For music lovers the world over, festival season is often the best opportunity to catch those elusive acts it is impossible to snap up headline show tickets to while catching the up and comers on their rise. But where some of the world’s big festivals can often leave you missing the acts you had your heart set on, there are those medium-sized affairs that are big enough to attract the heavy hitters but small enough to ensure you can leg it from stage to stage via the beer stand and catch all of the action.
And amongst those BBK Live, in Northern Spain’s Basque Country, is a true hidden gem. Here is a festival that rarely sells out completely while drawing huge acts such as Muse, Green Day, Coldplay, Radiohead and Metallica over the 11 years it’s been running.
While many festivals drag you to fields practically in the middle of nowhere mandating camping to “heighten” your festival experience (Glastonbury!) and others are so centrally located that they’re just big gigs in city parks (Wireless, Lollapalooza), BBK Live is just the right mix of city and camping, it’s dedicated site on the slopes of Mount Cobetas just a short bus ride in a southwesterly direction from the city proper, providing plenty of on-site camping facilities.
And to prepare you for a full night of festival fun, the city of Bilbao is a treat to explore. Small enough to wander around on foot, the city’s old town is full of narrow streets lined with cafes and bars all generally serving pintxos (small tapas plates served at the bar) along with vinos tintos or a nice cold beer. Of these, Plaza Nueva hosts a number of popular bars many providing seating in the square as well as in their restaurants.
For a more contemporary experience, the food and coffee is fantastic at the less traditional looking Bar Baster, in close proximity to Catedral de Santiago.
There is also the city’s famous Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum to marvel at, even if the exhibitions currently on display are not to your taste, or a reasonable metro ride will land you at one of a handful of luscious beaches just north of the city.
Oddly, BBK Live runs Thursday through Saturday rather than utilising Sunday as a festival day leaving Thursday generally the quietest day of the festival. Proceedings were kicked off on the Carpa Stage by Basque band Begiz Begi before Montreal-based Laurel Sprengelmeyer – AKA Little Scream – drew the incoming crowds to the main Bilbao Stage.
2015 and the award of BBC Sound of the Year saw the metaphoric rise of London-based band Years & Years in the UK. Yet, it was an early slot on the main stage for the young group at BBK Live, here to convince the Spanish to adopt their upbeat electro-pop sound. Dressed for the early evening Spanish sun, frontman Olly Alexander wore shorts and a pink t-shirt adorning what he described as a ‘cock heart’.
A quick dash over to the second stage put you in front of Glaswegian synth-poppers Chvrches, the trio kicking off with second record Every Open Eye opener Never Ending Circles and mixing their set up with material from their two albums as politically-charged frontwoman Lauren Mayberry bounced around the stage.
Addressing the UK’s recent decision to leave the EU Mayberry said “The last few weeks have been us saying were very, very, very sorry about Brexit. We’re fucked but we wanted to say we’re sorry, there are a lot of arseholes in the UK”.
More electronic music was to be had over at the main stage with one of the biggest draws of the day, Anthony Gonzalez-led French outfit M83 while Madrid-based Spanish rockers Hinds competed for the crowds over on the festival’s fourth stage.
The back and forth between the two main stages continued with British post-punk rock legends New Order over at the second stage next, the Bernard Sumner led five-piece leaning heavily on their extensive back-catalogue alongside last year’s Music Complete album rather than any stage dynamics, theatrics or engagement with the crowd who were seemingly grateful just to be in the presence of Sumner et-al.
Canadian rockers Arcade Fire closed out the main stage with a huge 19-song set from across their four studio albums, The Suburbs single Ready To Start kicking off proceedings with frontman Win Butler in fine form. And where a British or American festival might end there, BBK Live saw London electronic outfit Hot Chip light up the second stage at 2am while Brightonians Blood Red Shoes tore up the Carpa Stage ahead of DJ acts seeing the sun rise and beyond, the festival officially closing doors at 7am.
South London rock quartet Inheaven opened up the Bilbao stage on Friday, frontman James Taylor making good use of the vast stage and bass player Chloe Little tossing her long pink locks as they tore through their first outing in Spain.
Billings, Montana-based singer-songwriter turned electronic act HANA was up next on the Carpa Stage, the ‘one to watch’ definitely demonstrating the energy alongside her brand of dream pop that is making waves for her.
In a break from the fast-paced rock bands scheduled for the majority of main stage slots over the festival, Swedish indie-folkster José González slowed the tempo with his classical guitar-infused set. Kicking off solo with 2006 single Crosses, he was then joined by a dual drum section, additional guitars and backing vocals as he played a mixed set including his covers of Kylie Minogue’s Hand On Your Heart and Massive Attack hit Teardrop before closing with biggest hit Heatbeats.
And who says only the British festivals are plagued with rain? Friday was certainly the dampest day of the three with showers during González’ set causing umbrellas and ponchos to come out for some while others took shelter in the Carpa.
Britpoppers Ocean Colour Scene played their only continental European tour date this summer next on BBK Live’s second stage twenty years on from the release of album Moseley Shoals, which saw them at their prime.
