2023 was a landmark year for Primavera Sound Porto: the tenth coming of the festival was also its first without their lifelong naming sponsor, the first four-day long edition at Porto’s Parque da Cidade, and a new main stage and festival grounds’ layout were tested for the first time. Ditching the gorgeous, secluded meadow where the ATP stage once sounded like sacrilege. But the new layout, including previously fenced off areas of the park that are closer to the sea, undoubtedly makes things smoother in a festival that started to feel too crowded, as per last year’s experience. We could do without the smell near the new main stage, but let’s blame the weather for that.
Rosalía was the big pop name this year, and she delivered, although it looked like she was paying more attention to the cameras than to the audience in front of her. It was her collaborator Tokischa (late night on Friday) and Honduran sensation Isabella Lovestory who really brought the house down with their infectious perreo – extra props for the latter doing it while New Order played a seemingly lacklustre show, plagued with technical issues. Speaking of late night performers, the hilariously late 2:20am slot did not stop Jockstrap from closing off the second day of the festival with a bang with their mad genre mix (and Georgia Ellery’s stunning stage presence), nor the Drain Gang lads from closing the festival on a high note. And it was an honor to see one of The Comet is Coming‘s last ever performances, even if the sky seemed like it was falling down over a sea of clearly underdressed people.
On the guitar side of things, sadly, we didn’t get to the festival on time for the entire The Beths show, but we’ve seen enough to know they’re the present and the future of indie rock (hats off to their giant fish head stage prop, too). Wednesday proved they’re the most promising band at turning younger indie audiences into country since Taylor Swift, and that Rat Saw God is the best album of 2023 so far. Karly Hartzman knows how to grab a festival audience, too: if there’s a band that successfully grabbed the opportunity to convert a bunch of people into new fans here, it’s them. My Morning Jacket was one of our top picks for this year, and their show was still impressive, but plagued with questionable production choices – more on that below. A greatest hits-style setlist (focused on their albums from the 00s) for a lukewarm audience that was mostly there because they’re not into hip hop (only Pusha T was playing at the same time).
Karate had the tough task of playing in the nicest stage of the festival for a crowd that mostly had no idea who they were; that didn’t stop set closer “This Day Next Year” from being one of the most beautiful moments of the festival. Doug Martsch’s Built to Spill are the opposite of a festival band – the band looked like they didn’t want to be there last time they took to the big stage at 6pm – but new band members Melanie Radford and Teresa Esguerra inject new life into our favorite songs (what a great, late 1-2 punch with “Going Against your Mind” and “Carry the Zero”). And, of course, although the festival’s audience is shifting fast (and their loyal fans aren’t immune to ageing) and there was a total of zero crowd movement, the Shellac show is always one of the most memorable moments of the year.
Now, on to the top 5.
5. Gilla Band
Every time they came up in conversation during the festival they motivated an eye roll followed by a remark about silly band name changes. But only the name has changed for Gilla Band: their live show is still impressive as it ever was, despite the annoyingly low vocals of the first half of the show and the fact that they belong to a peculiar group of acts whose best track is, well, a cover. But it’s a monument of a cover, a live show staple that we hope they never get tired of: “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage” is an absolute banger, the highlight of any night spent in the company of the loud irishmen (this includes their tour supporting IDLES last year). But it wasn’t the only one: The Talkies‘ 1-2 punch of “Going Norway” and “Shoulderblades” made the crowd move, and set closer “Eight Fivers” (out of their latest album) got them shouting along. Shit clothes.
Rain and sunshine and more rain and maybe a fair bit of sunshine could have plagued this show, but this show was one of those (rare) cases where the weather circumstances only made it more memorable. At this point of their career, Alvvays are a band with no filler on their live shows, even when playing a new album (which IMO wasn’t as strong as Antisocialites) almost in its entirety. Sure, the superlative “Archie, Marry Me” and “Dreams Tonite” were the two big highlights of the show, but still didn’t feel out of place among new songs like “Pomeranian Spinster” or “Lottery Noises”.
