Lisbon is undergoing something of a transformation.
When Clash grabs a cab from the airport we wind through streets that seem half-refurbished and half-demolished, a relentless mixture of old and new that allows those high, keening industrial cranes to puncture traditional architecture, unleashing fresh energies in the process.
It’s an apt time to visit the Portuguese capital, a state of transition that has seen it emerge once more as a creative hub, a reputation served and pursued by a new generation of Lisbon kids, joined by a flurry of globally broad immigrants keen to experience something often described as a kind of mini-Berlin but with much better weather, food, and wine.
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NOS Alive is one of the city’s biggest and most developed live music ventures, an annual festival spread across three days, it’s site – down by the harbour, appropriately enough – housing countless thousand fans, sucked in by the promise of huge international acts, carefully curated local talent, and the subversion of the old with the promise of the new.
Typically for a European festival, the juxtapositions of the line up often seem stark to British eyes, but this helps to re-evaluate several acts.
Thursday opens with phenomenal Argentine talent Juana Molina, and her lush folk-enhanced sound is the perfect appetiser for what is to follow. Bryan Ferry is all broad smiles and impeccable tailoring on the Main Stage, playing a hits-laden set which firmly embraces his past.
There’s more than a few Roxy Music classics on show, while an impeccable, bass-thumping rendition of ‘Love Is The Drug’ raises the temperature of the crowd to fever pitch.
Wolf Alice lay waste to the Palco Sagres stage, a wonderfully, succinct, and stark performance that epitomises the physical force of their sound. Moving ever outwards, the band seem ready to take arenas in their stride, reinventing early cuts such as ‘Bros’ and adding them to fantastic new album ‘Visions Of A Life’.
Friendly Fires follow, and if there’s a finer indie-disco experience out there then Clash has yet to come across it. The St. Albans lads retain that impish charm, Ed McFarlane’s dancing seeming to grow more outlandishly intoxicating as the years pass.
Fan favourites such as ‘Paris’ and ‘Kiss Of Life’ have the tent rocking, and there’s clearly a sense of purpose to their set, with the group promising Lisbon that they won’t have to wait so long for their next visit.
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As if to emphasise the huge contrasts on the bill NOS Alice then presents Nine Inch Nails and Snow Patrol back to back. It’s a decision that shows both bands in differing lights, with Trent Reznor & Co. - so often a formidable experience on record – shown to be much more nuanced, more suffused with shade than on first listening. Backed by some fantastic visuals, and typically excellent sound, it’s a set that reaches to the core of their catalogue, revealing some fascinating secrets along the way.
Snow Patrol, meanwhile, suffer a little in comparison. Gary Lightbody amiably brings the hits – including a clutch from international breakout ‘Final Straw’ - but against the sheer volcanic lava of Nine Inch Nails this feels like a weakly brewed cup of Tetleys, with a touch too much milk inserted. Not exactly flavourless, but certainly bland.
Arctic Monkeys are currently storming their festival dates, bowling over epic crowd after epic crowd. If recent album ‘Tranquility Base + Hotel’ puzzled and confused many fans then these live shows feel like the point where band and audience intersect once more.
New material is received rapturously, while those hits – and a few rarities – send Lisbon into a fever. Alex Turner is sharper than a quiff-decked razor blade, the band moving relentlessly behind him. It’s an incredible show, a titanic rock wave that splashes out over the Lisbon foreshore, washing fans down in expertly delivered cool.
The band say little to nothing onstage, a murmured silence broken only by Alex Turner’s admonishment: “Here’s a song that meant little when we wrote it and even less now…” It is, of course, ‘I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor’.
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Friday opens with typically glorious weather, and Clash enters a festival site dappled in sunshine. The arena is already swarming by the time Japandroids take to the stage at the Palco Sagres tent, and their blue collar bluster is enough to blow away any cobwebs. An always riveting live experience, the duo make an incredible noise for such a minimal set up, throwing in a few surprises for fans and passing onlookers alike.
Eels are currently a band rejuvenated, and the long-standing American institution pulls out all the stops. Channelling early 70s rock – think The Who, Free and more – the band overhaul some of their best loved moments, while also airing plenty of their really-rather-decent new album ‘The Deconstruction’. E is the perfect host, with those instantly recognisable shades barely hiding his pithy wit and boundless enthusiasm.
Over on the main stage Black Rebel Motorcycle Club draw a huge crowd, and their set focusses mainly on new material. There’s a gospel tinge to their ultra-minimalist take on Mary Chain rock, but it’s still an illicit thrill to hear that fantastic closing one-two of ‘Spread Your Love’ and ‘What Happened To My Rock ‘N’ Roll’.
Blossoms follow as the sun continues to shine, while Clash makes its way back to the Palco Sagres Stage for Brooklyn legends Yo La Tengo. Rarely has indie rock been so adventurous and so fun, a continually deconstructive experience laced with joy, a thrillingly left field excursion that feels so welcoming and so bright. The perfect primer, then, for The National’s return to Portugal with a main stage slot at NOS Alive.
By now the band are old hands at handling such a vast crowd, dipping into their catalogue for a few fan favourites as Matt Berninger coyly draws out cheer after cheer. ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ is a particular thrill, but it’s Berninger’s waltz through the crowd to order a glass of wine during ‘Mr November’ that brings out the biggest round of applause – sheer cheek, a glorious move from an addictively engaging non-star.
