A disappointing festival, even with MGMT headlining: SOS 4.8 in Murcia,Spain review 2011

What do you look for in a festival? For me,  SOS 4.8 in Spain seemed like the cream of the festival crop. ‘Music, Art and Voices’ is the SOS 4.8 slogan, and in addition to music it boasted contemporary exhibitions, interactive workshops and conferences on dance culture and history. With MGMT headlining, performances by White Lies, Editors, The Kooks and Suede, and DJs playing everything from dub and breaks to electro, techno and acid house, this festival sounded like the perfect blend of old-fashioned hedonism and haute culture. Without further ado, we swapped muddy wellies for cool flip flops and headed off to SOS 4.8, held in the south-eastern city of Murcia every May bank holiday weekend.

SOS 4.8 was my first city-centre (and continental) festival, and I was unsure of what to expect. I arrived with friends by car and was surprised to find there was no official parking set aside for festival goers-  Strange, I thought, for a festival of 80 thousand capacity now in its fourth year. After a good half-hour of driving around in circles, we found a spot on a rough-looking estate five minutes walk from the main event located on the outskirts of the inner-city.

Whilst camping is available at Murcia’s football stadium for an additional cost (95 euros compared to 45 for a two-day pass), the idea of queuing for shuttle buses and paying extra for the privilege of being miles away from the music seemed a little pointless. Most people opted for sleeping in the car, whilst others erected pop-up tents on any small piece of grass available within walking distance of the festival.

Like all commercial festivals (this one sponsored by Spanish lager Estrella Levante, Jagermeister and Ron Barcelo rum), drinks – even sealed bottles of water – were not permitted inside the ground and prices inside the venue were relatively high, a small beer costing the equivalent of £2.20. As a result the car park at the nearby McDonald’s and Eroski supermarket became SOS 4.8’s unofficial campsite for the two day event, with everything from Pendulum to hard rock blasting out of car stereos and wary-looking shoppers dodging groups of revellers sitting in circles on the floor drinking apple flavoured 20/20 liqueur.

The festival ground itself is small, with just two big stages, an indoor auditorium and the smaller Ron Barcelo ‘SOS Club’ stage. Other performances, as part of the ‘SOS OFF’ Festival, were scattered around the city centre, namely four different nightclubs and Murcia’s central plaza, a 15 minute drive from the main ground.

SOS 4.8 is billed as “48 hours of non-stop music”, but unless you have superhuman powers and can be in several places at once, it’s something of a ridiculous claim. The ground didn’t open until 12 noon, and even then we had very little choice of how to entertain ourselves: acts on the two main stages didn’t kick off until the early evening, so until then there are only three options: take a seat in the auditorium for a lecture, wander around the art gallery installations, or head for the Ron Barcelo DJ stage (the only place inside the main event where dancing is an option before 7pm).

Here, just a handful of party people bounced to electro and breaks on the red carpeted dancefloor while the majority of festival-goers (largely trendy mods in their early 20s sporting Morrissey quiffs, loafers and oversized sunglasses) sunbathed on the grassy slopes nearby or sipped mojitos under parasols on the black leather sofas surrounding the stage.

I was impressed to see a small swimming pool in front of the DJ booth, although not once in the whole weekend did I see any revellers throwing themselves in the water- Spaniards know how to party, but they don’t need binge-drinking or illegal substances to have fun. In comparison to UK festivals the pace is much slower; the party is just getting started at 11pm. The upside of the lack of British-style hedonism is that there was never a queue for the beer tent nor the toilets, which stayed relatively fresh and clean from Friday until the early hours of Sunday morning.

Other plus points were the food stalls which offered a reasonably good choice (everything from tapas and Moroccan cuisine to burgers and chips) and were reasonably priced, but for me it’s always the people who make a festival, and unfortunately most seemed to be trying too hard to look cool rather than have a good time and mix with others outside of their groups.

True to form, I lost my friends almost immediately and spent all of Friday night alone. Usually I quite enjoy this part of my festival experience, dancing my way from stage to stage, chatting to everyone I encounter and invariably making new friends. But despite my outgoing nature and almost fluent Spanish, I was largely treated like a weirdo for talking to strangers- even by people who had also lost their friends. By the time I got back to the car in the early hours I was in a foul mood and for the first time ever at a festival, cursing the fact I had no phone battery and feeling rather sorry for myself.

Sleeping in the car alone was quite intimidating: I could hear couples fighting and babies screaming in the flats above me, while suspicious-looking men wandered aimlessly around the estate whispering into their mobiles and eyeing me through the car window. It seemed we’d chosen a spot where no other festival folk had dared to park and I began to wish I’d just crashed on the grass inside the event.

Aside from being eaten alive by mosquitos, I made it through the night and for journalistic purposes, decided to attend a conference on the history of dance music. I wasn’t surprised to find that the lecture theatre was three-quarters empty: who wants to listen to a guy giving a monologue on electronica when there’s actual dancing to be done outside?

The art gallery, however, was an interesting addition to the festival, although had there been more to do during the day I doubt it would have proved so popular. One interactive installation in particular, Cave’s fan, was an impressive creation: a chill-out room with red lighting, mattresses and Nick Cave music on a loop, accompanied by a hypnotic video projection and walls painted black and white with pop-art images of the iconic singer. On the other hand, I couldn’t help thinking after 15 minutes spent listening to Cave’s melancholy lyrics that a real chillout room with DJ sets would have been preferable.

MGMT, usually amazing live, were a disappointment, but like the vast majority of the weekend’s performances, I hold the disinterest of the crowd wholly responsible. Luckily there were two exceptions: sets by The Bloody Beetroots and Tiga blew the proverbial roof off, and I finally felt I was at a real festival: one with an electric buzz in the air and everybody finally coming together to bounce, scream and stomp around in unison.

The Bloody Beetroots are an aggro-electro double act from Venice who wear wrestling masks on stage, drink smirnoff from the bottle, scream obscenities into the microphone and like to crowd surf, whipping revellers into a frenzy I have only ever seen the likes of giant acts like The Prodigy do in the same way. Tracks with the best banging dirty basslines included Detroit, WARP and the almighty Cornelius, while Montreal-born TIGA’s tech/electro/acid set was (almost) equally impressive.

Sunday at SOS 4.8 is a chilled-out affair, and with the main festival ground closed we headed for the beautiful city centre of Murcia to watch a couple of average Spanish bands perform in the sunny Plaza de Flores, a pretty square ringed by pavement bars and cafes – although the suffocating crowd, intense heat and huge queues to buy a drink made it almost impossible to enjoy the experience.

SOS 4.8 also claims to be the most sustainable festival in Europe, but I saw very little evidence of this apart from a solar powered phone charger. Not one recycling bin was available and the streets outside the ground were literally covered in glass and plastic bottles, food wrappings and cups: ironically, it was quite possibly the least sustainable event I’ve ever attended.

A festival combining culture with music is an ambitious idea, but I’m not sure it works in practice. More acts like TIGA and The Bloody Beetroots would have made my weekend, as would all artists in the same place, on-site camping and parking facilities, a better attitude from the crowd and no prohibitions on bottled water (at the very least) inside the event. SOS 4.8 tries too hard to be everything and more, and as a result is nothing but mediocre. SOS 2012 begins in just a few weeks, but this year I´ll be saving my energy for Creamfields Andalucía or Benacassím.

First published on efestivals.co.uk, June 2011

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