3. The Mars Volta
It was 2008. My fandom was peaking and I spent all my savings traveling to Milan and London to finally see my favorite band – still two of the best shows I’ve ever seen, the stuff of dreams for a 19 year old nerd. The Mars Volta would return to Portugal later in the summer for a festival show at Paredes de Coura, and that was the last time we saw them before they called it quits in 2012. The best thing we can say about their 2023 incarnation is that their new live show isn’t too far behind yesteryear’s steamrolling machine. Yes, the guitar solos are toned down, it’s a much more sober show. But this enables the band’s musicianship to shine through in a much cleaner way, Cedric’s voice has aged like a fine wine. And so did the audience, except for those two dudes that had to be taken off the front. It was a fun experience to be able to see absolute classics like “Cicatriz ESP” or “L’Via L’Viaquez” while not being an overexcited teenager surrounded by overexcited teenagers.
“At 5pm, will anyone even show up? And even if people do, how many really are PUP fans? There’s not much in this festival for punk kids, you know.” Well, it wasn’t the most crowded show of the festival, but it ended up being the rowdiest – for good reason. As you can see on the internet, there’s no such thing as a boring PUP show, not even if most of the audience are curious casuals that didn’t know what they were signing up for. Under a scorching sun – a first at this year’s festival – the Canadians ripped banger after banger (“we only have 45min, let’s see how many songs we can fit here”) and it didn’t take long for the pit to open (on a trip to their debut album, with “Reservoir”). There were zero dead moments in this show, and it showed: unlike most shows in the festival, the audience only kept growing. And they were rewarded with the ecstatic, ripe for the singalong “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will”/”DVP” combo, off 2016’s excellent The Dream Is Over. The kids are alright.
I’ve been going to at least two big summer festivals per year (plus countless smaller festivals throughout the year) since 2006. To put it simply, Unwound’s show at Primavera Sound Porto 2023 was the best festival show I’ve ever seen, and one of the most incredible concerts I went to, in a “you had to be there to understand why” kind of way. And this is coming from someone who spent more time with latter phase Unwound, but just saw a set focused on their early records – more than half of the show was spent between 1993’s debut Fake Train and 94’s follow-up New Plastic Ideas, never really delving, for example, into their majestic swan song Leaves Turn Inside You. But it was during the trio of Repetition songs that the show really took off: the controlled explosion of “Corpse Pose”, the crescendo leading to guitar freakout on “Go to Dallas and Take a Left”, the shouts of “Entertainment!” at the coda of, well, “For Your Entertainment”.
After the “Kantina” / “Were, Are, and Was or Is” combo, it all culminated in an ocean of feedback where the band members, one by one, took the freshly cut flowers that adorned the large Vodafone stage and offered them at the small but devoted audience, a poetic end to the show and the festival. And, at the end, hearing multiple people share how silently emotional they all got during the show (and failing to explain why) only heightened the sense of having collectively shared a rare moment. Not only in music festivals, but in shows in general – in an age where the concept of concert etiquette seems to be dying out.
For us that have been going to various iterations of Primavera for almost fifteen years, Primavera was never about the big headliners, the names that, by themselves, sell half of the capacity of a given festival day. It was always about these moments you’d find hard to replicate anywhere else: the smaller crowds of music nerds congregating at 2am to see a band they never thought they would, thanks to Primavera’s pull to bring them out of retirement. Or to bring certain bands to countries where no booker would even think of (this was probably our only chance to see My Morning Jacket in Portugal, unless Pearl Jam bring them along again). This was the first time we thought this type of audience was severely outnumbered by casual festival goers saving their spot in front of the main stage for the big names. As the festival expands, we can only hope the former keep being catered to. After all, they were the ones that allowed the festival to thrive in the first place.
Unlike in the Netherlands, my adopted country where every single organisation swears by post-event surveys – and I hope they read it, because certainly I take the time – Portuguese festivals seldom ask their visitors for feedback. Let’s pretend this is a feedback form.
- It might have been pure luck, but the timetable looked just right this time. No major clashes between bands with similar audiences, a timetable structure that ensured that people could maximise the number of full shows they could see instead of seeing bits of shows, short walks between stages with consecutive shows.
