Beyond the Gates: Rock ‘n’ roll is the very foundation of Mad Cool Festival. For three years now, the thriving Madrid festival has offered the most enviable lineups for the dusty genre, carving out a space for themselves in Spain’s slightly congested festival market (see: Primavera Sound Barcelona, Bilbao BBK Live, and FIB Benicasim). In 2016, they came out screaming with The Who, Neil Young, Garbage, Jane’s Addiction, and The Kills, only to triple down the following year by inviting six-string juggernauts such as Foo Fighters, Green Day, Cage the Elephant, Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams, Wilco, Spoon, and, yes, the lineup keeps going like that. Both bills left rock-starved critics and festivalgoers over in America to wonder, “Well, how the hell does this all work?”
Now, we have the answer: “Quite well, in fact.” For its third year, Mad Cool returned to deliver its most ambitious lineup to date, booking Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, Queens of the Stone Age, Jack White, Arctic Monkeys, Underworld, and Tame Impala over three short days. That’s all without mentioning an undercard that could also serve as the top line for the majority of boutique festivals across America. Actually, if we’re being real — and why not? — there are enough headliners in this weekend alone to keep Lollapalooza warm and cozy for at least two years. Maybe three. That’s not just remarkable; it’s preposterous, but it’s working like a charm for the festival. This year’s iteration sold out its 80,000 tickets weeks before the gates opened.
Fanapalooza: Much of this success should be attributed to the die-hard fans that comprised the majority of Mad Cool’s crowd. Although the festival has a slight Coachella-esque wash to it, what with the neon accoutrements; the big, glowing Ferris wheel; and the beautiful people dressed in beautiful clothing, it couldn’t be further from it in spirit. This wasn’t a weekend to be seen, but a weekend to see. More often than not, everyone’s phones weren’t pointed at themselves, but at the stages, where most of their eyes gazed. What’s more, these weren’t just unimaginative idiots waiting for the hits, either.
Far from it: On Thursday, hardly a soul left the main stage area during Pearl Jam’s sprawling two-hour opus; on Friday, Massive Attack fans held on to the hope that the band would show up, even five minutes after their allotted set time (more on that later); and on Saturday, you could hear thousands belting out Nine Inch Nails’ brand-new songs — in English, no less. Sadly, that gratitude wasn’t quite afforded to the Arctic Monkeys, who may struggle on the festival circuit with their new album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, but the fans kept up as best as they could. I think you gotta appreciate that.
Best Bites: Similar to other destination festivals, Mad Cool tagged a bunch of local eateries to complement their dining options. Many were housed in chic, wooden stalls with their styles of cuisine slapped across the top, such as Asian, Mexican, or Baguette (?), while others came in with their decked-out food trucks. Know this, though: the people of Spain love their burgers, which probably explains why they had up to five different outlets to get one. However, the greatest find wasn’t between a bun, but on the heavenly dough of Pizza Nomadas. Housed in a giant RV, the Spanish hunks served a never-ending line looking to grab the latest slice out of an oven that was working overtime. Those who walked away with a piece of the “jamón y queso” pie were able to celebrate the perfect marriage between New York- and Sicilian-style pizza.
You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a VIP: Look, Josh Homme is a fucking asshole, but he also oozes with rock ‘n’ roll charm. Let’s just say that part of him was out in full force in Madrid. Maybe it’s because Queens of the Stone Age managed to attract a crowd only second to Pearl Jam, or maybe he was still coming off the high of NOS Alive, but Homme was in a particularly spry mood. So, when he noticed that his fans were looking to get closer, namely by hopping over into the spacious VIP area nestled underneath the stage, he insisted that something be done.
“Security, you’d better let those people in,” Homme casually stated during the middle of “No One Knows”. “I’m not playing until you let them in.” To help his cause, he fired up the crowd and urged them to chant, “Let them in! Let them in!” He then turned it up a notch, adding: “It’s a Queens of the Stone Age concert, and you can do whatever you want to do. Look at my face. Let them in, or I will walk down there and let them all in.” Eventually, security relented and the crowd rushed in, leaving an ever-prideful Homme to sit back and observe: “Yesterday is gone, tomorrow never comes, right now is all you’ve got.”
