Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, TV on the Radio, Oasis, Friendly Fires - Fabulous FIB: Benicassim 2009
Tim Miller 03/08/2009
There are better ways to spend a Friday night than hiding from gale-force winds huddled in an empty paddling pool at 2am while horizontal torrents of sand and dust whip the skin from your face and loose tents fly overhead. Preferably, you'd be getting pissed round a campfire having cheered on Kings of Leon earlier, given that's why you're out in the Spanish seaside town of Benicàssim in the first place. But, as has been well documented, the Friday night of Benicàssim Festival was something of a disaster.
Luckily, it was a minor blip in an otherwise stellar journey...
All festivals should be held in July, in a location sandwiched between stretches of picture-perfect Mediterranean coastline and mountains, in mid-thirties sun under deep blue skies. And should last a week. Why endure cold grey morning trips to Reading's Lidl and McDonalds when you can get fresh watermelon and ice creams every 100 yards on your walk to the beach? When that heat hits you stepping off the plane - real heat too, even well into the evening - you're reminded this is a far cry from the usual music festival scenario. Increasingly, European festivals are going from strength to strength, attracting the biggest names in music and the biggest crowds from across the world; some 250,000 people in total were expected over the four evenings of music, with close to two-thirds camping for the whole week. It's more than a festival, Benicàssim; the 8-day pass gives the crowds free reign over the otherwise quiet-looking town. But after three days of pure sunshine spent flitting between the sea and supermarkets, the largely young and English-speaking invasion wanted some music. Owing to the heat, however, the music doesn't start until 8pm - or you'd actually have deaths at the front of the stage.
The late starts mean the headline acts are scheduled around 11pm/midnight; first night up (Thursday) sees global rock monoliths Oasis, preceded by the Mystery Jets; the latter's set was bright and jangly, though for some reason oddly quiet. Perhaps it was teething problems, being first night and all. But if there's one set of brother's you don't want to annoy, it's the Gallaghers. And it was clearly past their bedtime.
Prior to their appearance, though, it suddenly becomes a lot more squashed. It seems no one's bothered with the tactic of standing through earlier bands to afford a decent spot for your favourite, but just piled into the crowd about 15 minutes before they're due on. And when Oasis do stalk onstage - and kick into Rock 'n' Roll Star - things get suitably chaotic. The ebb and flow of heaving human bodies, of which there must be close to 100,000, surges in every direction, and it is well into the Manchester lags' third song before things get remotely calm. Two of my friends have drowned in the sea of faces and are nowhere to be seen, while one mate I do get back to says he's been stuck facing the wrong way for five minutes. Benicàssim 'proper' starts here.
Problems punctuate the Oasis set, however, and the least of them is Liam's ridiculous sweat-drenched trenchcoat that looks as though it was purchased from Millets. Scores of people are scaling the scaffolding high above toilets about half way back from the stage for a better view, and the band are eventually interrupted by an 'official' who warns them the show will not continue unless they come down. Noel feebly echoes these sentiments before muttering something about 'carrying on anyway'. The next thing to go wrong is for the electrics to cut out halfway through Wonderwall. Though the crowd finish the song for them, that the exact same thing happened at Wembley on their recent sell out tour is too coincidental for me, especially after they launch back into the crowdpleaser to play it through in full. However when the electrics break down again during Champagne Supernova of all songs, prompting Liam to scowl, “They can put a fucking man on the moon but they can't sort this shit out”, I'm prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.
But as the band are content to stand and snarl through 18 odd songs, having seen Oasis twice in the last 12 months now increasingly I find I'm outgrowing the childish faux-belligerence of Liam, the sneering indifference of the rest of the band, and firming up the opinion that they haven't released anything approaching a decent album since Be Here Now. And even that paled in comparison to its two predecessors. Oasis remain the imposing rock giants that they were in the '90s, but it's because their '90s songs are keeping them there. They, and their market, are not getting younger, and while they defined and inspired a generation a decade ago, as a group today Oasis are all but irrelevant.