- The old ATP stage (then Porto., then Binance) is gone, and that makes us sad. But the new Plenitude stage’s location is hard to beat. Halfway between the new main stage and the two amphitheatre stages, it’s a stone’s throw from everything (including the Bits area). Big W.
- Although some old favorites are gone, the food court is still the best out of any festival I’ve ever seen. We wonder when will the Barcelona organisation take notes and step up. (Plus: I can’t believe how many years it took me to realise the Port-soaked caramelised onion Guedes sandwich is the best of the bunch.)
- The festival did the right thing by completely ignoring the online backlash between the first night and the beginning of the second day of the festival. It is urgent to analyse the instagram profiles of people who were begging for an entire festival day to be cancelled because of a rain forecast – that’s the audience you don’t want at your festival. It is absolutely not necessary to pander to selfish people that get their festival experience ruined by having the extreme inconvenience to wear waterproof clothing and shoes instead of the outfit they dreamed about. Just don’t show up if you don’t want to.
- No half-assed performances, at least that I’ve seen. This is a festival where artists seem to be genuinely happy to play at and where you can still see some of them peacefully hanging out despite their busy schedules.
- All the negativity surrounding this year’s edition can only be found online (including below) – everyone I talked to at the festival, from staff to visitors, was an absolute joy to spend time with.
- The new main stage was a bit of a failure, especially the lack of a natural slope that allows for a better viewing experience (like in the two former main stages, Vodafone and Super Bock). But we’re giving the organisation the benefit of the doubt – it must be challenging to get the landscaping done properly when you’re expanding. Hopefully some improvements will be done to the area. But what we’d really like to see go away is the VIP section: a bizarre concept, a relic of the past that has no place in a festival that claims to be inclusive, a reminder that richer people who pay up deserve to have a better experience than you. But as we saw in the Down the Rabbit Hole debacle, backlash should come from festivalgoers themselves; it seems like the Primavera crowd had no qualms with it. Maybe they’re aspiring to, one day, be one of the lucky few that can see the main stage from higher up or from the VIP-reserved section up front, laughing at the pleb.
- Headliners playing around 1 am, some shows dragging on until 3/4 am. It might make some sense in a rural festival where everyone is stuck in a village for three days, the age of your audience ranges from 16 to 30 and nobody lives around the festival grounds. The amount of complaints, both from locals who could barely get some sleep and from 30+ attendees dying to go home at a decent time, was a bit sad.
- My Morning Jacket are an absolute rarity in European stages, known for their spectacular, sprawling 2h+ live shows playing whatever they feel like from their extensive catalog. They just did a 2h45min set at Bonnaroo on their return home. Even though they’re obviously not as massive here as they are in the US, giving them a one-hour slot at 7pm for people who are already in front of the main stage waiting for Pet Shop Boys is the music equivalent of a football club buying Lionel Messi only for the manager to have him play at left back and sub him out at half time. It could have been the best show of the festival, but it felt like we’ve only seen half of it. And don’t get me started on proper fans having to see the show from far away, thanks to a sparsely populated VIP area.
- The old, covered Pitchfork tent was great in providing cover from the elements while still allowing people to enjoy sunlight, but it’s understandable that it won’t come back. It’s a bit of a waste, then, to have a covered clubbing area, Bits, fenced off for the entire day, especially with inclement weather. The stage could perfectly serve as a hangout space during the day, hosting talks, local DJs and bands to provide some extra variety to people who clearly didn’t want to see any of two acts playing at a given time and, let’s be honest with it, kept ruining the shows for people who actually wanted to see them, which brings me to the last rant.
- My peak “people lost any type of concert etiquette after the pandemic” moment of this festival came from a couple, standing dead center about five rows from the front at the Karate show. They clearly did not have time to explore the lineup beforehand, and decided to go listen to Julia Holter on Spotify. Two minutes later (and ten, and twenty, and thirty minutes later…), in the same spot, a walking beer vendor bumps his keg against everyone standing in the way while shouting “cerveeeeeeja!” during one of the quietest shows of the day. Sure, we can just take the loss and accept that festivals are simply not the perfect place to actually listen to music. But we’d be letting the bad ones win, and there needs to be many more of us than there are of them.