Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
As a serial visitor to (and now resident of) Barcelona it might seem surprising that this was my first Sónar since 2007. Prior to relocating here it was always an either-or choice with Primavera Sound that, given the eye-popping quality of the latter’s line-ups in recent years, Sónar just couldn’t win – but when brostep irritant Skrillex was confirmed as one of Sónar 2013’s premier attractions, I decided that this was the year to “challenge” (i.e.: confirm) my long-held suspicions that Sónar was gradually jumping the shark, by actually going to the thing.
This 20th anniversary edition of Sónar was partly notable for Sónar by Day being moved away from its traditional home at MACBA (Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art) to the much larger Fira Montjuic exhibition centre near Placa Espanya. This switch to a much larger and somewhat more out-of-the-way venue was understandably met with some scepticism in the lead-up to the festival, but by the end the consensus seemed positive. Much-increased space for the crowds to move in was an obvious boon in the June heat, and the place is undeniably striking aesthetically. Certain architectural features of the large outdoor courtyard area – Middle Eastern-style onion-domes dotting the perimeter roof, and stark, sand-coloured walls bleached further by the ubiquitous sunshine – created the extremely odd feeling that Sónar by Day had somehow contrived a move from MACBA to Mecca.
Gold Panda live at Sónar 2013.
First up for us at Sónar by Day was Gold Panda’s live set in the outdoor SónarVillage area. The popping percussion, lush electronics and shimmering strings of his hardware-only sets are always a huge pleasure, and this late-afternoon show with the sun still blazing was even more fun than most. New album cuts such as Brazil and We Work Nights sat beautifully alongside older favourites like Snow & Taxis, and Sónar was officially off to a flyer.
Sunburn-awareness and a hankering for some luxurious New York house then took us up to the enclosed SónarDome area for a cool-down and Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani’s live set in their much-loved Metro Area guise. Miura and Orange Alert inevitably stood out, but didn’t overshadow the rest of a supremely enjoyable hour.
“If I was asked to sum up my feelings [on Kraftwerk] in just one unforgivably trite soundbyte, that soundbyte would probably be: ‘This show ‘werks on every level’.”
If Metro Area’s music is luxurious, the sumptuous nu-disco peddled by affable Norwegian pair Lindstrom & Todd Terje, who closed out Thursday’s Sónar by Day at SónarVillage, is downright decadent. If several thousand people delightedly shouting “do-do-doo-do-do-do-doo-do-do-do” counts as a Big Singalong Moment (which it does), then their triumphant airing of Terje’s classic Inspector Norse was Sónar’s first Big Singalong Moment. And boy was it fun.
With Sónar by Night only happening on the Friday and Saturday nights we busied ourselves with Leisure System and Numbers on Thursday evening and then returned (I’d love to write the word “fresh” here, but sadly I can’t) to Fira Montjuic on Friday in time to see Matthew Herbert’s DJ set, which was most notable for its surprising if not unwelcome denouement of Kelis’s Milkshake. Jamie Lidell – as jovial and likable a man as electronic music has to offer – was next with a (largely) one-man live set that touched on his great change-of-direction white funk record Multiply as well as his 70s funk and 80s electro-tinged new Jamie Lidell album.
Lindstrom and Todd Terje live at Sónar 2013.
Much though I enjoyed Herbert and Lidell my post-Thursday torpor was only really shaken off with the arrival of Modeselektor at SónarVillage. After an unbilled half-hour set by their friend Siriusmo, Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary took the reins, treating us to Moderat’s Rusty Nails and their own Evil Twin before asking the rhetorical question: “Barcelona, do you want some champagne?” and spraying several bottles of the stuff over a mouths-agape crowd. A warning for the first ten rows at future Modeselektor festival performances: you may get wet.
What Scottish readers will recognise as a “rammy” for the shuttle bus from Sónar by Day to the Night venue at the gigantic Fira Gran Via space in the west of the city meant we missed the first quarter of Kraftwerk’s eagerly awaited 3D show in SónarClub, the Night venue’s main indoor stage. With a running time of two hours, however, we certainly got the brilliantly realised jist. All Night attendees were issued with 3D glasses on entry, and the big-screen graphics accompanying the group’s greatest hits – The Man-Machine, The Robots, Autobahn and many others – made for an infinitely more immersive experience than I’ve ever had with any 3D film. Radio-Activity (the words for which now incorporate Fukushima along with Harrisburg, Sellafield, Hiroshima and Chernobyl) now comes complete with vibrant 3D anti-nuclear imagery, Trans-Europe Express with a serene journey following a Volkswagen Beetle down a computerised highway, and Tour de France with sinew-straining footage from races old and new. If I was asked to sum up my feelings in just one unforgivably trite soundbyte, that soundbyte would probably be: “This show ‘werks on every level”. See it if you can.
