Live review

Primavera Sound 2019 in Barcelona (Sons of Kemet XL, The Comet Is Coming, The Necks, Terry Riley & Gyan Riley)

Sons of Kemet XL

Photo credit: Christian Bertrand

Primavera Sound 2019

(30 May-1 June, Barcelona. Festival Round-Up by AJ Dehany)

Primavera Sound festival is as sprawling and eclectic as ever in its 19th edition, with over 20 stages, with 200,000 attendees over three days, and an inclusive spirit. As the festival’s ethos moves into a more urban contemporary direction, reflecting a zeitgeist more strongly associated with urban pop’s influences including R&B, hip-hop, and Latin, you see fewer of the guitar bands you associate with British festivals, with a range of pop and hiphop acts of seriously impressive cachet including Erykah Badu, Solange, Janelle Monae, Cardi B, Carly Rae Jepsen, Robyn and FKA Twigs.


The festival is distinguished for being an early riser with regard to the Key Change initiative to bring about gender parity in music by 2022. This can be variously interpreted and in this case means the billing is at least 50% female and non-binary while on stage male musicians still tend to predominate. Furthermore, in the case of jazz, the music was represented by only three or four groups made up entirely of men – and two of these groups led by Shabaka Hutchings!

We started out in the Rockdelux Auditori venue within the distinctive blue building of the Museu de Ciències Naturals de Barcelona. The Necks are the well-liked, freely improvising Australian trio, constantly touring but visiting Barcelona for the first time. Their atmospheric playing is a model of restraint and pacing, though familiar now. Terry Riley and Gyan Riley have also been plying their trade as a duo with regular-seeming London gigs in Oval Space. In a succession of guitar-and-synthscapes they jam a homely organic watery psychedelia vamping on scale-like exercises. The changes of feel are regular enough that you don’t get chance here to go into those hallucinogenic reveries associated with minimalism. At points it all feels sweetly twee.

Terry Riley

Photo credit: Dani Canto

While Terry Riley is a figure associated with the musical counterculture of the 1960s, Shabaka Hutchings is much more a figure of the contemporary urban spirit identifying with the direction of Primavera Sound. He has diverse associations, having trained at the Guildhall and a BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist and associated with the clarinet before the tenor sax predominated. He has links with Jazz Re:freshed, Total Refreshment Centre, Steam Down: the London hubs of the nu jazz and the music that freely forms itself out of grime, Caribbean, African, jazz, hiphop, and electronic influences. This is the vital contemporary form of younger jazz expression in the digimodern.

The Comet Is Coming is King Shabaka’s cosmic dance trio with Danalogue and Betamax (which we recently reviewed in Brighton ). At a mid-evening slot around half-one in the morning in a cabaret marquee, a new venue that seemed to be struggling with the demands of the electronically effected saxophone and drums, Shabaka periodically winced as his in-ear monitors overloaded. Stress seemed to drive them on to an impassioned performance that represented them well and fitted in with the festival’s ethos of serious committed music that you can still dance your ass off to.

Sons of Kemet XL were even better received next day in a bright sunshine slot on the Ray Ban stage, an open air amphitheatre that seems to suit every conceivable music. The band was expanded from the core of Shabaka’s tenor and Theon Cross’s tuba with two drummers, to a formation with four drummers: Tom Skinner, Eddie Hick, Max Hallett, Jon Scott. The XL format seemed to free up Shabaka’s playing more than usual. This music is not about the bluesy note bending style of modern jazz influenced by the mid-century Americans, it’s centred on a core discipline of rhythmic propulsion, so it was great to hear Shabaka let rip a couple of times in rarely heard solos demonstrating his considerable chops as a jazz player.

Your Queen Is A Reptile was the Jazz FM Awards Album of the year 2019 and a snippet was featured recently in the epochal Beyoncé Homecoming documentary, giving the music unprecedented exposure. The sense of urban crossover continued with an exciting surprise guest as poet and rapper Joshua Idehen came on for My Queen Is Ada Eastman, (written for Hutchings’s Barbadian great-grandmother). Wearing a Good Immigrant jumper (referencing the essay collection edited by Nikesh Shukla, where 21 British writers of colour discuss race and immigration in the UK), he rapped intensely about migrant experience, outlining the state of this watershed point in our history as nations snagged on the past: “We know your future!” Jazz was always and will always be political. Deal with it. The vital and exciting confluence of musical, rhythmic and political concerns of Sons of Kemet’s musical diaspora, while associated with London, felt very much part of an international social view.

But Shabaka is a man who thinks even bigger than that. At the only break in a continuously energetic one-hour set, he asked us to dig this: “If you take one thing away from this concert it’s that we want you to meditate daily and teach your kids to meditate. And while you’re meditating, think about what’s around you and how you can see it differently.” It’s the same sort of motivation for Primavera Sound seizing the initiative to set an example for other festivals with its championing of gender parity as “the New Normal” and its firm line on LGBTQI+ safe space (“Nobody is Normal”) plus its forward-thinking approach to respecting history while remaining cautious about nostalgia, championing the urban-facing music of now, and making a unifying social statement for troubled and insular times.

AJ Dehany is based in London. Website: ajdehany.co.uk

Categories: Live review

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