“Is it a dream? Is it a lie?” Win Butler roared during Arcade Fire’s explosive performance of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”. And, walking around the festival grounds of Portugal’s NOS Alive, the show’s sense of ritual still hadn’t stopped rippling through my body, a third question arose. Gigantic neon signs and posters all over read “The Dream is Real”. Looking around the beautiful city of Lisbon, the charming festival grounds, it felt a lot more like a dream than a lie, but the signs acted as a friendly reminder just in case your brain split open from all the talent on display — this was all real. In the festival world full of spectacles and posturing, it feels restorative to wipe away the thick film of anxiety and live in some musical heaven and hope for a few days.
Oh, but there was plenty of passion too, akin to a massive sports match — in fact, a lot like the Euro Cup championship run that Portugal was in the midst of leading up to the festival, and would cap with a championship victory just after. There was a celebratory sense in the entire city from the moment I landed, an almost ceremonial force amping up the already hyped atmosphere of any music festival.
NOS Alive sits perfectly in the interstitial space between sea and cultural landmarks. If you peer slightly to the right during any performance at their biggest stage Palco Nos, you’ll see old castles peering out from under bushels of vines, and to the left, the bluest ocean. There are nostalgic acts at one end and young, rising stars on the other, globetrotting headliners on one stage and remarkable Portuguese artists on another. It might not seem real when you first listen to a lyric of Radiohead, or sing along to the strings of Arcade Fire, or first experience the fado of Raquel Tavares.
But NOS Alive lures it all together, and in this constant sea of variables, having that mix as a souvenir on your musical journey through the breathtaking, beautiful city of Lisbon couldn’t have been a better reminder of reality. So, to celebrate that reality and the 10th anniversary of NOS Alive, here are 10 performances that best defined this year’s installment.
At first I was a little skeptical, a little why-the-fuckery-are-they-singing-about-chocolate-y. But The 1975‘s brand of massively sticky indie pop rock had just never struck a chord personally. Although, performing as the official opener to the festival’s main stage, it seemed it was time to test that hypothesis. And while I may not add their 2016 record (the long-titled I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it) to my playlists, the English quartet’s performance at the Palco NOS Stage certainly proved their worth. You could hear the tears of the girls in the front row crying, as well as the wind flapping against the legions of cardboard signs held aloft for frontman Matthew Healy. Their brief, energetic set hit every sweet spot, deserving of the freakishly fanatic response. If anybody could get away with delivering the saccharine soul of “I Believe You” while wearing a gory T-shirt bearing the name of death metal outfit Cannibal Corpse, it’s Healy — and he did so with an undeniable, eccentric charm, just enough to convince that The 1975 deserve every bit of the massive attention they’re getting.
“I Don’t Want to Break Up With EU,” read Foals drummer Jack Bevan’s T-shirt. Politics aside, the Oxford quintet played with the intensity of a lover clinging to hope for a difficult relationship: at times in jaw-clenching fury, often with forlorn desperation, and at others with palpable joy. Frontman Yannis Philippakis led that charge fiercely, with a bright red hue splashed across his cheeks from spitting out lyrics and screaming his truths. Massive highlights like “Inhaler” and “Mountain at My Gates” were met with equal intensity from the crowd, singing every lyric back to Philippakis with the same passion. Though they had a tough job preceding Radiohead, the massive NOS Alive audience made Foals’ set feel intimate; on average, the crowd were young enough to follow the band’s new direction but old enough to explode for their earliest gems (particularly the math rock groove of “Red Socks Pugie” from 2008’s Antidotes). After demanding a louder roar from the crowd before closing the set, Philippakis jumped into their midst for the raw-nerve “What Went Down”, singing from a fiery swirl of bodies.
As one of the first classic indie bands to reunite, the Pixies spent nearly a decade touring on nostalgia before releasing new music. That time, somewhat predictably, also involved some in-band volatility as founding bassist Kim Deal was replaced by Kim Shattuck. Now on their third bassist, the Pixies are finally sounding like their original raw, explosive selves. It helps that that bassist is Paz Lenchantin, a musician who has provided a pop of energy to many a band in need, from A Perfect Circle to Zwan. Though their set still relied heavily on classics, new songs like “Head Carrier” and “Um Chagga Lagga” (and even a few from the unfocused 2014 album Indie Cindy) packed enough fresh grit to keep things from feeling stale. Frank Black and co. didn’t say much to the crowd, but the renewed energy of their set spoke volumes.
Possibly one of the biggest pleasures of attending a music festival in a foreign country is discovering artists in genres you’d never known or explored before. For NOS Alive, that meant Raquel Tavares and fado. For those uninitiated in the Portuguese genre, fado is a cathartic sway similar to folk music, bursting with intense yearning, emotion, and passion. The beautiful, Lisbon-based artist carried all that and more, performing at a tiny stage that had a facade resembling a cafe. I arrived only to find Tavares-lovers spilling out of the walls and windows of the venue, cheering her on, clapping through the thick layers of smoke that held its shape through Lisbon’s searing heat. While her music tackles the trials and tribulations of her personal reality, it hauntingly translated because of her thrilling and powerful yet intimate voice. Each note had the ability to jump down your gut and stir your entire being. That small Fado Cafe felt even more inviting the second Tavares took the stage, her presence captivating and her songs even more so.
