Laurie Anderson at Primavera Sound: part free-improv performance art, part TED talk

It's exactly what we need going into the final day of the festival, even when the avant-garde legend decides to sing 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'

By midway through the final night of Primavera, most punters’ brains are pretty fried. With the previous three days’ diet of hyperpop, Aperol, blast beats and eye glitter congealing into a gelatinous festival fatberg somewhere in the prefrontal cortex, what’s urgently required is an aural cleanse and a nice sit down before commencing the home straight.

Step forward, then, Laurie Anderson, grande dame of the ’80s lower Manhattan art scene (and unlikely one-hit wonder when her 10-minute ‘O Superman’ was propelled up the charts by Radio 1 in 1981), whose slot in the festival site’s grand concert hall is the perfect tonic: for 80 minutes, Anderson, backed by a whip-tight quintet, delivers an elegiac meditation on the world’s ills that is part free-improv performance art, part TED talk, part American minimalism with voiceover and part New York disco funk workout.

The show is conceptually dense: within the first 15 minutes we’ve done Trump, the Ukraine war, climate collapse, and AI, and Anderson has got us all to scream at the top of our lungs together for 10 seconds while considering all of the above in homage to her old pal Yoko Ono. She switches between singing actual songs, delivering miniature lectures through a vocoder while her band vamps away in the background, and reading out slogans that beam up on the screen behind her. “Every love story is a ghost story” it says at one point; at another, in huge block caps, “IF YOU THINK TECHNOLOGY WILL SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS, YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND TECHNOLOGY AND YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND YOUR PROBLEMS”.


This obviously could be a bit much for the aforementioned brain-fried audience, but the triumph of the show is the calm control Anderson exerts throughout: there is no sense of jeopardy here, never a moment where the performers don’t know exactly their lines, and the result is a pervasive sense of serenity across the hall. Even during the surprise sharp left turns – a contemporary classical minimalism section featuring shout-outs to Philip Glass and John Cage slams into a brief and impeccably delivered cover of James Brown’s ‘Get on the Good Foot’; a skronking drone descends into a beautiful rendition of ‘O Superman’ where woodwinds intertwine gorgeously around Anderson’s synths – everything is perfectly measured. All that’s required of the audience is to sit and contemplate the performance art installation unfolding before them, or just zone out and recharge. Enormous analytical essays could probably be written about this show, but it’s a credit to Anderson’s empathy and tenacity that in no way is that level of academic engagement a prerequisite for the show’s enjoyment.

It ends with Anderson revealing that one of her all-time favourite songs is ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ – fair enough – and then she sings it, asking us to pay close attention to the unexpectedly apocalyptic second verse, before segueing into a sung goodbye while the show’s production credits roll on the big screen behind her. And with that, as if by perfect timing, 500-odd Primaveristas scuttle out of the auditorium, ready to wring out the last of the festival, rested, revitalised and defried.

Photography by Sergio Albert