Bilbao has been revitalised.
Since the mid-90s, the de facto capital of the Basque Country has experienced major deindustrialisation, becoming an enviable tourist destination boasting a world-class art museum, a vast cultural hub, and many streets full of delicious food, drinks, and incredibly friendly people.
After exploring the city for the day (Bilbao BBK Live allows for this, as the first acts appear at 5.30pm), we take our first trip to the top of Kobetamendi, the beautiful peak that hosts the manmade arena of ‘the BBK’. We walk half an hour to the bus, wait twenty minutes, get a fifteen-minute bus to the top of the mountain, and finally walk fifteen minutes uphill into the site. Luckily, there’s lots of people offering chilled €1 beers all the way up.
The first band we catch are Years and Years, who haven’t been to our taste before. Watching them live is very different to a headphones listen. Olly Alexander is a born showman, and as he bumps and grinds onstage wearing a pink t-shirt emblazoned with a ‘cock heart’, he’s pelted with stuffed animals, flowers, and love. The music is still rubbish, but that’s almost (almost) irrelevant. We finally get it. Chvrches, alternatively, we still don’t get.
Hinds are up next, and compared to previous sightings, this is an entirely more exciting prospect. Framed by an enormous neon sign, they’re completely at ease chatting in Spanish to the crowd, who go completely nuts after every song. Hinds now have synchronized dance moves, embrace each other, and generally represent the opposite of macho posturing onstage – we’ve never seen a band have so much fun. They finish with their cover of Thee Headcoats’ Davey Crockett, and we’re entirely into it.
After scavenging nearly every food tent for some eats which even bear a shadowy resemblance to the incredibly delicious pintxos we’d eaten in the town that day, what becomes clear is that we’re wasting our time by concentrating on the food. Drinks, on the other hand, are completely delicious and fairly priced – we took a particular liking to the local party tipple of Kalimotxo, a crude cocktail made with equal parts cheap red wine and cola. This new and strange concept could be bought a litre at a time, alongside similarly enormous beers, giant free-pour ‘gintonics’ and cheap, cold glasses of Basque white wine.
With this on offer, no wonder the festival got a little wavy – and this is no more apparent than when we approach the crowd for the first headliner of the festival, Arcade Fire. An extremely friendly Spanish lady next to us tells us she’s travelled across the country to see the band, and as the band emerge onstage, the atmosphere edging the main stage suggests the rest of the crowd have been waiting their entire lives for this. The band charge through their biggest numbers, leaving no hit behind – The Suburbs is well represented, we’re reminded of Reflektor’s most euphoric moments, and every time a Funeral classic is played, the ground shakes as people jump up and down. Win and co. push the avante garde edge of their aesthetic to its limits with ribbons, mirrors, and the band’s signature huge-headed masks, leaving us beaming.
Everything goes on pretty late at Bilbao BBK, and it’s around half two when we stumble home, dizzy with red wine and tired after descending the mountain in the darkness.
We ascend up the hill a little earlier the next day, and catch a little of Grimes collaborator Hana in the Carrer stage, which resembles an enormous greenhouse. She gives it everything, her long purple plait flying, and her laptop pop flits from Hype Machine dross to truly epic balladry.
Grimes is up next, and she’s got a barrage of eager fans waiting for her when she emerges. She’s has stepped up her live game beyond recognition – while she used to hide behind her equipment, she’s now front and centre, absolutely raining it down on an exultant crowd alongside her backing dancers. Early on, Janelle Monae collaboration Venus Fly particularly gets the crowd’s blessing – that is, until a power cut hits the stage and all music, lights and smiles flick off. Boucher tries out a few high kicks to entertain the crowd, but it’s more serious than that, and she’s forced to leave the stage. Ten minutes later, she returns, testing out all the outputs, and happy with the results, she launches into a beefed up version of Be a Body. When she finishes, gleeful, with the Pride flag around her shoulders, she looks every inch the 2016 popstar.
The last day brings beautiful weather and lots of Australians. Possibly the most Australian of the lot, Courtney Barnett, is on ‘early’ (7pm) at the main stage. Her garage rock, which is always given a pleasingly fuzzy edge by her head-banging band, is greeted by a panorama of moshing Basque dudes down front. Her voice and guitar sounds typically crunchy and satisfying, but things only really hit the fan when she slams out a heavy, gnarly version of Pedestrian At Best. Kim’s Caravan also goes off in a very grungy kind of way, and Depreston glows with Australian apathy.
We eat some noodles watching Bad Breeding, who spit and howl as they careen around the smallest stage to a minute crowd. They’re angry, indignant, and defiant, and they soon attract a larger gathering with their stomping sound.
Back to Oz, and Tame Impala completely fill the main field. We’re happily bopping away to the psych-pop pomp until one guy cops a feel and acts all jokily innocent when we call him out on it. Grim. We move to the other side of the stage. Tame Impala are still great, and Kevin Parker, while kind of cheesy, has taken on his new role as stadium-filler with aplomb. Fellow Aussies Jagwar Ma also completely fill their stage, with waves of happy Spaniards reaching into the woods backing the tent.
If we’d stayed out, we could have caught Red Axes and Âme spinning in the glittering dance stage deeply set into the woodland – and from the looks of the grinning faces when we finally left the site, everyone was wildly up for it. Bilbao BBK Live is just one of the reasons you should visit Bilbao – and from where we’re standing, it’s a very persuasive one.