He’s not wrong, but he’s also lucky nobody got hurt.
Festival Fashionista: Everyone knows Madrid is a beautiful city, so there’s no use belaboring the point. But still, Madrid is a beautiful city with beautiful people who all look like they walked out of the latest issue of GQ or Vanity Fair. (Seriously, there’s nothing like standing outside of an airport at seven a.m. with severe jet lag and a crumpled Marlboro cigarette while everyone’s as hot as Javier Bardem or Penelope Cruz.) All of this is to suggest that this beauty makes for a similarly beautiful festival, one made even more decadent by the purple, teal, and red lights that ignited the stages, sound tents, fake trees, and signage. Seeing how the festival mostly takes place after sundown, sliding deep into the wee hours of the morning, it only makes sense that the grounds would mirror a swanky, outdoor nightclub. Having said that, nobody was more fashionable than Depeche Mode…
Massive Letdown: Patience is a virtue, right? Well, no one will ever argue that Massive Attack’s fans aren’t incredibly virtuous, especially after Friday night. For over two hours, the thousands that arrived at The Loop stage to see the Bristol legends waited and waited and waited inside what was ostensibly an intimate airport hanger, watching empty instruments in anticipation of the band’s arrival. Some chanted extremities (“puta” being one choice of word), a few started hassling the sound crew for answers, but very few actually left. It was all for naught, though, as the only performance they wound up receiving was an empty apology that appeared on the stage’s screens five minutes after the band was scheduled to finish. Their excuse? Essentially, Massive Attack took one glance over at Franz Ferdinand’s set nearby and said…
Needless to say, that didn’t go over too well with their fans…
Within minutes of the announcement, the Loop stage was covered in all kinds of garbage from fans who went from excited to hopeful to disappointed to downright vitriolic. It was an ugly scene — I received a nice blow to the head from an idiot drunk who tossed his plastic cup with the grace of Ryan Tannehill — but mostly a whopping slap to the face against a fanbase that was clearly devoted enough to wait around for hours while an entire festival raged on around them. In hindsight, that brand of stoic optimism only solidified the notion that Mad Cool draws in the diehards, as it’s very rare to see any festivalgoer exercise that kind of patience — it’s usually their greatness weakness. So, yeah, great performance by the fans.
At the very least, the response was enough to justify another apology, which the festival issued the following day: “Mad Cool Festival and Massive Attack want to apologize before the thousands of fans who waited patiently in the tent, The Loop, for the performance of the British group. The band and the festival are aware of the great disappointment caused by the cancellation of the concert. Unfortunately, the band could not play at the scheduled time due to the sound interference of nearby scenarios that, due to the technical nature of the IEM monitors system (in-ear headphones) of the band itself, resulted in the concert not being able to perform. They tried to resolve the situation during the next hour but it was finally impossible.” Better luck next year?
If only they had swapped ’em with The Bloody Beetroots.
Don’t Believe the Hype: One could draw plenty of comparisons to Coachella at Mad Cool, at least aesthetically, but not everything that works on the Polo Fields translates in Madrid. Case in point: Whereas Post Malone and Dua Lipa would be shoe-ins for Indio, and probably draw the biggest crowds of the weekend, they felt more like outliers at Mad Cool, attracting modest crowds that felt somewhat similar to the rock acts that have been falling on apathetic eyes and ears for the past few years at Coachella. Anyone remember that “Bizarro Jerry” episode from Seinfeld?
Tame Set for Tame Impala: Despite being their first show in 2018, Tame Impala’s set was free of any surprises, save for the inclusion of “Keep on Lying”, which they haven’t played since 2013. That’s not to say they didn’t deliver a great show, but … eh, you didn’t miss anything but what you’ve already seen since 2015.
The Best of the Tiny Fonts: Outside of the major heavies like Pearl Jam or Nine Inch Nails, there was just no beating Young Fathers. The eclectic Scottish outfit delivered an uncompromising 40 minutes of adrenaline that felt as if the Thunder Bitch stage had been swept up by Hurricane Andrew. “Get Up” was The Moment, though, conjuring a kind of raw energy seemingly ripped straight outta 1970s Detroit via MC5 or The Stooges. But really, the entire set felt like The Moment, thanks to its sheer unpredictability, no doubt a measure of the group’s genre-bending skills. There was something for everyone; you could mosh, you could dance, or you could nod your head. No wonder they nabbed the Mercury Prize in 2014.
