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Summer Belongs to Portugal: NOS Alive 2018 Festival Review

on July 17, 2018, 1:13pm

Beyond the Gates: Last summer, GQ published a story asking whether Portugal was the new Iceland—the new hip vacation spot. It’s no coincidence; the warm weather, beautiful beaches, exquisite architecture, and prime seafood are just a few pieces of the puzzle. But then only a few months after that story ran, NOS Alive announced its lineup for their 2018 edition, brimming with the constellation of stars that rock fans can only dream of.

The top few lines of the festival are pretty damn impressive—Arctic Monkeys, Nine Inch Nails, Khalid, Sampha, Wolf Alice, and more—until you realize that those are the headliners on the first day alone. NOS Alive is the kind of festival that’s unafraid to bash you over the head with a deep bench of international headlining acts, only to then pepper your ears with the thrilling sounds of the vibrant local scenes and beyond.

Over the course of three days, across three main stages, attendees were treated to a master class, from indie to grunge, punk to synthrock, and everywhere in between. This year’s edition of NOS Alive thumped and roared, the beating heart of rock’s present colliding with legends culled from the last few decades. The whole “new Iceland” thing is a strange conversation, but NOS Alive is a guaranteed reason to make Portugal a must-visit every summer.

Best Bites: While getting a taste of other music scenes is a great aspect of traveling for festivals, it’s a real treat to spin through a mini food festival in the midst of all that face-melting-shrill-shrieking rock out. There’s no sweeter break between sets than one that includes boundless Bola de Berlim (a fluffy doughnut oozing with eggy custard), some salty tremoços (lupini beans), or Portuguese-style hot dogs topped with french fries or potato chips. But for a country with such a vital cafe culture, it should come as no surprise that the lines for a cup of coffee were the longest at the festival, attendees seeking out the buzz they’d need to last long into the night.

NOS Alive 2018, Portugal, Photo by Lior Phillips

NOS Alive 2018, photo by Lior Phillips

Chained to the Rhythm: While the majority of the festival slanted heavily to the guitar solo and the rock anthem, there was a powerful subset of groove-friendly artists ready to ignite and keep the party going. Friendly Fires made their bid for set of the weekend, still early on their batch of dates back together after an extended time off the road. The English dance punks even pulled out new material, though hits like “Skeleton Boy” retained their glory. Hot on the release of their excellent third album, Scottish synthpop three-piece CHVRCHES rewarded those that stayed up late with a triumphant set split pretty evenly between Love Is Dead highlights and classics taken from throughout their impactful catalog. Between his SBTRKT cover and all-time jam “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, Sampha kept the feet and heart stirring but with a decidedly more chilled air—perfect for the sun setting on the seaside park.

Don’t Believe the Hype: While rock heroes like Alice in Chains and Nine Inch Nails held down their end of the festival and more current and epic-leaning stars like Marmozets and Perfume Genius pulled their weight, there was a kind of temporal gray area of bands that didn’t quite match that intensity. MGMT, for one, will always get by on their Oracular Spectacular singles, but their glow faded quickly—one song in, quickly. Their niche pastiche suits Nos Alive to a Portuguese tee, but it seems they’ve been rotating their hits so often they seem exhausted. There was nothing unforgivably flat in other sets—or, really, throughout the festival—but when you have peaks as high as this weekend, even slight dips in energy stand out.

The Best of the Tiny Fonts: Stealing the spotlight from the headliners at NOS Alive was a big task, but Portuguese outfit Throes + the Shine certainly had enough light on their own side to get the job done. The wildly energetic Mob fronted the trio, clad in a furry white jacket and shorts, white sunglasses, and white headband. His buoyant moves and furious flow led the way, but Igor Domingues and Marco Castro’s effervescent percussion, synths, and bass pulsed with an unending life. When the set started, only a few scattered onlookers stopped by the smaller NOS Clubbing stage. But by the third song, the ebullient jams drew people in like moths to a flame. Supported by an oracle like statue of an inquisitive lion, gold flags, and palm trees, the group’s endlessly catchy tunes fused Afro-Caribbean, South American, and Portugeuse styles into a sublime stew of dance-rap goodness.

Rock Royalty: While rock royalty peppered the lineup, the ways in which those kings and dukes dealt with their regal stature differed greatly. Bryan Ferry’s elder statesman act somehow held up the former Roxy Music frontman’s legacy and yet felt as vibrant as any buzzworthy act. Two thirds of the singer-songwriter’s set came from the Roxy years, Ferry infusing “Ladytron” and “Love is the Drug” with a simmering intensity. Torch song “Avalon” led to swiveling hips, while “The Main Thing” found him quickly getting in some dance steps with a saxophonist. Solo standout “Slave to Love” continued the swaying throughout the lovestruck crowd.

At the other end of the color palette, Trent Reznor snarled his way through a career-spanning set. The sun had yet to set as Nine Inch Nails began, but the clouds of smoke rolled off the stage to simulate the darkness. A cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” proved to be a burning highlight, while steely versions of “Copy of A” and “Closer” more than earned their rousing ovations. But closing the set in the unstoppable trio of “The Hand That Feeds”, “Head Like a Hole”, and “Hurt” is the kind of thing that cements Nine Inch Nails as one of the great live bands of the era.

