Portugal’s scaled-down version of a major European summer music festival offers some bold musical choices and the chance to explore the host town’s incongruous aesthetics. By Shaad D’Souza.

Primavera Sound Porto

A musician performs onstage with a microphone in their hand.
Blur’s Damon Albarn at the Primavera Sound Porto festival in Portugal.
Credit: Sipa USA / Alamy

There are few better ways to quickly run your mind, body and spirit into the ground than attending a European music festival. These lengthy, orgiastic affairs, such as Spain’s Primavera Sound, Denmark’s Roskilde Festival and Britain’s iconic, resolutely crunchy Glastonbury Festival, each run for many days during the height of summer. Unlike most Australian music festivals, they tend to kick into gear in the early afternoon, rather than the morning, and run through to sunrise the following day. They are gigantic and perilous; go too hard on the first night, or even walk too long in uncomfortable shoes, and you could be out of action for the festival’s remaining four or five days.

Last year, I attended all 10 days of Primavera Sound Barcelona – a gargantuan affair that is basically Europe’s analog to Coachella – which included two weekends at a sprawling, beautiful festival site by the ocean, as well as a series of shows in the city during the week. By the time the whole thing had wrapped up, my feet were bloodied, my savings were drained and I had struggled through a mystery illness I can now accept, without a fog of denial obscuring my better judgement, was probably Covid. I had fun at the festival but I was also completely broken by it, determined to never submit myself to such torture-by-hedonism again.

Of course, time heals all wounds, and come January, I was already toying with the idea of another summer jaunt at Primavera Sound. Lucky for me, there’s a not-so-secret alternative to the festival’s gigantic flagship event. This year was the 10th anniversary of Primavera Sound Porto, a pared-back event held at the same time as Primavera proper with a slightly smaller line-up and a far smaller festival site.

It turned out to be a perfect compromise: a four-day escape to an enjoyably hilly, tree-lined park at the edge of the coastal Portuguese town. While still running well into the morning, this festival allowed for less walking, fewer clashes between artists and more free time to spend recuperating at Porto’s chic, romantic restaurants and wine bars.

Walking around the festival site, at the Parque da Cidade do Porto, can be a surreal experience: it has all the pageantry and corporate sponsorship of the typical European mega-fest, shrunk down to fit a site that recalls niche, boutique music festivals. The logos of Vodafone and Portuguese beer brand Super Bock are emblazoned on stages hidden by rows of eucalyptus trees and nestled into gorgeous natural amphitheatres. Around sunset each night, stalls selling disposable vapes and expensive bao buns take on a vivid, heavenly glow. It’s an endearingly lurid aesthetic clash, and the overwhelming branding at Primavera Porto is easily forgiven because of how cheap everything is at this festival, as compared with events of a similar size. A pint of sangria – the clear drink of choice for anyone prone to nodding off before the wee-hours headliners begin – is €5 ($8); an Uber back to the centre of town at 6am costs about the same (there is no onsite camping at any Primavera Sound event). The most expensive thing I bought all weekend was a €12 ($19) rain poncho, a purchase necessitated by the fact that going to a music festival in 2023 will pretty much always be affected by at least one global warming-related freak weather event.

At Primavera Porto this year, it was torrential rain – a truly biblical downpour – that caused a lot of punters to bail on Wednesday night headliner Kendrick Lamar. Other cities hosting music festivals last week fared worse; the first day of Primavera Madrid was cancelled due to flooding, while New York’s Governors Ball music festival went ahead, despite the toxic smoke fumes wafting over the city from the Canadian wildfires.

Although the rain had subsided entirely by Friday, it did provide some well-timed melodrama on Thursday. It began pelting down during a set by the brilliant Canadian power-pop band Alvvays, only for the sun to shine again during the booming climax of their recent single “Belinda Says”, an impossibly well-timed cosmic lighting effect that felt even more exciting than the pyrotechnics on the festival’s main stage.

In fact, although the festival’s headliners were uniformly great – including, notably, an innovative, all-guns-blazing set by Spanish superstar Rosalía; a loose, swaggering performance from Britpop legends Blur and a genuinely euphoric set from the still-brilliant Pet Shop Boys – it was the more intimate moments that proved most engaging. Alt-rap collective Drain Gang, consisting of core collective members Bladee, Ecco2k and Thaiboy Digital, drew a sparse but intensely dedicated crowd. Everyone there seemed to be at the festival almost exclusively to see the Swedish crew, whose witty, sprite-like raps were an anomaly in a line-up that hewed closely to the festival staples of major pop stars and stalwart rock bands.

The decision to put such cult music on one of the festival’s larger stages felt inspired and made for interesting crowd interactions. I struck up a conversation with a young couple, Luisa and Enrique, who both sported ornate, beautifully designed homemade Drain Gang shirts. We bonded over the relative nightmare of getting to Porto in bad weather. My connecting flight from Lisbon was delayed by five hours, leading to a mad rush from the airport; they took a crowded train from Braga, came only to see Drain Gang, and planned to just hang around until 6am, when they could take the first train back.

I didn’t envy their predicament. My favourite part of Primavera Sound Porto was waking up at midday and slowly venturing out to eat and drink my way through the city centre. Much like the festival, Porto is rich with pleasing aesthetic clashes: a bog-standard McDonald’s inside an Art Deco building, with stained-glass, patinaed mirrors and dim chandeliers; a minimalist natural wine bar, Original Eco Mercado, in one of the city’s cobblestone-lined side streets.

Hanging out at an indulgently chill place like OEM – whose staff even left for a while at one point while I was there, giving the impression I was in some kind of futurist film set – is a perfect counterpoint to the bustle and intensity of the music festival. I sat and played cards with friends there for a few hours on Saturday afternoon, eating octopus salad with green sauce and drinking a natural wine by the Portuguese producer Duckman, made using a varietal indigenous to Bairrada, a Portuguese wine region.

It felt like an inversion of the traditional music festival model, in which most punters are worn down and exhausted by the festival’s final days. There’s something refreshing – invigorating, even – about lazily acting like a tourist throughout the day before cruising down to the Parque da Cidade to while away the evening. Some things about festivals remain the same: my body, once again, feels like it’s been run into the ground. Mind and spirit, though, feel better than before.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2023 as "Primavera in Porto".

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