Rag ‘N’ Bone Man’s set feels strangely flat, with his vastly popular but nonetheless slick modern soul perhaps ill at ease on such a rock and indie leaning line up. Case in point: a storming main stage performance from Queens Of The Stone Age, who underline their position as one of the most rock elixirs left around.
There’s a notice in the press area informing photographers not to snap directly in front of Josh Homme, and this dictum nods towards a notorious recent incident while also allowing the band to surpass it. There are few thrills more potent than Queens Of The Stone Age prowling, preening their way through ‘No One Knows’, but it’s the material from recent album ‘Villains’ that captures the most attention.
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It’s left to Future Islands to close our evening, with the tent at the Palco Sagres stage filled to capacity for the arrival of the Baltimore synth experience. Samuel T Herring’s reputation precedes him, and the frontman is on riveting form, his leering, lunging performance somewhere between your favourite drunken uncle and a Russian cossack dancer.
The breadth of his vocal – moving from soulful croon to death metal growl – is matched by the material, pushing the synth tag to its outermost limit. That said, there’s a lot to be said for simply delivering a banger, and it’s the introduction of ‘Seasons’ that brings out the bigger cheer from the capacity Portuguese crowd.
Saturday opens with further exploration of Lisbon, a port hub whose creative community has exploded in size over the past decade. A truly international experience, the vivid, colourful LX Factory is a hub for design and innovation, as well as supplying some incredible dining and drinking experiences.
Ler Devager bookshop seems to allow shelves to tower above you, a multi-floor, multi-lingual extravaganza, topped up by some incredibly imaginative animatronic models on the final floor. Rio Maravilha’s rooftop bar offers an unforgettable view of the city, matching its famous naked female statue to the towering 25 de Abril Bridge, stretching wide across Tagus river, touching down beside the city’s famed Sanctuary of Christ The King statue.
Emerging at the NOS Alive site you are immediately struck by the swarming mass of people, each one seemingly decked out in Pearl Jam t-shirts. The band are simply an institution on the Iberian peninsula, a rite of passage for generations of young people, and today’s headliners are clearly the star attraction.
Real Estate are a slightly more gentle brew, and their sunshine guitar pop makes for easy listening on the festival’s third day. Alice In Chains light up the main stage, but Clash is primarily here to grab a spot for Scottish indie evergreen Franz Ferdinand.
Introducing themselves “Franz Ferdinand… from Glasgow!” the band are on imperious form, a line up bolstered by new members but lacking founder Nick McCarthy. Alex Kapranos is growing to inhabit this space, re-doubling his efforts amid lunging leg kicks and a biting onstage persona.
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It’s the hits that truly grab you, a bold run that moves from indie disco stompers such as ‘Take Me Out’ to the breezing songwriting that dominates ‘The Dark Of The Matinee’. Ending with a lengthy Chic inspired take on ‘This Fire’, Alex Kapranos urges the crowd to get down low during the breakdown, and NOS Alive is suddenly dominated by thousands of indie kids leaping to their feet during that epic inferno of a final chorus. An unlikely triumph, and a band with plenty more to say.
Jack White’s ‘Boarding House Reach’ is one of 2018’s more polarising releases, with the guitarist absorbing hip-hop beats and analogue synths into his stripped down blues-rock bluster. That said, his NOS Alive set is a unifying experience, pulling on the power of his length catalogue to win over the Portuguese crowd. Hits from the White Stripes – a rollicking ‘Hotel Yorba’ for example – are blended into The Raconteurs’ earworm single ‘Steady As She Goes’, while Jack White’s own solo highlights aren’t to be sniffered it.
Ending with a lengthy, fiery take on ‘Seven Nation Army’, it provides another airing for that iconic riff - “Oooh, Jeremy Corbyn”, indeed…
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And now the moment seemingly their entirety of Lisbon has been waiting for. Fans have occupied prime positions at the front all door, while every other arena closes to let fans make their way to the main stage for Pearl Jam. The sheer mass of people is overwhelming, a tribute both to the band’s dogged determination to continue and the universal nature of their songwriting.
That said, it’s not quite our thing. The big singles – a titanic ‘Jeremy’ for example – shine through, but it’s ultimately a staid exposition of blue collar rock delivered in a grunge vein. It’s a little flaccid too, with the lengthy set augmented by an equally lengthy encore consisting of a cover of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and a Jack White aided blast through Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’.
There’s no doubting the sincerity of either band or fans, but Pearl Jam’s attempt to scale the heights doesn’t quite penetrate cloud cover, at least for this observer. The sheer bombast of Pearl Jam’s main stage set pushes back the listings elsewhere, meaning that At The Drive In are forced to play a truncated 20 minute taster.
The band don’t look too happy about it either, virtually demolishing their kit during an explosive, almighty performance – the sheer venom of ‘Arcarsenal’ seems to lay their cards on the table.
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With the night winding down it’s time to escort wearying limbs back to the shuttle bus, a short journey that affords time to reflect on a whirlwind weekend of music in one of Europe’s most attractive capitals. NOS Alive clearly knows its audience and taps into it perfectly, with packed crowds and bombarded stages supplying a neatly-curated bill with feverish fans and animated audiences.
Set mere yards from the docks, it’s the city itself that most instinctively inspires, with its deep historical roots supplying inspiration for a new bout of innovation, an international landscape with a Portuguese flavour. It’s Berlin with better weather, Montreal with custard tarts – and it’s got NOS Alive at its beating heart.
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