Live Review: Sonar Festival

Barcelona, June 16th-19th

Tom Oxley/NME
Photo: Tom Oxley/NME
It’s Saturday night in Barcelona and NME is surrounded by sweaty ravers who’ve beenup for over 40 hours, pupils rattling in their sockets. Three cartoon-like characters take to a stage above us and the crowd begin to sizzle. This is the only gig we’ve seen where audience appreciation can be measured by the cloud of perspiration rising above their heads. Turns out we are watching Buraka Som Sistema, who are to Sonar what Metallica are to Download. In mere moments they’ve transformed this bleak concrete nothing into a carnival with their dodgy rap and Latin rhythms. When they ask for girls to take to the stage there’s a stampede, and suddenly booties are being shaken like it’s Beyoncé’s birthday.

More than once during our stay in Barcelona, we lose any understanding of what Sonar is. It’s not a festival, not in any British understanding, anyway. There is no camping, no headliners, and no Portaloos. There’s not even a single site, rather it exists across two events: ‘Sonar By Day’, a rather affable affair in the grounds of the Barcelona Museum Of Contemporary Art, and ‘Sonar By Night’, a fuck-off rave in a disused aeroplane hangar somewhere at the end of a bus route. It focuses on ‘electronic art’ and you’d think it high-brow, but then Buraka come on and everyone loses their shit – almost literally, if you go by the wallets lying on the floor.

Here’s what we can work out: Sonar is almost utopian in its aesthetic and programme. Punters stay in hotels or apartments (the only tents are those littered around town squares, left over from the huge anti-government protests that finished just a day before the festival started). Oh, and one of the stages, SonarCar, sticks punters in bumper cars while they whiplash along to superstar DJs. It starts on Thursday afternoon with the cat-call of Little Dragon reverberating around the astroturf on the museum’s plaza. In a dress with Aztec print, singer Yukimi Nagano starts miming out strange tribal dances atop workshop-techno that’s being bashed out on felt pads. At Glastonbury this might be a 2am treat tucked away on one of the kooky stages; at Sonar it’s a bona fide crowd pleaser.

They leave to calls for “more” in five languages. Many of the day’s artists have been yanked from the electronic womb, with punters getting to see graduates from the Red Bull Music Academy playing music that is still in the development stage. Manchester group Illum Sphere’s dark set of freak-out electro is a warning sign of where dubstep may be going next.

But things start to get properly messy on Friday, at the first Sonar By Night. Walking into the arena for the first time is like falling down the rabbit hole, made all the weirder by The Human League soundtracking your arrival. It’s a mystery why they continue to secure great festival slots while poor him outta Erasure is on Popstar To Operastar, but they make a bloody good job of it.

Joanne and Susan still give the best “ooh”s and “ahh”s this side of Dreamgirls and the inevitable ‘Don’t You Want Me’ finisher turns Sonar into a Friday night on Wigan Pier in 1981. Indeed, their British influence sets the tone for the whole festival. A few years ago the line-up was led by international types like Flying Lotus and Diplo, but this year, after the electronic scene has been dominated by the awkwardly titled, but sonically adventurous, post-dubstep scene, it’s UK labels and broadcasters that prevail. There are stages curated by super-trendy labels Night Slugs and Triangle as well as an impressive line-up from Radio 1 and sets by Magnetic Man and Katy B.

But most impressive is the showcase put on by Glasgow-based Numbers Records. Turns by Deadboy and Jackmaster are a flurry of beats that meld garage, funky and techno. In between their sets, Jessie Ware flashes onstage to give the vocal performance of her life, a heartbreaking flutter over beats that could knock you sideways. With the new school in check, Dizzee Rascal takes the British invasion as an opportunity for his Jay-Z moment, his chance to make Sonar his. He doesn’t have to try hard – compared to the stale grimepop of Tinchy et al, even middling singles like ‘Stand Up Tall’ are a suckerpunch to the earlobe. There’s new songs too, the Ronseal-guaranteed ‘Bassline Junkie’ and a turn from his new label signing Pepper, whose Katy B-ish vocals flavour d’n’b track ‘I’ll Never Wish You Away’.

It’s a mega tune that sounds like Dizzee has the sunshine hit of 2011 all wrapped up. Indeed it’s those who can’t find a place in this new world of the glitchy and minimal who get a sore deal. Cut Copy still sneer out the electro bangers like 2006 never happened. Their swerving synths made sense when Daft Punk were still popping over to James Murphy’s, but now that every Tom, Dick and Ricky Wilson has a ripped copy of Ableton it seems a bit gimmicky. MIA also struggles, appearing almost an hour late, her lo-fi footage of Somalian pirates and freefalling dollars failing to have the same impact on the 10th viewing. Yet if we’ve learnt anything this weekend it’s that Sonar rules were made to be broken.

Janelle Monáe shuns electronica, backed by her 14-piece band. They’re all suited and booted, with backing dancers in Lycra. She doesn’t have the flashy graphics of her tours, but if anything, that makes her band work harder. There are duelling guitars, stage fights and boggling violinists, and her cover of Nat King Cole’s ‘Smile’ sees those who’ve been partying since Thursday crumple in a pile of broken braincells. As a closing show, it sends us back once more to the drawing board of what exactly Sonar is supposed to be… and back to our laptops to book flights for next year.

Sam Wolfson

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