The hit-filled set had been something of a marathon; tiring, dehydrating and physically punishing, and barring a quick stop off in the Fiberclub Tent to catch the last of Telepathe, whose epileptic, glitchy electro sounded wonderfully fresh, that was it for the night's music. Little did we know that it wouldn't be 'til Saturday that we next caught some bands.
At about 7:30pm Friday night, something bad happens. One of my group of seven friends breaks her mirror. Then within ten seconds of this, somehow a wandering fellow camper stumbling into our tent village, in search of cigarette filters, steps on and breaks another mirror. It's like something out of Final Destination. You don't break a mirror if you can help it - certainly not TWO in the same breath. Coincidence or not, about an hour later the wind gets up - and for 'gets up', read 'tears down over the mountains and relentlessly through the Benicàssim camp site, arena and town for 12 hours straight'.
Winds at Benicassim
With the blazing July sun in mind, the campsite is sheltered by a series of white tarpaulins wired in long sections across sturdy metal poles. But on the Friday night these have turned from protection to peril: partially ripped from their moorings, they flail wildly like giant bedsheets down on to the heads of those camping underneath. Hasty repair work gets underway as Beni punters clamber up the poles and try to secure the swathes of tarpaulin back using ropes, cable ties and gaffa tape. While valiant, within minutes these efforts are again blown aside - and the decision is taken to weigh down the tents as best as possible, go see some bands and hope for the best.
Paul Weller is battling against the elements bravely, 40 minutes later than billed and with a raging fire weighing heavily on the minds of most, the billowing smoke from wasteland metres away a constant reminder of the surreal conditions. Over the roaring gale The Changingman sounds decent. But after half an hour, with clay-coloured dust blinding everyone and the main stage roof coming loose at one side, the authorities pull Weller and his band from the stage. Cue thousands of people huddling in groups, their hair, faces and clothes slowly turning into one rusty-brown tone, vainly hoping for some miracle and Kings of Leon to appear. Benicàssim officials step up to the mic sporadically, announcing in Spanish and English that they are doing everything possible but are, basically, at the mercy of the wind if anything's going to go ahead. At some point the electrics go off around the whole arena, and only the main stage is alight. Then, sometime around half 11, Tom Tom Club (who? Errr... ex-Talking Heads husband and wife project) are sent out for 20 minutes or so - acting as Kings of Leon's nightwatchmen - and though they throw themselves commendably into a bouncy, DJ-driven set, it is decided too dangerous to allow anyone to perform and they too are removed, apologetically, from the stage. Minutes later, the inevitable is announced. No more music, and no Kings of Leon. Blind, choking and dirty, a devastated crowd slope off dejectedly to see the destruction that's taken place on the campsite.
Which brings this lengthy review back to where it started - huddling from the gales in a paddling pool. In some ways, that night, it felt safer outside the tents: at least you could see what was going on, stick together with fellow campers and take evasive action. Sleep was nigh on impossible, but as the wind showed no signs of blowing itself out, people reluctantly crawled into their flimsy tents and tried not to think of what the site would look like come morning... Thankfully, dawning sunny, clear and hot again, things didn't seem, and indeed actually weren't, that bad. For most. For others, tents, gazebos, chairs, clothing and litter adorned the lines of bushes and fencing. The news filtered around that areas of the campsite had been evacuated; that people had left their tents for dead, even, and gone into town in search of a cheap hotel room. At the halfway stage of the Benicàssim Festival, musically at least, things had been less than perfect.
The second half was a different story, however. After hastily drawn up signs confirmed that Kings of Leon could not reschedule due to a gig in Switzerland, it also transpired that Lily Allen and Foals were missing through illness. But Lily Allen's loss was Maximo Park's gain, as having missed out the night before, they were able to stick around and fill in on the Saturday. Paul Smith and co. are obviously delighted to be having a second chance to play, and launch themselves into an energetic hour of snappy guitar riffs, tight rhythms and a smattering of singalong choruses, including Apply Some Pressure, Our Velocity and several from decent new LP Quicken The Heart. It's a moot genre to try and shoehorn bands into now, but if you'll allow me to suggest, the Maximo boys certainly put the pop into Britpop. And as the starter for Saturday night, it was all the better for it.
