Primavera Sound Porto Proved Why It's One of the World's Must-See Destination Festivals — Despite the Sideways Rain

An unforgettable adventure in which we saw Blur, Rosalía and Pet Shop Boys — but missed Kendrick Lamar for totally legitimate reasons

Photo: Hugo Lima / Primavera Sound Porto 2023

BY Stephen CarlickPublished Jun 15, 2023

Have you ever seen rain move sideways? What about for, let's say, about three and a half hours straight? On Wednesday, June 7, 2023, it was enough to literally wash away the first day of Primavera Sound Madrid, where un aguacero bíblico made it dangerous for fans to be onsite; as a result, the next day's headliners, Blur, were moved to an indoor arena. 

Attendees of Primavera Sound Porto, in Portugal, were not so lucky. Wednesday headliner Kendrick Lamar took the stage, I am told, around 1:30 a.m. local time Thursday morning, in keeping with the festival's late-evening schedule. I say "I am told" because I was not there; after enduring cold rain through a T-shirt and shorts for almost three hours, my friends and I gave up around midnight, getting into an Uber and Google-translating "sorry about how wet we are" into Portuguese for our amused, forgiving driver.

And yet, I remain ready to join the almost unanimous praise chorus of European people who will tell you, and anyone you know, how fantastic Primavera Sound festival is. But before I tell you why:

The Best-Kept Secret of European Festivals

The thing is, everybody in Europe has been to Primavera (do not look that up; believe me, it is a fact), with good reason: it's expertly curated, Europeans know how to have a lovely time without getting aggy, and the weather (I am speaking generally here, of course), is immaculate.

Nine times out of 10, these Europeans are talking about Barcelona, where the festival has been hosted since 2001. But the festival's gorgeous, best-kept secret is its edition held in Porto, Portugal.

Held annually since 2012, and referred to by organizer Alberto Guijarro as a "boutique, more well-kept version" of the original iteration, Porto Primavera has hosted Björk, Nick Cave, Neutral Milk Hotel, My Bloody Valentine, Aphex Twin, PJ Harvey and tons more. And this year, the lineup was particularly scintillating: Kendrick Lamar, Rosalía, Pet Shop Boys and Blur all headlined, with New Order, St. Vincent, Pusha T and scads more tumbling down the festival poster. 

Cost (Sorry)

"Talking about money is crass" – you're crass! We're enduring a cost-of-living crisis, and money is on your mind, my mind, everyone's mind. It's going to play a part in whether you go to Porto Primavera and, well, I say you should: a pass for all four days cost just 170 euros ($245 CAD) this year. 

The rest of Porto follows cheaply in suit: at cafes, a trio of beers costs you just $6, and coffee and pastries even less; my friends and I never paid more than $15 CAD for an Uber between the Parque da Cidade festival grounds and the city's centre, the beach, the airport and our Airbnb (which, between four of us, only cost $220 for four nights). 

The City Itself

Part of that is down to Porto's size. It's easy to get around, and, once you're in an area you like — hip Foz do Douro; Bela Vista, overlooking the river; beachy Matosinhos— it's infinitely walkable. The city is hilly, sure, but it only makes for more stunning views of the water and cityscapes below. The people are relaxed and friendly, and the food isn't just affordable, it's fresh and delicious. Go for a dip in the ocean, then go to a wine bar, and ask them to recommend you port: the right places won't let you mix tonic with it; find some of the wrong places, too. 

Because the festival days don't start until around 5 p.m., you'll have plenty of time to see the city before taking in some music.

The Music: Rosalía, the Mars Volta, Alvvays, St. Vincent, Daphni and Much More

And then, yes, see some music, probably. On Wednesday, with plenty of time before the rain started, we caught Goldfrapp play a pleasing batch of songs at golden hour that evoked a pretty middle ground between Kylie Minogue and Róisín Murphy, then watched Baby Keem command an audience through the heavying rain with surprising deftness. Maybe I'd underrated him; at his best, you can tell he's Kendrick's cousin, but I was still taken aback when the audience knew his work (beyond "family ties," obviously) and shouted his lyrics back at him. 

We practically rushed to the Parque da Cidade on Thursday to catch New Zealand power pop quartet the Beths play an early set (5:45 p.m.) of tuneful, energetic songs from their gorgeous album Expert in a Dying Field, the title track of which contains one of the best metaphors I've ever heard for feeling aimless in the wake of a breakup. Steve Albini's Shellac played a likeable if badly mixed (Albini, you had one job!) set to a charmingly dad-centric audience, and Alvvays perfectly timed the playing of "Archie, Marry Me" to the sun cracking through the rain clouds for a brief shining moment.

The rain returned for the Mars Volta – who I'm happy to report are back, in 2023, to playing the majority of De-Loused in the Comatorium and signing off with "Inertiatic ESP" – and added extra drama to their hilariously virtuosic set, but it was Rosalía who, of course, stole the Thursday show, from the moment she took the stage for "SAOKO" surrounded by dancers in motorcycle helmets. She covered Enrique Iglesias's "Hero" and played over two-thirds of MOTOMAMI, hitting an absolute climax with "CHICKEN TERIYAKI."

Friday started with an early set from Southern rockers Wednesday, as onlookers laid in the grass on the first truly beautiful weather of the festival and bopped their heads as disarming singer Karly Hartzman expressed half-formed "tour brain" thoughts and asked if there were any other "people from the South of the United States" in the crowd. Pusha T played a bounding, enthusiastic set that was devoured by the Porto crowd, who chanted "Poo-Shah-Tee!" between every minute-long song snippet – from "Grindin'" to Kanye's "Runaway" and through his recent discography. 

Later on, St. Vincent played a brawny, rock-forward set that made "Cheerleader" sound like dynamite, and Le Tigre blazed through their set of absolute classics, but it was perhaps Pet Shop Boys who charmed Porto most, playing a set of classic hits – from "Opportunities" to "West End Girls" to "It's a Sin," all bookended by "Suburbia" and "Being Boring" – that sounded as new in 2023 as when they shimmered out of their synths 40 years ago. 

Every night, after the stages closed, on-site nightclub Bits opened up; on Friday night, it was Jayda G who commanded the dance floor, and on Saturday, Daphni. If you come to Primavera Porto, don't miss out on at least one of the late-night/early-morning sets; you didn't do Primavera right if you don't make your exit in early morning sunlight at least once.

Saturday tossed up a few missteps – Yves Tumor's set felt anachronistic and tinny, while New Order was at first dangerously overcrowded, and then later interrupted by a series of mid-song technical difficulty stoppages – but it served up the last of the festival's highlights: Blur, playing a 1 a.m. set that danced through hit after hit: "There's No Other Way," "Coffee & TV," "Parklife," "End of a Century," "Girls & Boys" and "Song 2."

Your Primavera Porto experience might not end with the blaring trumpet and outsized chorus of the epic "The Universal" – maybe it will be a last ringing synth chord of a pop song, or the sudden end of a colossal hip-hop classic, or maybe the rain will start Saturday evening next year. But you'll have tried the port, taken a dip in the Atlantic, and watched a sunrise from the Ponte de Dom Luis. 

In any case, even if you've only got 10 euros to your name, you'll be able to get back to the airport.

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