Xavi Torrent/WireImage

Sketches Of Spain: Sun, Ham, And Rock And Roll At Primavera Sound

Molly Lambert does Barcelona's tastiest music festival

I have come to Barcelona to attend the Primavera Sound music festival and eat all the fine Spanish jamón. Immediately after deplaning from the 12-hour flight from Los Angeles, I buy a cured ham on baguette from an airport restaurant and it is so delicious that I find myself staring at it in disbelief — when is airport food ever any good, let alone great? This jamón feels like an auspicious beginning.

Primavera Sound takes place on the sprawling, futuristic, brutalist Parc del Fòrum, an enormous concrete complex built in 2004 on the fringe of the Mediterranean Sea that resembles a science-fictive commune. Running from Thursday to Saturday in the first week of June each year, the festival draws an international crowd of thousands that's generally older than the ones at American festivals like Coachella. The lineup is eclectic but laser-focused mostly on rock, with cherry-picked rappers and DJs rounding out the bill. Outfits here are much more functional than those I saw in Indio. Everyone at Primavera wears sensible shoes.

My first stop on the festival's opening day is "Beach Club," a wooden outdoor dance floor space near the shore with DJs spinning and a large grassy area to spread out on and chill. Erol Alkan, a U.K. DJ who came up during the electro-house 2000s, is playing when I arrive, warming up the earliest festgoers. I immediately head over in order to check out my all-time favorite headlining act: the Mediterranean. Standing in the water with my tie-dyed leggings rolled up to my knees, I'm tempted to just dive in; only a vision of being uncomfortably soggy for the rest of the day holds me back. Instead, I make my way to one of the big stages for Air. I stick around for a few soft-rocking songs and the cotton-candy sunset. They play "Playground Love," which transports me back to being in Urban Outfitters during the Virgin Suicides promotion era, and then I move on in time and space. I wander past the psychedelic drone hootenanny of Suuns, and stay there a while melting into the soundscape.

It’s my first European festival, and I get the impression that the festivals here are organized with more practical concern than, say, Coachella, where hotels can be an hour outside the festival grounds and the Uber pick-up scene this year was a royal clusterfuck. My mission at Primavera is less act-focused: I want simply to absorb the surroundings by wandering around and having a little taste of everything. I’ve been at Primavera for a few hours already, but I feel far less exhausted than I usually do at festivals. If people are fucked up on substances, they have a mellower way of showing it. While I enjoy the people-watching and carnival atmosphere of festivals, the sun is my enemy and I never feel fully comfortable until it goes down. But here I always have the option of going to the beach should I feel overwhelmed by crowds, and grassy shade is certainly more plentiful than it was in Indio, probably because there is no drought in Barcelona.

Then it's all the way down a crazy flight of sci-fi concrete stairs to see Vince Staples, one of a handful of rappers on the festival bill. He does a euphoric version of "Jump Off the Roof" and leads the crowd in a chant against cops. Moving back up the giant stairs makes me feel like an ant and leads me to Floating Points's set, glitched-out avant-jazz with live instrumentation. At this floating point I am starving, so I buy some empanadas from a food truck on a festival food court boasting options like vegetarian falafel sandwiches, “perritos” (hot dogs), and “Japanese tapas,” checking off another serving on my all-ham diet.

It’s now nighttime, and I can finally chill on the constant sunscreen reapplication. A few minutes watching Tame Impala, whom I’ve loved since I first saw them as teenage babes touring their first album at The Echo in L.A., gets my amoebic brain stew bubbling even though I’m not on any drugs, and I am ready to see the act I’m most excited to see: John Carpenter. Yes, that John Carpenter, the master of horror, the don of Halloween, the architect of fear, who also happens to be the composer of the scores for most of his own films. You can see how I might be confused, because another one of the festival's acts is Robert Forster, who is in fact neither the Jackie Brown actor nor an upcoming indie rock band named after him, but the now-solo member of jangle-pop legends The Go-Betweens.

Fulfilling my colleague Alex Pappademas's prediction that I would seek out the oldest performers at the festival, I am super curious to see what Carpenter's live show is like. Carpenter comes onstage and brings out a live band. From the moment they launch into the theme from Escape From New York, I am spellbound. Carpenter is one of my favorite directors, but his work as a musician is also exquisite — his peers are people like Wendy Carlos, Jan Hammer, and Tangerine Dream, who pushed electronic music into the soundtrack spotlight. With a white ponytail, black-rimmed glasses, and a hearty mustache, Carpenter looks like a cool wizard. He could easily pass as some legendary European DJ, like he’s the kind of guy who shut down 20-hour-long sets in Ibiza all through the '70s.

