The sun is setting low over Lisbon, and the temperature is finally breaking after a scorching few days on the Iberian peninsula. Shadows are dotted around the city’s endless white walls, the historic 25 de Abril Bridge sweeping out over the Tagus river. NOS Alive is still accelerating, though, a festival rapidly proving itself to be one of Europe’s best. At times like these, you simply have to echo the thoughts of David Byrne: how did I get here?
Wednesday arrives with a visit to the site, the bus winding its way through some of the city’s historic streets. Work teams are still assembling some of the stages, while we’re directed around loose wiring as NOS Alive carefully comes into focus.
It’s an intriguing thought, being on site with no one else around. Are we allowed to charge onstage for our very own Live Aid moment? The answer, sadly, is no, although we are directed to a miniature street, each building a replica of an historic Lisbon landmark.
A night of fado awaits – a kind of slow, mournful strain of Portuguese folk song, sharing a similar beautiful sadness to country music, or the blues. It’s good drinking music, we’re told, and Clash attempts to put on a brave face for Portuguese TV when the camera comes near.
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Duly bolted and assembled, NOS Alive opens its doors on Thursday to blazing sunshine, with temperatures soaring to 34 degrees Celsius and stubbornly staying there. Kojey Radical and HONNE hold down the early slots, two distinctly different British exports who are each impressive in their own astute way.
Maribou State light up the club stage, but it’s not until the introduction of Sharon Van Etten that the festival truly comes into its own. Currently touring her excellent new album ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ the American artist is on imperious form, dipping into her catalogue with refined confidence. A wonderful set, although she’ll clearly regret packing those leather trousers for these sweltering summer evenings.
Weezer’s set is truly bizarre, a kind of defiantly adolescent belch from a middle aged man. Rivers Cuomo wears a bucket-hat throughout, his eyes only just visible over the mic as they toss together an ad hoc set that consists of breakout singles - ‘Buddy Holly’ - and middling to appalling cover versions: Toto’s ‘Africa’ is an international meme, but their tired, and ultimately lame tread through Erasure’s ‘A Little Respect’ desperately needs to be retired.
Jorja Smith underlines her potency, the soulful Brit pulling a huge crowd to one of the smaller stages. She’s not done there, though, becoming the trump card for Loyle Carner’s outstanding late night set – returning to the stage for ‘Loose Ends’, it’s a moment to treasure for two artists who share an incredibly close creative relationships. Different styles, perhaps, but definitely on the same plane.
Over on the main stage Mogwai crank up the volume for a riveting set, one that is both rather incongruous and completely gripping. Long a bold, overwhelming live experience, the band are essentially direct support for The Cure, and respond with a visceral, highly textural group performance. Some old Mogwai stalwarts in here - ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ is given a welcome workout – but there’s also some surprises for long term fans in the audience. A band whose constant ambition and thirst has to be admired.
And then to The Cure. The goth legend’s seismic Glastonbury set seemed to place them in the focus once more, and a colossal crowd gathers at the Main Stage for their performance. Fans hopes are certainly justified – if you get a chance to catch the band on this run then certainly do, with Robert Smith’s towering voice rolling back the years.
It’s a set that toys with expectations, leaving the bulk of their hits to the encore, probing and chewing on darker corners of their catalogue. That said, there is a moment of pure, beaming light: upon finishing ‘Just Like Heaven’ they recognise that nobody could ever possibly top it, so they simply play it again.
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As with the majority of European festivals NOS Alive starts late (by British standards) and finishes late (by British standards). Robyn emerges onstage after midnight, but weary limbs are immediately invigorated by her stunning show, a hit-laden feast of pop perfection that transfers itself to the realm of art.
The onus is on ‘Honey’ but given that it’s one of pop’s most immaculate Millennial statements that’s perhaps to be expected – opening with ‘Send To Robin Immediately’ she throws in blistering ‘Body Talk Vol. 1’ statement ‘Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do’ before encoring with her timeless smash ‘With Every Heartbeat’.
The night faded away with Hot Chip’s enthralling singles collection, but – truth be told – an entire day of 30+ degree heat had virtually worn our limbs to stumps. Suitably rested, Friday opened with some Dutch slacker rock courtesy of the dearly loved Pip Blom, before seguing into electronic ambience from Australian songwriter and producer Ry X.
Perry Farrell’s Kind Heaven Orchestra take to the Main Stage, essentially a travelling circus of rock debauchery and forbidden sexuality. It’s bobbins, of course, but entertaining bobbins – hurling themselves down into the crowd, they tap into the fetid spirit of Jane’s Addictions, and even throw in a few Jane numbers, to boot.
News of Bobby Gillespie’s electric pink suit and electric interview techniques go before him, but Primal Scream blast out a crowd-pleasing set on the Main Stage as the sun beams down behind him. It’s heavy on the hit singles – a swaggering ‘Jailbird’, a strutting rendition of ‘Country Girl’ - but they also toss in a few lesser heralded cuts.
As a Celtic supporter in Lisbon, Bobby Gillespie can’t help but remind the crowd what happened in the city back in 1967, when Billy McNeill lifted the European Cup. Ending with a punchy, Stones-via-punk take on ‘Rocks’ it’s a triumph from the man in pink.
