A strange little festival...

Bilbao BBK is a strange little festival. It sits like a musical monastery atop a lush mountain, accessible only by a winding narrow road through the pristine ‘burbs of this town in northern Spain’s Basque Country. Yet, instead of a pilgrimage to traditional folk or historic significance, 30,000-plus punters get hammered and watch mainstream rock.

Depeche Mode, Kings Of Leon and Green Day take the top spots for the three nights – Thursday to Saturday – rocking out on stage with impeccable sound and impressive visuals. It’s a heavily branded fest, with Heineken, Vodafone and Red Bull rammed into your eyeballs at every glance. But the quality of what you see and hear makes up for it.

Depeche Mode draw a huge crowd for the opening night, but their mammoth set, including films of Scottie dogs frolicking behind a lank, pale Dave Gahan (keep your waistcoat on, Dave) is too much. With length comes boredom, and there are too many dull moments amidst the hits. A drum machine breakdown is the last straw and boos commence before ‘Personal Jesus’ saves the day.

In fact, despite a super opening set by Alt-J, who squeak and creak through their Mercury-winning tunes brilliantly, the big rockers are a bit of a let down. Editors morph into an '80s New Romantic tribute act while Billy Talent is Iron Maiden meets Glee.

Nope, the first day is all about the Live Stage – hidden in the woods away from the main arena. Here, Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros endearingly wow a packed crowd with cheery songs, brilliant playing and a mass love-in while satin-pants wearing pensioner Charles Bradley, formally living in James Brown’s shadow, funks and grinds his way to our hearts. His scream alone is amazing.

In typical Euro-festival style, the days are whiled away recovering in the sun or checking out the local sites, like the sparkling Guggenheim that pinned Bilbao onto the arty map. But by early evening, the festival calls, and you climb that mountain again. From working the tan, you don’t expect a massive lightning storm, but that’s what happens on day two. It washes out sets by Mark Lanegan and The Vaccines and brings an annoying amount of loud "Brits in mud" to the forefront, but doesn’t dampen the rest of the night.

Johnny Borrell, who lives up the road for much of the year, makes his comeback with new band Zazou – a stripped-back indie folk outfit, all headscarves and tambourines, but with some lovely harmonies, and Kings Of Leon play a blinding set of all the favourites, including ‘The Bucket’, ‘Use Somebody’ and ending with a huge ‘Sex On Fire’. But the night really belongs to 2ManyDJs, whose 2am slot is peak party time. Everyone’s dancing, even to a Wings remix. It’s excellent. Warm and excellent.

The final day is heaving. The downpour must have kept a few revellers away, but the grass is barely visible as Vampire Weekend take to the stage in front of a giant floral backdrop. The greats are there – ‘Cousins’, ‘Horchata’, ‘Oxford Comma’ – and new stuff too, including single ‘Diane Young’.

Age may not be on their side these days, but Green Day have still got it. ‘When I Come Around’ blasts out of an AC/DC ‘Highway To Hell’ intro before the band plays a load of new stuff. But it’s not dull, it’s not agonizing. Loo roll chucking, water spraying and T-shirt gunning: this lot hasn't quite grown up, and nether have we as thousands jump around to ‘St Jimmy’, ‘American Idiot’ and ‘Jesus Of Suburbia’.

Before our teenage selves disappear forever, there’s one last dance off to Fatboy Slim. Why the hell not – it’s back down the mountain to reality in the morning.

Words: Gemma Hampson

Photos: Stuart MacDonald

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