Honorable Mentions: Dutch duo Weval was a nice reprieve from all the distortion, offering a choice afternoon meditation with their hypnotizing electronic pastiches; Chicago’s own The Black Madonna brought the fever to Saturday night; and British producer Maya Jane Coles was the perfect comedown following Justice’s sweaty histrionics.
Phones Up: Not that anyone wanted to think about politics at Mad Cool, but our Pigfuck in Chief was certainly on the minds of many in Madrid, thanks to his predictably disastrous visit to the UK this past week. So, when Nine Inch Nails rolled out “I’m Afraid of Americans” on Sunday night, it was pretty great timing, even if it’s been a regular inclusion on their current tour. As an American myself, it was admittedly surreal to be surrounded by thousands of Europeans, all screaming out David Bowie’s titular chorus, even if that feeling has become all too mutual. What’s more, the song appeared to be a sounding board for Trent Reznor, who hopelessly suggested, “This is our last show in Europe for … maybe ever.” Fun times!
That One Performance: What else needs to be said about Pearl Jam? Are we really that surprised that they drew in the biggest crowd of the festival? Or that they delivered the most resonating set of the weekend? Not really. The Seattle rockers are one of the greatest rock bands on the planet, and the gooey stuff is just second nature to them. Hell, even when they toss out a hits-fest like Thursday night’s setlist, which consisted of seven Ten cuts and their more predictable bookends (“Release”; “Rockin’ in the Free World”), the guys still know how to make the night seem like a one-of-a-kind show. Reason being, it’s not just about the setlist with them; it’s about the energy, and at Mad Cool, that energy was not only palpable but downright symbiotic.
With the longest set of the weekend at nearly two hours, Pearl Jam fed off the vibes of a crowd that was both hungry and relentless. So much so that even Eddie Vedder acknowledged how insane they were acting. From above, you couldn’t see a single spot on the grass, and unlike most crowds at North American festivals, there weren’t any late-set vacancies. From beginning to end, the crowd was just as stoic and resolute as the Massive Attack fans the following night, and that determination did wonders for the band. Vedder’s gratitude spilled over more than his bottle of wine, particularly during his emotional speech on love and positivity, which followed their video on domestic violence in Spain featuring Javier Bardem.
By the end, it didn’t matter if they played the four other tracks off Ten or a handful of forgotten Lost Dogs. This was less about the music and more about making a connection, the very message that Vedder drove home that night: “Fight for love, the right to love.” That message wasn’t lost in translation.
What This Tired AF Writer Did 15 Minutes into Underworld’s Late-Night Set:
Coming Home: Every festival has its share of hiccups, and it would behoove Mad Cool to hold its breath for 10 seconds. Massive acts warrant massive crowds, and not surprisingly, it wasn’t always easy to get in and out of certain areas — or, for some, a fast way home. That’s a minor quibble, though, and one that can be rectified with meetings and mathematics. What Mad Cool does have is something far more crucial and something very few festivals actually carry today: unity. Whether it was dancing blissfully to “Enjoy the Silence” with Depeche Mode or shouting obscenities at Massive Attack’s empty stage, there was this ensuing feeling that everyone was there for the music and nothing else, and that made for a very universal experience.
Even traditionally outspoken sourpuss Trent Reznor was won over. Halfway through his breathless set, the Nine Inch Nails frontman stopped for a moment to gush about the festival, admitting, “I don’t have anything bad to say. It’s throwing me off my game.” Again, it goes back to unity, and the energy that comes from 80,000 people that believe in something together. That idea’s been lost on too many festivals over the years, mostly because too many festivals strive to cast a wider net for wider margins, which has since led to countless identity crises. Of course, those same nets have also led to some incredibly diverse lineups, something that Mad Cool will have to contend with in the near future, but for now, this is where rock staves off death.