Following them, though, were 'breakthrough' band of 2008, Elbow. It is probably not unfair to say that prior to last year's breathtaking The Seldom Seen Kid, Elbow were a critically successful but mainstreamly vague band - in, perhaps, the same league as Idlewild or Spiritualized - and that their Mercury Music Prize win probably more than contributed to Seldom's stratospheric uptake. Since its release, they've reach an entirely new plane altogether, not least when they performed their entire fourth album with the BBC Concert Orchestra for one of the most majestic recordings in modern televised pop music. And it's with palpable excitement that I and thousands more await, and then greet, Guy Garvey and his band, complemented on stage by strings and brass and percussion players.
After opening with a speech in broken but well-executed Spanish from Garvey, once more Elbow are on majestic form, dispatching seven glorious tracks from The Seldom Seen Kid; the opening quadruplet including the brass stabs of Starlings, the bluesy swagger of Grounds For Divorce and the delicate beauty of Mirrorball, plus the earthmoving indie ballad The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Drive and of course the obligatory, 21st century Hey Jude One Day Like This. Thrown in for good measure is the title track from third album Leaders of the Free World - introduced, however, as Raise the Thief - and all too soon, Elbow are waving goodbye. The unconverted have been converted, the converted have been spoiled, and every pound the trip has cost seems more than worth it.
Despite that Festival-defining performance, tonight's 'headliners' are in fact Franz Ferdinand, and they're slotted in at half past midnight. This turns out to be a shrewd move - for when the four Scots bound on to the stage to thousands of faces lit up by the huge main stage lights, their growing back catalogue of irresistibly spiky, dancey indie tunes are the perfect foil to Elbow's earlier grace, the perfect segue into the early hours of Sunday morning. The crowd bounce as one to Take Me Out, punch the air rhythmically to Do You Wanna, sing nostalgically to The Dark of the Matinee and explode in raptures as Michael and This Fire close the proceedings, the latter ending in a clattering collaboration of band members pounding the hell out of drums. The Franz would have no doubt looked at the other three headliners and considered themselves the underdog of the pack, and the sheer positive energy with which they throw themselves into their headline slot renders them the star attraction of the festival. The Killers tomorrow could play JUST Smiths covers all night and they still wouldn't top Franz Ferdinand on this form. (Well, it actually would top it in my eyes, but since that happening was as likely as going back to my tent and finding Lily Allen inside, it was a fairly safe judgement to make).
Buoyed by the excellence of the past two and a half hours, several of the group decide to stay on for 2ManyDJs's 2 - 4am set, which was uniquely euphoric. The two DJs somehow manipulate for two straight hours a complex array of equipment to produce an incredible mash up of contemporary and classic smash hits, slipping in between songs and merely glancing at others with unrivalled expertise. Memorable moments included a brilliant section of Kid Cudi's Day and Night going into Zombie Nation, followed by a disguised MGMT's Kids, and their Nirvana remix that brought the evening to a resounding close, complete with ticker tape and streamers showering the ecstatic crowd. This was my first introduction proper to 2ManyDJs, and for uplifting festival moments like that I couldn't recommend them highly enough.