Kraftwerk live at Sónar 2013.
There followed a brief detour to catch some of Oneman in SónarLab (one of the two sprawling outdoor areas, the other being SónarPub), whose DJ set was one of a bewilderingly high number I saw over the weekend to incorporate a hot-from-the-pressing-plant new jam by the name of Blue Monday by young Mancunian upstarts New Order. Major Lazer’s show immediately afterwards in SónarClub was pure entertainment, from Diplo taking to the stage by rolling over the crowd in a giant transparent Flaming Lips-style hamster ball, to stage dancers exhorting the entire crowd to throw their shirts in the air, via frenzied versions of gems such as Pon De Floor and Sweet.
“Hawtin jumped delightedly about the booth with his new best pal Skrillex, who’d popped up from nowhere.”
After a taste of Maya Jane Coles’s excellent DJ set in SónarPub as part of the Richie Hawtin Presents Enter. triple-header, it was back to SónarClub for Skrillex, who, as you may have guessed, I was all revved up to be terribly unkind about. The sight, however, of a by-all-accounts delightful little man in a Barcelona football shirt standing atop his spacecraft cockpit-style DJ booth, leading the crowd through a gloriously cheesy intro of a dubstepped-up version of Queen’s Barcelona and then launching the aforementioned tens of thousands of people into a strain of saucer-eyed pogo-hopping delirium, was just too endearing. It was fun, and I am not ashamed.
Last up on Friday was Hawtin himself in SónarPub. The 5-7am slots in the outdoor parts of Sónar, during which day breaks and consistent quality is needed to stave off thoughts of horizontality, are tailor-made for the real heavyweights of house and techno, and Hawtin is nothing if not that. The utterly magical culmination of his set came at around 6.30am when the huge crowd was suddenly showered in black confetti, everybody hugged everybody else and said the word “wow” in various languages, and Hawtin jumped delightedly about the booth with his new best pal Skrillex, who’d popped up from nowhere for the big moment.
“Poignant mop-haired electro-romance has never sounded so good.”
After a sleep best described as “fitful” and a quick shower it was straight back to Sónar By Day on Saturday in time for Chromatics’ 5.30pm slot at SónarVillage. With Glass Candy having played Primavera Sound a few weeks ago my Johnny Jewel cup has runneth over of late, and if the frequency of his bands’ appearances here was to increase to the rate of, say, one per day, I would be the last to complain. The silkily gorgeous likes of Kill For Love, Hands In The Dark and These Streets Will Never Look The Same slayed me as they always do, and their covers of Neil Young and Kate Bush confirmed the kill. Poignant mop-haired electro-romance has never sounded so good.
Warp signings Darkstar’s downbeat psychedelic pop made for an interesting diversion in the appropriately darkened SónarHall area, and Hudson Mohawke and Lunice’s closing strobes-and-bass-soaked live show as TNGHT was the smart choice for those seeking an energy injection ahead of Saturday’s Night festivities.
Laurent Garnier live at Sónar 2013.
And “festivities” are exactly what greeted those who arrived early enough at Fira Gran Via to catch the reformed Jurassic 5. DJ Nu-Mark and co’s reputation as a fantastic live act is, it turns out, richly deserved: perfect versions of the likes of Concrete Schoolyard and I Am Somebody, boundless onstage energy and easy-going crowd interaction comprised a close-to-perfect package. With Wu-Tang Clan’s great Primavera Sound performance fresh in the memory, it has been an excellent few weeks to be a fan of classic hip hop in Catalunya.
Skream’s DJ set at SónarPub incorporated Donna Summer’s I Feel Love and Xpansions’ rave classic Take Your Body Higher into an hour that was set high enough on the pop scale to get our energy levels to the right point to tackle the final straight head-on. Whatever the relative charms of Seth Troxler and Luciano, who appeared at the same time on other stages, Laurent Garnier was the only choice for that bleary but frequently euphoric final couple of hours. Appearing in the same SónarPub area that Richie Hawtin had so effectively ruled the previous evening, Garnier’s set was – of course – a flawless two hours of house. His own classics The Man With The Red Face and Jacques In The Box; Henrik Schwarz’s remix of Code 718’s Equinox; Kolsch’s beautiful, piano-driven Der Alte; an inspired closing one-two of DJ Rolando’s Jaguar and The Prodigy’s Out Of Space – he simply never put a foot wrong. “Thank you Sónar, amazing!”, were his simple words as Jaguar rang out through the morning light. No, thank you, Laurent. I really wish you were my cool French uncle.
And that – with a spiralling sleep deficit, ringing ears, aching feet and a disturbing okayness with the continued existence of Skrillex – was Sónar 2013. If I’m not still living out in Barcelona come 2014 I’m going to have an awfully difficult decision on my hands.