The band rips through Carpenter's themes for The Fog, They Live, and The Thing, with equally evocative cuts from his albums Lost Themes and Lost Themes II interspersed. The soundtrack songs are accompanied by projections of scenes from the films they soundtracked. Carpenter introduces Big Trouble in Little China as one of five movies he made with his good friend, and I read between the lines that he means Kurt Russell. The Halloween theme predictably brings the house down, although I was really hoping Ganksta N-I-P, TRU, or one of the countless other rap acts who have sampled the Halloween theme for a beat might come out and rap over it. Carpenter is a master of ghoulish humor, and he finishes up his set by saying "Drive home safely … Christine is out there." Then he plays "Christine Attacks," from the best human-terrorizing car movie of all time. (Sorry, The Car and Duel!) With my sense of time warped by jet lag and time zones, I call it a night around 11, although the festival runs until 6 a.m.

On Friday, I get a much later start, showing up when it's already cooling down, around 7 p.m., so that the sun does not turn me into jamón myself. I wander around aimlessly, mostly people-watching. I spot J Mascis and his stunning gray hair-cape making his way through the crowd with his family. I set up in one spot for Radiohead, whose melancholy set is frankly a little too snoozy and self-samey for me right then. Even Thom Yorke's wiggle-dancing can't perk things up too much. Sure, calling Radiohead depressing is like calling flannel warm, but I was ready for something I could do more than sway aimlessly to. On the plus side, I discovered a jamón flavor of Ruffles, and man, were they fucking good.

So I head down the Terrordome-resembling landscape to see San Francisco avant-garde electronic musician Holly Herndon, whose live sound-collage-cum-sci-fi brutalist dance music is the perfect fit for the sci-fi brutalist concrete landscape. She plays by a giant concrete canopy resembling an oil digger that juts out over the stage area and looks like an ancient alien site of worship. Herndon's set is wildly experimental but always still danceable. With her laptop screen projected behind her and a large-font document open, she types a dedication to Chelsea Manning, who "should be here partying with us and will be here partying with us," followed by "So yes dedicate this to our friends who can't go home because they are too good at being human." Herndon is the master of the machine-emotional, refuting any false-binary dichotomy between the two. It's my favorite set of the weekend.

Afterward, I stumble up the giant Cinderella cement staircase that has become a human freeway as people veer off in all directions toward other stages. I find a large, enrapt crowd listening to Kiasmos, an Icelandic minimal electronic group I've never heard before. Warm jets of synths blanket me pleasurably, so I stay awhile before going to scout a good spot in the standing pit of the amphitheater stage for The Avalanches' reunion gig. The Avalanches — now apparently a duo — seem nervous at first, or maybe I'm projecting, but by halfway through their raucous set the crowd is firmly in hand. It's somewhere around 4 a.m. and everyone is equally pumped for old hits like "Frontier Psychiatrist" and new cuts like gonzo-tarantella Chairman of the Board–smasher "Frankie Sinatra" featuring Danny Brown and MF Doom. After The Avalanches, I move with the remaining horde back to the beach to see Tiger & Woods DJ, but I'm exhausted and it's 5 a.m. and I'm ready for my hotel bed (and my leftover ham empanada from the day before).

On Sunday, I am pure sea garbage, but I vow to see Brian Wilson do Pet Sounds, and I am glad I did. Again I find the oldest people at Primavera Sound and feel extremely comfortable among them. There are also a lot of kids there to see Brian Wilson with their parents. Brian Wilson hits me at the perfect moment in my homesickness cycle. I look out at the ocean as the sun starts to set while Wilson plays his very reasonably early time slot at 7, and — California girl that I am — I feel just like I'm back home again. The Mediterranean is warmer and bluer than the Pacific, a perfect cartoon of a beautiful seascape, glistening in the sinking sun. But I know I am still in Europe because the ambient saltwater smell is always tinged with nasty cigarette smoke, which would never fly in California.

Maybe I'm tired and emotional or maybe it's just because every song on Pet Sounds is perfect, but I tear up cathartically through a good portion of Wilson’s set. The great thing about crying at music festivals is that nobody cares because everyone just thinks you're on drugs. There’s something very freeing about crying out your emotions in front of total strangers with whom you’re sharing a group experience, and this is especially easy to pull off when your name is already Molly.

Watching a sailboat on the horizon of the sparkling Mediterranean while Brian Wilson and his excellent band play "Sloop John B" with nothing but my own brain's chemistry at work (and, OK, fine, a little bit of weed from newfound beach friends I met earlier in the day) feels transcendent. I can’t imagine a better festival experience. Wilson's voice still sounds exactly like it did when he recorded the album five decades ago, and I feel a distinctly strong urge to hug Brian Wilson and tell him everything will be OK.

After closing the Pet Sounds session with "Caroline, No," Wilson and his band launch into a medley of Beach Boys songs and random '60s hits. The group includes original Beach Boy Al Jardine and Jardine's son, and the harmony singers flawlessly cover the parts originated by other Beach Boys and the villain Mike Love. For reasons I will never fully understand but for which I will be forever grateful, they unexpectedly cover Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Mash." And guess what? It was a smash.