Mount Cobetas, Bilbao
It’s 4.30 in the morning and SOPHIE’s reeling off a heady mix of grinding, mid-noughties electro and Charli XCX bangers to a crowd on top of Bilbao’s Mount Cobetas. Behind her, all you can see are faint lights streaming through house windows, cascading down a mountainside with horses grazing in the distance.
This is the impressive setting of Bilbao BBK Live. A festival that takes its crowds to the serene settings above the Spanish city, and treats them to a line-up designed to draw in partygoers from, according to this year’s stats, over 120 countries from around the world. That gigantic pull from outside of Spain isn’t reliant on the promise of great weather though (the Basque country’s climate is notoriously wet), so it’s used its failsafe headliners – Florence & the Machine, The xx and Gorillaz, all delivering sets worthy of their slots – and smaller acts from mainland Europe to tick the boxes.
The must-see on Thursday was Childish Gambino, whose frenetic set managed to a rile up a crowd that seemed less familiar with his pre-Awaken, My Love! work. The audience had the honour of being the first to hear his latest two singles Feels Like Summer and Summertime Magic live, but waited to go off for his obvious closer, This is America, by which point Donald had revellers seriously under his spell. It was his first festival show of the season, but the dude’s stage presence remains the most energetic of the weekend – rivalled only by Florence’s laps of the main stage pit while belting out a decade’s worth of material a few hours later.
Elsewhere, Catalonia’s reggaeton queen Bad Gyal had teenagers, queer kids and semi-confused straight dudes dancing their asses off as she dropped copious bangers just after Gambino’s show. It might be early days for her on an international level, but her no-fucks-given attitude, hyperactive stage show and Latin-tinged electro has gained her a loyal following at home.
Thirteen years on, the opening chords of Gorillaz’ Feel Good Inc. still send Albarn’s followers wild. It was the virtual band’s catalogue-spanning set, closing the festival on Saturday night, that drew the biggest crowd by far. Damon and co. reeled offcuts from every record since their eponymous debut, proving they could still deliver a gigantic, lingering show even when they step out from behind their animated facades. Compared to the languid offerings from Florence and The xx the two nights prior, brilliant on their own merits, this felt like the festival’s real moment and set the tempo for the packed out DJ set from the Hot Chip guys that followed it.
But for all of its beauty and solid bookings, there are still a few logistical problems that BBK Live needs to address. Situated far out of town, on winding roads that only allow one-way traffic, it can take anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours to get to the festival’s main site after you’ve faced the queues for the shuttle service. That’s a drag when you’re trying to figure out if you can make it in time to see your favourite act. There’s also the slight issue of the festival’s crowds swarming to certain areas at popular times – like during Hot Chip’s set – and the surrounding bars almost buckling under the pressure. The cashless wristband system might make payment a breeze, but you can only reap its benefits if you can make your way to the front of the queue without keeling over first.
Despite that, it’s easy to see why people side with a festival like Bilbao BBK. For all of its flaws, it redeems itself for knowing what its audience wants. The cleverly laid out programme was designed to cut clashes (Noel Gallagher’s nostalgic sing-a-long show overlapped with a Latin dubstep-rapper named Bejo, for example) and you can’t sniff at the ticket price: €105 for a whole weekend with camping if you buy it right now. For anyone yearning for a Spanish festival trip who can’t stand the throbbing heat of Benicassim or Primavera, this cooler, Basque country equivalent is a worthy and well-curated option.