After playing hits Day Tripper, Riverboat Song and The Day We Caught The Train for the first three songs to a Spanish crowd as excited to join in the mass sing-a-long as frontman Simon Fowler was to be on stage, I wandered how momentum would be maintained for the remaining hour. It was, and it got even better.
And if Britpop nostalgia wasn’t your thing, Canadian electronic duo Junior Boys were up on an early slot over at the Carpa Stage. But barely. With main man Jeremy Greenspan missing his connecting flight into Bilbao, the set was kicked off over 30 minutes late with no explanation and reduced to around six tracks.
We were lucky to have any set at all we were told, thanks to the stage crew at BBK Live, the disappointing set leaving Greenspan to DJ over at the festival’s new Basoa dance area later that night.
One of this year’s major breakthrough bands and one to watch Blossoms played a short set on the Carpa Stage to promote their soon to be released self-titled debut album. The Stockport band played tracks including Blow and Deep Grass to a packed tent keen to take in their indie-pop sound.
Technical issues hit popstress Grimes’ set, the power seemingly cutting out at the second stage part-way the Canadian’s energetic set and taking around 20 minutes to restore.
But determined she was, managing to make it through her scheduled 12-track set, closing with Art Angels cut Kill V. Maim as Boston-based rockers Pixies were getting set to walk out onto the main stage.
The Black Francis-led four piece strolled onto the main stage to huge cheers from the, kicking off their set with debut album Surfer Rosa’s opening track Bone Machine.
The set featured a good mix of material from across the rockers’ extensive five album back-catalogue as well as Classic Masher and Um Chagga Lagga, new tracks from forthcoming sixth studio album Head Carrier, getting an airing. Of course it was Surfer Rosa signature song Where Is My Mind? that enticed a mass sing-along from the crowd.
ARIA award-winning Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett brought her brand of rambling rock to the main stage, the glorious sun finally reappearing at Kobetamendi.
Josh Tillman, now better known by moniker Father John Misty, followed on the second stage with Barnett watching from the wings. Kicking off his sunlit-set with Fear Fun cut Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings, Maryland-native was in typical, quirky form.
“Good drugs, what’s not to like?” Tillman said about being in Spain. Continuing his folksy set with dramatic bursts of expressiveness, Tillman managed to fall off a large speaker to the bemusement of the crowd. Seemingly unharmed, he took the opportunity of finding himself at ground level to reach out into the crowd, climbing up onto the barrier and even using a fan’s mobile phone to film himself as he sang out Chateau Lobby #4. While it was difficult to know quite how to take Tillman’s dramatics, the 35-year-old often collapsing to his knees or lying back on the stage between dips into the crowd, his folk-rock blend was a perfect fit for the slowly setting sun.
Undoubtedly one of the biggest draws to this year’s edition was Australian psychedelic rock band Tame Impala, the Kevin Parker-fronted five-piece taking over the Bilbao Stage in the dying light. “Hello Bilbao!” the 30-year-old frontman yelled “Thank you so much for letting us be here” before Currents lead single Let It Happen had the crowd bouncing and forming pit circles early on in the set.
Stafford-based rockers Editors took over the second stage for a massive 14-song set that many in the crowd had been looking forward to all day, Tom Smith’s men making sure to touch upon each of their five studio albums while giving last year’s In Dreams a good airing.
Oxford rockers Foals closed the festival proper, their headline set on the main stage drawing the biggest crowd of the weekend. Kicking off with What Went Down cut Snake Oil, hits My Number and Total Life Forever had the Basque crowd bouncing as far back as the hill I was stood on within earshot of the Basoa area’s DJs.
Following a brief departure from the stage, the Yannis Philippakis-led five-piece returned for a three-song encore which saw the 30-year-old frontman reach down into the crowd and, in his signature move, saw him crowd surf while not missing a word.
And in what must have been a scheduling error, hot London rockers Wolf Alice found themselves playing the 2:30am slot in the Carpa just one day after opening for Mumford And Sons at London’s Hyde Park.
“Hello Bilbao, we’re Wolf Alice from London” said frontwoman Ellie Rowsell to a packed out Carpa Stage as the four-piece tore into a 45-minute set, drummer Joel Amey encased in darkness throughout as Rowsell screamed out at the early morning stragglers amongst those excited to be able to get this up close and personal with a band that’s playing to sold out Brixton Academy-sized venues back in the UK.
And as Belgian trio Soulwax closed out the second stage, the band’s Dewaele brothers own 2manydjs outfit closed the festival with a set rounding out at 7am Sunday morning in the Carpa, another festival enjoyed by many but over for another year. And what will BBK Live 2017 bring? Metal! With teasers promising “Metal Is Coming” slotted in wherever possible and with at least one huge metal act releasing a new record in 2016 … there might just be a heavier sound ringing out across Mount Cobetas next July.
Live review of Bilbao BBK Live 2016 by Lauren and Kalpesh Patel between 7th and 9th July 2016.
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Kalpesh has more music photography up on his flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/somethingforkate