly. Can we please have less excuses that 'it’s so hard to get right' at big UK events?
Thursday was tempered by the slight disappointing late cancellations of Bat for Lashes and Florence + The Machine, but this assisted in elevating The Horrors up the bill. And my word, did they respond. The musical excellence and confidence of this band has been raised so many notches in the last couple of years that it’s ceasing to be a surprise how comfortable they seem on the biggest of stages. From the battering-ram sonic assault of ‘Sea Within a Sea’ and ‘Who Can Say’ to the crowd-levelling ‘Still Life’ – a black-eyed 'Hey Jude' for the chemical generation – they are breathtakingly on top of their game tonight. Their confidence is boldly underlined by the 15 minute hypnotic rendition of ‘Moving Further Away’ that closes the set out; luminously highlighting a band who are heading towards the top of their game at a quite remarkable rate. Sublime.
There has been a frisson of criticism at some of the At The Drive-In reunion shows over in the US; mostly centring on a perceived lack of enthusiasm. Whether this has stung the band ahead of their first European show in 12 years is unclear, but they’re anything but flaccid tonight. Taut, furious and wired; they storm through a triumphant set that has Cedric Bixler-Zavala alternating between congratulating the crowd in Spanish and baiting them, especially when he half-seriously mocks them for waiting to the end for a magnificent ‘One Armed Scissor’. What they do isn’t necessarily unique any more, but it’s still a profound thrill to see them actually do it.
Bob Dylan is an awkward sod. Now, as a self-confessed Dylanholic, I can say that. And I have absolutely no problem watching him take interesting twists on his old material but to the casual fan or those unacquainted to his particular live quirks, it must be somewhat confusing (my friends last a sum total of 10 minutes). Nevertheless, he’s looking surprisingly sprightly these days in his fedora hat, with his band immaculate as ever. Alternate takes on ‘Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat’, ‘To Ramona’ and ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ vie for attention amongst (relatively, in his case) newer tracks such as ‘Things Have Changed’ and ‘Honest With Me’. But though he admirably retains the attention of most of the huge crowd, it’s the final half-hour that he really justifies himself with splendid renditions of ‘Desolation Row’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ – the latter seeing Dylan strap on a guitar for the first time I’ve ever seen in 15 years of watching him. And then there is the closing duo of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, which incites utter pandemonium amongst those who have waited it out. Awkward, but still one of the all-time granite legends. And when the mood takes him, he can still destroy a crowd. It’s just that he likes you to make you earn it first.
In contrast, there is nothing awkward or taxing about The Maccabees follow-on set. It’s straight down the line, sharp, focused and profoundly enjoyable. Since being convinced round on the band last year, they’ve released one of 2012’s best guitar albums so far and they now seem to be hell-bent on making a beeline for festival headlining slots. Their performance is one of a band completely in touch and confident with their own material, with Orlando Weeks being one of the most genuine and honest frontmen out there. They follow on from one of popular music’s titans, on a massive stage and they look utterly at home there. That tells you a lot about where this band are heading. Hugely impressive.
Katy B’s set on the second stage is a slightly more mixed affair. On the positive side, new track ‘Hot Like Fire’ sounds an immediate classic and the closing triptych of ‘Perfect Stranger’, ‘Katy on a Mission’ and ‘Lights On’ are as good as modern dance-pop gets. But there are too many forced (and entirely familiar) monologues and a stiffly tedious “Battle” between Katy and her DJ which does nothing but lose the attention of the crowd and disrupt the collected energies. She’s better than this, as her songs clearly show. But this wasn’t one of her finest performances.
Surprisingly, Chase and Status finish the night with an tremendous display that rivals The Prodigy in how to do fully played live, ultra-energised dance music. Granted, they haven’t got the material to necessarily back that up but it’s still a terrific live experience to witness, especially the absurdly brilliant take on ‘Killing In The Name Of’ which simply has to be seen to be believed. Certainly not a great band; but possibly a great live one.
The almost unspeakable heat of Saturday (hitting 40 degrees) combined with severe hangovers mean we only get on site in time to be profoundly confused by Jessie J doing something odd with a seal puppet (no, it’s not that… behave). Understandably, we leave that in time to see The Buzzcocks confirming that old punks do indeed die hard. They’re spiked and angry from the start and there’s a celebratory energy around them that drives the show on. It also helps that ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)’, ‘Orgasm Addict’ and ‘What Do I Get?’ still remain timeless, unmatched classics.
