Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Watching Swans

Swans. Birmingham 2010. Me watching.

I see the preliminary line up for Primavera Sound 2011 in Barcelona has been published. Looks like there’s plenty to look forward to, with Animal Collective, Broadcast, Suicide and the sublime Swans catching my eye. I may even have the pleasure of wilfully ignoring those unadventurous dullards Belle and Sebastian.

Primavera is a strangely well-behaved festival, held in the balmy evenings of late Mediterranean Spring in what seems like the world’s biggest skate park. The 2009 event had so many of favourite acts (MBV, Jesus Lizard, Neil Young, Sunn 0))), Shellac, Jesu…) that it would be hard to surpass, but the 2011 mix looks intriguing already. Primavera has a knack of getting bands to reform, play outdoors, or perform whole albums, who otherwise wouldn’t anywhere else. It’s also a great opportunity to meet up with some old friends, so I’ll be there.

A few days in Catalonia in spring should also give me a chance to do some birding. Previously, my birding in Barcelona has been reduced to listening to the squawks of Monk Parakeets in the park, and being shat on by a Little Egret at the heronry at the Zoo. In truth, it was my daughter Rowan who bore the brunt of the egret droppings. We learnt that egret caca doesn’t wash out, so Rowan had another year of being wheeled around in a poo-stained buggy, before passing it on to her younger brother…

Unsurprisingly, Barca is a good place to get your eye in with Yellow-legged Gull identification. They’re easy enough when you’re in Spain, but far less so when you are trying to pick them out of Lesser Black-back flock in the winter twilight back in the UK, so any chance to practice should be taken. Perhaps surprisingly, Barcelona it’s not the place to see Mediterranean Gull – at least, I’ve never seen one there. If you want to see one, I’d try throwing some bread around at the car park at Holbeck, Scarborough in winter. Never fails.

The nearest nature reserve to central Barcelona is the Delta del Llobregat, just southwest of the airport. I hear it’s good, but I’ve not yet managed to get there myself due to the road being closed the only time I tried. My friend, a Barcelona resident, once told me of his attempt to get to the reserve by bus to take photographs, only to get off the bus a few stops too early. He tells a good tale, but his story, set against a backdrop of dusty gas stations and boozed-up truckers, and littered with used condoms and handlebar moustaches, has not prompted me to consider a second attempt.

I did once make the trip to nearby Montserrat, the impressive serrated mountain to the west of Barca, as much as a hangover cure than anything else, and it was well worth the effort. Hair of the dog, lungs full of fresh air, Ravens and Crag Martins swooping past at eye level. Then back to town for a few beers… I felt so much better after that.

I doubt I’ll get any bird watching done at Primavera 2011, but I might at least get to see the mighty Swans again. I recently saw them live at Supersonic 2010 in Birmingham, and while there was disappointment amongst my companions that they didn’t have the unrelenting, hammer-to-the-face ferocity of their 80s heyday, I found their display of repressed power truly masterful. You won’t see a more gracefully brutal band – they’re worthy of their name. The work of percussionist Thor Harris on the night was a revelation, playing the tubular bells solo for 20 minutes before the rest of the band came on stage, then using vibraphone, hammered dulcimer, and all kinds of found instruments throughout the show. Incidentally, he also plays with that famously ornithological band, Shearwater.

The Supersonic festival is the complete opposite of Primavera, staged as it is in an old warehouse complex in the industrial quarter of Birmingham, over the last weekend in October. It’s dark, cold and isolated – perfect for the rather wintry music that’s on offer. Amongst the many highlights of this year’s festival were the return of Godflesh, for only their second show since they split in 2002, some excellent dubstep from Dead Fader, an old favourite of mine Zeni Geva, and the wonderful surprise that was Nisennenmondai.

Unfortunately, Birmingham isn’t the place to go to get the best of late-October bird migration, especially if you are only awake during the hours of darkness. So the bird “highlights” were the sombre Jackdaws and Feral Pigeons adding to the downbeat atmosphere of the festival, and massive flock of three Starlings on the church St. Martin in the Bull Ring - hardly enough to get even Kate Humble excited.

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