Los Angeles State Historic Park is located on a stretch of downtown road that you’d likely miss if you weren’t looking. Surrounded by Chinatown, the downtown skyline, and the LA River, it’s most notable for long-time residents as the former home of FYF Fest. Back when that now-defunct event was held there, it felt like new problems plagued it annually. Sometimes, it was insane lines that kept people waiting for hours to get in. Other times, it was just the massive dust clouds that the crowds of people would create over the unkempt terrain. When FYF moved to Exposition Park near USC in 2014, it was both for literally greener pastures, more space, and a more grown-up, professional presentation. Until its founder was removed and its 2018 attempt to relaunch was canceled, FYF was the premier multi-genre event in the city.
FYF in many ways was inspired by Barcelona’s Primavera Sound — FYF founder Sean Carlson had frequently spoken about his travels to Spain for both inspiration and education on events. The Spanish staple, running strong since 2001, has long been considered one of the most adventurous and innovative music festivals in the world. From its all-night running time to its recently enacted 50/50 gender parity, Primavera Sound has always been on the forefront of taste and the right side of history. And with a long-planned, pandemic-delayed LA bow, it was ready to spread that vision to a new market.
So taking to the now-renovated, grassy, pristine park that is known for legendary debacles — and even more legendary performances — felt fitting for Primavera. Though the footprint and capacity remain modest at the site, the lineup still felt pretty massive, with arena-level artists Lorde, Nine Inch Nails, and Arctic Monkeys headlining and support from the likes of Khruangbin, James Blake, Fontaines DC, Mitski, Pinkpantheress, Darkside, Arca, Tierra Whack, Cairo, Giveon, and many more. But the overwhelming feeling was a sense of nostalgia for what the park had meant to so many who considered those FYF years crucial to their musical journey. With the skyline towering in the distance, it’s about as LA as an LA outdoor event can feel. It’s the perfect spot for new memories to be made, and a new generation to develop their own sense of nostalgia.
Primavera’s commitment to musical discovery was on display, as a casual attendee could walk from metal icons Mayhem to post-punk trailblazers Fontaines DC to the instrumental retro funk of Khruangbin without skipping a beat. Tierra Whack wins the award for most playful hype DJ, who managed to pump up the crowd with not only the expected Kanye drop but also Panic! At The Disco and Vanessa Carlton selections, speaking directly to Whack’s sharp, left-field sense of humor. And maybe the unintentionally funniest moment came as Stereolab tried to begin their set but couldn’t get the house music to stop playing “Low Rider.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t without its logistical hiccups. The biggest of which was a baffling decision to make the front of its two biggest stages almost exclusively 21+. For anyone outside of California, because of some strict liquor laws, many festival sites are not zoned for people to be able to carry around their drinks — Goldenvoice’s preferred site of Pasadena Brookside at the Rose Bowl is a notable exception. For Coachella and fests at Exposition Park, this means designated beer gardens, usually with a view of the stage from a little distance. Primavera decided to make almost the entire front of its biggest stages beer garden territory, with small slivers of standing room to the side for its under-21 patrons.
When this news spread the week before the show, there was an outcry on social media, especially for a Friday night slate that featured Lorde, Mitski, Clairo, and Pinkpatheress, all with notably young-leaning fans. The festival defended the decision, noting that 99% of its attendees were 21+, which feels like it can’t possibly be true in the American festival landscape. If they were using data from their previous Euro runs, that didn’t apply here.
It played out as expected. For an early artist like Pinkpantheress, the 21+ section was sparsely populated while young fans pushed in the all-ages side to get closer to the stage Families with children bemoaned barely being able to see the artist while huge swaths of real estate remained open. As the night went on, Mitski and Lorde both addressed the issue and had to ask the young fans to step back to avoid crushing the people up front. The reasoning behind this decision feels like it must have been financial, as the fest appeared to lack somewhat in attendance and festivals are struggling across the board these days due to a waning economy and tons of competition. But if you need to sacrifice inclusivity and safety to make ends meet, that’s a serious problem.
On this note — and this is not something that’s unique to Primavera, but something I’ve seen at Goldenvoice and Live Nation events since festivals returned last year — is an unwillingness for the beverage vendors to sell sodas. Who cares, you might ask? Well, considering the number of people who don’t drink for various reasons as well as the idea of sober drivers that still very much exist in the age of Uber, saving readily available soft drinks exclusively for cocktail mixers feels both financially manipulative and unsafe. Despite rows of Cokes and Sprites sitting at each beverage vendor, I was repeatedly told that they weren’t for sale, and were reserved for cocktail mixers.
Beverage vendors wouldn’t even give out a cup with ice without alcohol in it. At Outside Lands last year, I was refused a soda purchase even though they were on the menu because they were running low, and wanted to maximize the earning potential of each can. Again, this is a decision that is made with profits being put over safety and feels counterintuitive to the ethos that many of these festivals are supposedly founded on.
Now, that was several paragraphs of critique for a couple of things that should be easily fixed. And, it almost felt like a tradition for a festival on these grounds to have issues. But that’s not to say that Primavera Sound wasn’t an awesome addition to the LA — and American — festival landscape. Lorde and Nine Inch Nails both delivered iconic, visually stunning displays that took listeners through their artistic histories. Lorde would go on to tease new music coming soon and Trent Reznor waxed poetic about his love for Primavera Sound’s Barcelona iteration and the no-brainer decision to headline their LA debut.
Of the non-headliners, Mitski and Clairo were the most impressive, though. Mitski’s theatrical interpretive dancing would have been hard to imagine five years ago, while Clairo’s ’70s soft rock aesthetic brought a level of loose musicianship rarely seen in artists so young. They were as good as any non-headliner LA festival performance has been over the past decade, cementing Primavera’s legacy in its new home. Hopefully, it’s a legacy that is still being written, and the festival moves beyond Barcelona, Porto (where it has been since 2012), and LA to San Paulo, Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Madrid. And if Primavera can grow and improve in the manner of FYF before them, LA might have found its next great festival.
Check out some exclusive photos from Primavera Sound LA below.
Nine Inch Nails