As a proud Oasis fan who was disappointingly underwhelmed with the Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds record, I’m not expecting much from tonight. And I’m very much proved wrong. Kicking off surprisingly with ‘(It’s Good) To Be Free’, it’s clear that Noel is out for entertainment rather than forcing his solo stuff down the crowd’s throats with the dangled carrot of the odd classic. Having said that, the energy of the crowd and the skill of his live band mean that the songs from the recent record grow teeth in the live pen; with ‘AKA! What A Life’ and ‘Everybody’s On The Run’ being particularly excellent. But when he finishes with a trio of ‘Half The World Away’, ‘Whatever’ and ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, the place simply erupts. People are screaming their lungs out, DiS is hoisted onto shoulders for the finale and Noel looks genuinely awestruck. A bit special, in a way I could never have possibly expected.
It’s already been touched upon here by Dom Gourlay that The Stone Roses Heaton Park shows were far better than anyone could have expected. Well, from someone who was at the Sunday night of that event, this was twice as impressive. Whether riding on the post-Noel atmosphere or simply as a result of their increased live cohesion and confidence, this was genuinely astonishing. Much has been made of Ian Brown’s improved singing ability on the tour, but tonight truly belongs to John Squire: utterly entrancing the crowd with the skill of a rock guitar maestro and the cool, don’t-give-a-fuck attitude of a man for whom this come naturally and easily. Reni is in dazzling, tribal flow and Mani chooses to downplay the stage antics in favour of refining his massively underrated, funky bass-lines. It’s coherent, epic and brilliantly enjoyable, with ‘Ten Storey Love Song’, ‘Made Of Stone’, ‘Fools Gold’ and a quite miraculous ‘This Is The One’ being standouts, before an epic (and by epic, I mean 15 minutes) version of ‘I Am The Resurrection’ serves up a sky-scraping, sweat-drenched climax. They hug with a joy that belies the belief they are ONLY in this for the money; and to the surprise of everyone – including myself – this reunion is quickly threatening to become something truly, truly memorable. They’ve actually become the massive rock band that people have imagined them to be over the past 16 years.
There are some seriously sore heads on Sunday morning but they’re quickly cleared by a trip to the beach, a dip in the sea and another of those one-litre beers before I make my way back to see The Antlers, who are perfectly placed in the early evening sun. The whole set is a semi-ethereal, semi-dark masterclass; with a beautiful 12-minute version of ‘Putting The Dog To Sleep’ proving one of the highlights of my entire weekend. Whether it was the song, or the thought of heading back to the real world tomorrow, I genuinely had a tear in my eye. Wuss, I know…
The Vaccines take a lot of flak. And that confuses me somewhat. Granted, they’re nothing new. Granted, some of their stuff is a little derivative. But so are many, many bands, including critically lauded ones. So what? When you’ve got songs as good as ‘Post Break-Up Sex’ and ‘If You Wanna’, combined with great live performances and energy, you’re churlish in being overly critical. They’re fun, they’re good at what they do and they put on a superb show. Plus, the two new songs seem keen to head towards an interesting second-album Coral territory. I really don’t see the problem with them, this was great.
Even more impressive are Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs on the Club FiB stage; gathering a massive crowd with their deep house and progressive bass combination. Orlando Higginbottom is clearly an absurdly skilled man and ‘Trouble’, ‘Tapes & Money’ and ‘Garden’ already sound like modern dance staples. Anyone care for a wager that he’ll one day make a genuinely seminal dance album? I’m putting down £20 here…
It’s up to New Orderthen, to close out the festival (we can’t be bothered with David Guetta as we’ve got a 6am get-up to make it to the airport on time). However, initial impressions aren’t encouraging. They’ve clearly bagged a difficult slot; with many having left, many relaxing Pre-Guetta and many simply being too exhausted to head on down. So they gather by far the smallest headlining crowd, which may explain why - after coming on and announcing “Today would have been Ian Curtis’ fifty-sixth birthday” to rapt applause - the opening ‘Crystal’ is jittery and nervous; never really coalescing together. It begins to gel on ‘Regret’ amongst Barney doing his usual yelps and dad-dancing but it’s when they introduce ‘Ceremony’ that everything fully blooms. And from then on, it’s near perfect. A surprising outing of Joy Division’s ‘Isolation’ is astounding; bettered by a sublime pairing of ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ and ‘True Faith’. But even those are nothing compared to the majestic version of ‘Blue Monday’ that could well be the best live version of a dance track I’ve ever heard: samples blending with Stephen Morris’ classic beats, the superb bass work of Tom Chapman (keep quiet Hooky – he’s great) and the magnificent sight of Gillian Gilbert and Barney Sumner stood side-by-side playing the famous keyboard lines. Spellbinding. They close with an elegant, pulsing ‘Temptation’ and a thunderous, bellowed-along-to version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ before the curtain closes on a quite glorious week of fun and music. Benicàssim 2012 – an absolutely magnificent experience. Now, time to get booking the annual leave for next year…