Suddenly, it was the last day. A week we'd been in Spain, all Mediterranean weather, sunburn and guitars, and we'd arrived at the final, curtain-closing set of acts. Not a collection to shake a stick at either; the Sunday night threw up the first real clashes of the festival (not a huge surprise, incidentally, as there were only two stages and one tent for live acts): White Lies or TV on the Radio? Well, the latter, clearly. The Killers or Peter Doherty? Well...this was a little more tricky, but you can't really go to a festival and not catch the final main stage headliners can you? Actually you could, but you never know what to expect with the ex-Libertines frontman (more than accomplished by all accounts, though), so the Nevada band win out. Before them, it's the eclectic funk-soul-dance troupe TV On the Radio, whose third album Dear Science won 'best of' lists left right and centre in 2008 - and rightly so. It makes up the bulk of their set tonight, the classic stomper Wolf Like Me from 2006's Return To Cookie Mountain splitting it up: singer Tunde Adebimpe shimmying across the stage, breathlessly spitting and crooning the often-soaring vocals to the band's songs, ably assisted by bassist and alternative vocalist Gerard A Smith. Super-producer David Sitek, meanwhile, keeps quietly to himself on guitar, often facing away from the crowd or joking with his bandmates onstage. TV On the Radio are a serious band, and one producing a standout canon of albums, but they also know how to have fun and as the sun sets behind the mountains, their classy and assured set is brilliantly worked to begin the evening's music.
Going for a wander to find some lost friends, I feel sorry for The Psychedelic Furs. Awaiting their appearance on the main stage can be no more than 1,000 people at an absolute maximum. In fact it seems so deserted and litter strewn you could be forgiven for thinking the music had finished for the day. But over on the second outdoor stage, Mercury-nominated Friendly Fires were about to begin, and there was no time for sympathy: this was where most of the crowd were. The four young lads' stripped back indie, sitting somewhere between Silent Alarm-era Bloc Party and Foals, comes complete with pretty spectacular lasers, the first time in the Festival that the lights have accompanied the music to such an extent. It makes for a proper spectacle, and, in truth, helps disguise the fact that Friendly Fires's itchy disco-tinged sound, while fizzing with energy, is rather short of tunes.
When they're done, the majority of people move en masse towards the main arena, where it turns out The Furs have drawn plenty of support after all, and are jamming themselves into the ground by way of a finale to their set. It's another past-midnight slot again for tonight's headliners, but when Brandon Flowers leads them out, to much excitement from the crowd, they seem in the mood to entertain. It seems so obvious now, but I hadn't even considered that The Killers would begin with Human. When they do it's suddenly the most natural thing in the world. Its unmistakable opening bassline, simple melody and the second verse's burst into life set the pace and mood for the duration. The American blockbusters stick to a pretty crowd-friendly formula, dispatching the favourites at regular intervals around some pretty expansive sounding, Bowie-esque pop songs from third album Day & Age and the best of the mixed bag that was Sam's Town. Somebody Told Me kicks into gear third in the show, a Joy Division cover (Shadowplay) sounds bold, Mr Brightside is unsurprisingly anthemic. For the encore, the band bring out Jenny Was A Friend of Mine, reminding why they sounded so grand back on 2004's Hot Fuss, and finish with When You Were Young, a wall of flames lighting up the sky. It's by no means a classic festival performance, but like the showman they are, it's a showpiece and it serves very well to close out the main attractions at this year's Benicàssim.
A group of us manage to find some ongoing music to see us through 'til 6am and dawn, making the most of the last night. It had been a holiday of sorts, and a real conjoining of different types too: the first half of the week saw glorious beach days, drinking around tents and meeting new friends. Fully familiarised with the new surroundings, by the time the four-day festival side of things got underway everyone was prepared to launch themselves into a wild extravaganza of celebrating great music in great atmospheres with great people. It's an extensive festival, four long and late nights in a row, but hardly a chore in such fantastic surroundings. Thrown in for good measure were hurricane winds and major act cancellations, but nothing could dampen the spirits of the hundreds of thousands of music fans travelled from all over the world (but mainly the UK, it seemed) to experience one of the fastest-growing and reputable festivals worldwide. It's got everything going for it, and somehow the thought of putting up with a drizzly August weekend or two feet of mud while trying to catch your favourite bands seems unacceptable. All festivals should be held in July, in a location sandwiched between stretches of picture-perfect Mediterranean coastline and mountains, in mid-thirties sun under deep blue skies.
All festivals should be like Benicàssim.