Quoteworthy/Overheard: Picking out the funniest line overheard at a festival is the greatest game. But sometimes, you get a moment that rises beyond a “line” and into something more iconic. In between sets, some of the mega-screens surrounding the stages played film trailers, including a particularly eery preview for what may or may not have been The Nun, the latest in the Conjuring series. But whatever it was, the film elicited one of the most cartoonish yelps I’ve ever laid ears on, and the man from whom it emitted flung his beer across his own chest in a frightened jerk of the arms. If we’re going by a more traditional definition of “line,” Cedric Bixler-Zavala got in a pretty notable one as At The Drive-In’s set was delayed by Pearl Jam’s extra-extended encore: “That set was long, but not as long as my dick!”

That One Performance: Anytime The National hit the stage, they’ve got a more-than-solid chance of putting together “That One Performance.” On Friday night, Matt Berninger and co. eked every ounce of drama and glory out of their 15-song set, fueled as always by a sense of desperation. The National are so aware of the world crumbling around them—whether in classics like “Fake Empire” or throughout the majority of latest LP Sleep Well Beast.

Berninger’s end-of-the-world exhilaration, leaping into the crowd and crowing lines to the sky, counterbalances the intense serenity the band is uniquely capable of, the perfect balance for a stage this big. The National pummeled out the finale of “Terrible Love” near the set’s climax, a chill running through the crowd’s collective spine. “I watched the news this morning. That was a bad idea, but this is helping,” Berninger smiled. “I hope this kind of thing spreads.”

That said, tapping Pearl Jam for the headlining spot of your final day is setting yourself up for something special. From the moment the grunge legends arrived, Eddie Vedder beamed and laughed, a magnetic center of attention from which no light could escape. The ecstasy on his face was only matched by the arcs of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard’s guitar fuzz that melded into the chilly night. Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron beat out indelible rhythms, including a scorching take on “Daughter”, among other stone cold classics.

“I drink to Portugal,” Vedder smiled, holding a bottle up to the sky. From Yield standout “Low Light” forward, the extra-sized set (complete with multiple Pink Floyd covers, John Lennon’s “Imagine”, and just about every Pearl Jam song you could ever hope for) led to screams of joy throughout the park. And 23 songs in, just when it seemed every base had been covered—including a snippet of “Seven Nation Army” worked in for good measure—Jack White himself stepped out to join the band for a cover of “Rockin’ in the Free World”. But Vedder’s flawless vocals remain the unforgettable showstopper, and this evening seemed particularly giddy in its perfection.

We’re Going to Be Friends (… “I can tell that we are going to be friends”): Guests joining Pearl Jam for a turn on Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” isn’t exactly cutting-edge—heck, six years ago it got Sleater-Kinney all onstage together before their official reunion. But bringing Jack White into the fold for the iconic tambourine-rocking classic hits another level altogether. This isn’t the first time they’d all jammed—let’s not forget that blistering performance of “Off the Earth” during a surprise Pearl Jam set at Third Man Records in 2016—but there couldn’t have been a more triumphant way to close out the weekend. The cover’s seemingly a little gimmicky and cheesy? Sure. But a nostalgic smattering of hits unleashes an air-punching vigor that festival crowds who are beer-deep into the night supremely fall for.

Boys Club: Calling the top of the lineup star-studded would be a severe understatement. Someone looking to fill out their Rock Legend checklist would’ve gotten a great head start. But taking another look closely at that list would reveal a deficit in women at the top of the lineup—an unfortunately continuing trend on the festival circuit. Powerful bursts of feminine energy came in the form of women like Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry, Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley, and Marmozets’ Rebecca MacIntyre, who all more than made their mark, while local fado gems like Teresinha Landeiro and rising French pop star Jain shone brightly. Eddie Vedder, meanwhile, used a portion of Pearl Jam’s set to expound on the need to end violence against women. But adding at least one woman among the top dozen or so names is an important step and a festival is most powerful when focused on gilding their brand with equality. Putting female stars in prominent slots inspires the women watching, who easily make up at least half of the crowd.

Coming Home: Booking an incredibly stacked lineup is an important part of every festival; putting together an experience after that is what separates the little guys from the legends. And two of the often overlooked elements of that experience are ensuring that the sound systems are top-notch and designing the festival grounds for the best possible sound quality. Something about the curved design of Passeio Marítimo de Algés just lends itself to perfect acoustics, the booming sound funneled right into the ears of the thousands of diehard fans. The top of the lineup may have been a little one-note, but that one note sure was powerful. The guitar ruled the roost, and it was only appropriate that it all climaxed with two of its biggest purveyors joining forces to celebrate one of the most iconic songs of a third. Blowing a line up like this into a preposterous spectacle really works.

After years of constant growth, NOS Alive honed in on a very beloved niche, and explored it with incredible strength. And with the welcoming coast of Portugal, and the astonishing sights, this is undeniably a stride … a full frontal leap into the country’s culture. Lingering Portuguese phrases, clashing, grinding riffs, and tender, intimate musical moments aligned with beloved local stars; the times when a festival indulges in its cultural character are gratifying to experience, a three-day non-stopper that dances between wildly captivating and raw, open-heart pleasure. There’s still plenty more room to grow yet—and the organizers have laid the groundwork to make every year just as spellbinding as the next.

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