Mount Cobetas, Bilbao
11 - 13 July
You may never guess that in Bilbao, it rains nearly twice as much as it does in England. You may also never believe that the city, now buoyant with energy, was once a surly port town, encapsulated by wide, towering mountains, all dusty and brown.
A mining hub, primarily known for political instability and grey, industrial landscapes, the people called for a change. So Bilbao began a period of intense transformation. The opening of the lucrative Guggenheim Museum marked a turning point for the city. The project, entirely funded by the city council, jolted the edge of the water into enthusiasm, its once-sallow palette exploding into hues of silver, green and blue. An aesthetic revitalisation was underway. The city began to pulse with life.
Bilbao BBK Live feels significant when placed in the city’s history. Founded by the Basque government in 2006, it’s impossible to imagine the festival ever existing were it not for this cultural revolution. Sat atop Mount Cobetas – a site specifically made for the festival – Bilbao BBK Live offers panoramic views of the city. The site itself feels spacious but compact, its hilly terrain perking you up as you walk between stages.
The Basoa stage – where most of the dance acts play – is enclosed by trees, feeling like its own forest away from reality. Here, Octo Octa lit up the crowd on Thursday. The Brooklyn DJ and producer pummelled through proto-disco and uplifting house cuts as her partner – in music and in life – Eris Drew thrashed her body behind her in support.
Soon after, Ms Nina was up. The Madrileña reggaeton star’s pounding dembow beats and raunchy lyrics (all sung in Spanish, of course) prompted the hardest dancing of the weekend. Along with songs off her 2019 debut album Perreando Por Fuera, Llorando Por Dentro, she covered Daddy Yankee’s Gasolina and Don Omar’s Dile. But the true magic was when she played Celia Cruz’s La Vida Es Un Carnaval – the parting anthem of the late Cuban singer and undisputed Queen of Salsa. Although Ms Nina is Spanish, this respectful nod to the Latinx artists that paved the way for her music felt important. I felt at home, dandole hasta abajo.
Across the site, Thom Yorke was larger than life. Joined by Nigel Godrich and visual artist Tarik Barri, he writhed and jerked around the stage in typical fashion, making his way through ANIMA track Impossible Knots and The Eraser’s Black Swan, until eventually stunning the crowd into pin-drop silence for synth slow-burner Dawn Chorus. The tension, backdropped by distorted visuals, could only be broken by the bass thump of Twist, injecting new life into the bobbing heads throughout the crowd.
Friday ushered in a sold-out crowd, as big room acts like Rosalía, The Strokes, Brockhampton and IDLES made up the night. Each act was a force of nature in their own right. Self-proclaimed “best boy band in the world” Brockhampton whipped the crowd into a riot the minute they charged the stage, dashing through songs off last year’s Iridescence and beyond.
IDLES’ familiarly arresting set was a bare-faced rally for empathy, as frontman Joe Talbot called for the audience to support one another. At one point, he invited a group of young women from the audience to play on stage with them, arming them with guitars and mics. People in the crowd were visibly tearing up – myself included – in this suspended moment of camaraderie.
Saturday was the grand closer of the festival, catering to dads and dads only, with Weezer and Hot Chip at the helm. Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo commanded the stage like your Bourbon-drunk uncle at a wedding; clumsy, slightly embarrassing, but ultimately warm and lovable. Boldly opening with Buddy Holly, the LA band darted through all their teenage life-affirming bangers, from Say It Ain’t So to Island In The Sun (and, obviously, a Green Day/The Turtles mash-up). Hot Chip brought the same energy, their ultra-tight set proving they are seasoned professionals. It was perhaps the only time standing shoulder-to-shoulder with balding men could ever feel euphoric.
Bilbao BBK Live’s success highlights the importance of governments placing value on the arts. This sentiment feels especially powerful in a time where art is so readily dismissed – venues are closing at lightning speed, local councils are imposing hardline curfews, studios are being knocked down to make space for private home builds. It really does make you wonder how it could all be.