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Johnny Marr draws a massive crowd to the second stage, and he’s on imperious form as he fuses solo gems with Smiths cuts, and the odd Electronic number too. There’s even room for a little nod and a wink to his former sparring partner, with the guitarist altering the lyrics of ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ to the telling: “And I now I know how Johnny Marr felt...”
Picking up the indie baton are Vampire Weekend, whose polite, preppy but thoroughly enjoyable set serves as a reminder of just how many bangers they actually have.
Surprisingly strong new album ‘Father Of The Bride’ supplies the spine of the set, and it’s California-soaked sunshine vibes perfectly suits the Iberian penilsula, a cool evening breeze finally flowing in from the Tagus river.Inevitably, though, it’s those early singles which thrill, and a riotous, beer-spilling, limb-meshing take on ‘A Punk’ provides one of NOS Alive’s real highlights.
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Grace Jones, meanwhile, is a rather more different kettle of fish. The outrageous, outlandish performer leers at the crowd during a taut, ultra-funky set, in which she salutes her Jamaican roots – on ‘My Jamaican Guy’ - and praises, well, herself by performing ‘Amazing Grace’. Colourful and unrepentant, highlights include a joyously over-the-top ‘Warm Leatherette’ and an ultra-sleazy ‘Pull Up The Bumper’ before she departs to an exquisite ‘Slave To The Rhythm’. Truly, one of a kind.
From one defiant female performer to another: Gossip are current Clash cover stars, and we couldn’t resist catching them on the Main Stage. Beth Ditto is a fantastic front person, and the band trawl through their catalogue for a vital, visceral set.
‘Standing In The Way Of Control’ is an obvious highlight, but Ditto re-introduces the queer politics that first birthed the band, speaking eloquently about its origins. Of course, this doesn’t last long – within seconds she’s leading what feels like the entirely of Lisbon in a chant of: Fuck! Trump! Fuck! Trump! Fuck! Trump!
Saturday wakes to clusters of clouds in the sky, with specks of rain helping to rejuvenate those morning limbs. A trip to Sintra is arranged, a tiny, picture postcard perfect village on the slopes outside Lisbon, which leads to the amazing Pena Palace. A kind of ultra-colourful Game Of Thrones set with a side order of Disneyland, it’s a reminder of Lisbon’s regal past, while also providing an incredible view.
Saturday oozes into life with a textured set of restrained electronics from Tourist, leading into a balmy workout from Bob Moses. IDLES, though, are just what is required to rouse us back into life – confrontational, joyous, and supremely entertaining, the Hardest Working Band In Showbiz tear NOS Alive to pieces, sending our pulse racing in the process.
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Tom Walker plays a Main Stage set to an admirably enormous crowd, as we attempt to find a decent spot for Bon Iver. It’s a pensive set from Bon Iver, with his newly announced album - ‘I,I’ - no doubt at the forefront of his thoughts.
Opening with a soulful version of ‘Perth’ it’s a lovingly textured experience, Justin Vernon eager to share the spotlight and the platform with the rest of the band. ‘Blood Bank’ is given a gorgeous live treatment, while it’s left to ‘Skinny Love’ to provide the set’s true focal point, with that tale of love, longing, and loss given fresh life in the Iberian air.
Marina’s pop perfection beckons brightly on the horizon, before Clash stakes out a spot at Thom Yorke’s second stage spot. Smashing Pumpkins are smiling politely in the distance, but the Radiohead frontman is having the time of his life, switching between samplers and mics, even grabbing the bass for a rock-heavy workout at one point. Well, he was in a band with Flea, remember.
The emphasis is on his excellent new album ‘Anima’, and the club elements of his songwriting come to the fore on a fractured but lucid live experience. Some old stalwarts remain, however – the dystopian distrust of the British political establishment represented by ‘Harrowdown Hill’ has rarely felt so painfully evident.
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It’s left to the Chemical Brothers to close, and in some ways define, our NOS Alive experience. Bedlam from the off, the Big Beat duo largely eschew their past for a bombastic, deliriously fun set, one that races to the Heavens and doesn’t look back. Battle hardened by those huge UK festival workouts – Glastonbury, we’re looking at you – the detonation of music and visuals on ‘MAH’ (“I’m mad as hell! And I ain’t gonna take it no more!”) is absolutely sublime, simply one of the most satisfactory, entertaining, explosive festival experiences you’re likely to have this summer.
It’s not all blistering highs, though. ‘Free Yourself’ remains a coy piece of electronic soul, while elements of ‘Star Guitar’ are chopped up and utilised throughout their set. Indeed, it’s Chemical Brothers’ willingness to stick two fingers up to their past that has allowed them to elude the fate of so many of their contemporaries – even the final smash-hit-rundown feels almost punk in its biting rave energy.
As visitors to the city it’s almost impossible not to view NOS Alive through the prism of Lisbon itself. The festival’s most potent acts utilises their history in a fresh, vivid way, aware of their past but forever extending beyond it. Small, compact, and assured in its own identity, both NOS Alive and Lisbon itself remain firmly on our radar another year.
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NOS Alive 2020 takes place between July 9th - 11th.
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