Looking around at the manic dancing, the haze of hands and hair filling the space, you wouldn’t know that Hot Chip were performing at about three o’clock in the morning. But then songs like “And I Was a Boy From School”, “Over & Over”, and “Huarache Lights” act like little concentrated bursts of glee, the kind that will transform any space into a dance floor and any moment into a party. For the sugar-high “Ready for the Floor”, Alexis Taylor bounced and crooned, getting as much disco fun as the buoyant crowd. Throughout, vibrant flood lights spread across the stage, amping the clubby feeling the group’s tunes were more than happy to indulge. The set closed with Hot Chip’s now-trademark cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”; every musician on stage grooved along to the glistening beat, Taylor’s golden tones nestled perfectly in the mix. It might not have differed much from any of their recent festival spots, but a Hot Chip set still knows how to keep the party going, even late into the night. And with over a decade of ebullient performances like this, there’s no reason to suspect that will ever change.
The Chemical Brothers
Some acts might sound stale decades into their career — especially in a field as rapidly evolving as electronic music — but The Chemical Brothers‘ late-night set felt (as it always does) like being catapulted back into the world’s best rave in 1995. It helps that they have both anthemic chant-along hooks (“Hey Boy, Hey Girl”, “Galvanize”, and set-closer “Block Rockin’ Beats”) and one of the world’s best light shows (complete with glowing projections of dancers and miming digital faces). Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons’ music felt at once familiar and mesmeric, the kind of thing you want to drag along your best mate to til your smiles are stuck in an upward curve, mouthes dry from screaming, watching the night sky tint lighter as the sun rises.
It was a massively communal experience, the giant luminous green lights swirling and bass thudding loud enough to move the ground. But that would imply that anyone at NOS Alive kept their feet still long enough to tell whether the ground was moving or not, which surely wasn’t the case: From “Block Rockin’ Beats” up to Born in the Echoes highlight “Go”, the Chemical Brothers kept heart rates racing, arms flailing and feet moving — an entire festival dancing off any residual stress from the day — in a constant forward motion.
With all of the tragic losses in the music world this year alone, it feels especially important to snatch up any chance to see a performance from a member of rock and roll royalty. To be fair, with life as fleeting as it is, it feels vital to do anything you goddamn-well can to enjoy your life. Not that you’d need much encouragement to spend the evening with former Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant and his new band the Sensational Space Shifters. Plant and co. blended together Zep tunes and engaging cuts from their 2014 album lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar. Plant lived up to the difficult challenge of ensuring that his new tunes were treated with the same passion and care as the well-worn legends, the excellent “Rainbow” standing shoulder-to-shoulder with “Black Dog”. The without-question highlight was the slow-burning intensity with which he sang “Dazed and Confused”, gripping the microphone, gritting his teeth, and puncturing the air with a voice that still overpowered the thousands of fans overwhelmed by a true rock icon.
Band of Horses
With a band like Arcade Fire performing later in the night, even Band of Horses‘ Ben Bridwell couldn’t wait. Although the frontman expressed his admiration of the Canadian headliners, there was plenty of reason to be excited for his band as well. Bridwell cut a sharp figure at the front of the stage, his crisp black shirt and crisper tattoos set off well against the swirling white lights. And while the expected favorites like “The Funeral” and “No One’s Gonna Love You” led to swoons en masse, there were plenty of highlights from their latest, Why Are You OK — particularly the irrepressibly jangly “In a Drawer”.
The bassist, drummer, and guitarist didn’t so much as play “rhythmic melodies” as stretch the thick air itself into spirited and fluid motions; Bridwell’s vocals fire in unrefined outbursts, going from whisper to howl to groan, sometimes seemingly in the space of a single sonant; at one point, he started convulsing, swirling his head above his guitar, as though he were purging his emanations like a self-sacrificing witch doctor over a smoke of a fire. Some may have initially seen them as the lead-in to Arcade Fire, but Band of Horses certainly proved their mettle with such an impassioned, heart-rending show. The musicianship on display was so magnetic that the crowd nearly tripled in size before they were through.
The festival energy was tilting toward insanity. Hearing the echoed accents of “Rade-ee-oh-ead” chanting from the crowd might come as no surprise, but the sheer hum tethered the crowd together in unison, hours before the band had even hit the stage. According to Internet rumor, Radiohead‘s NOS Alive printed setlist called for a second encore of “Million Dollar Question”, but there they were, once again, trotting out the ultimate fan favorite: “Creep”. And Thom Yorke and co. couldn’t have looked happier to play the vintage hit. In fact, Radiohead continued their good spirits as their tour supporting A Moon Shaped Pool rolled on.
The Fab Five (+ Clive Deamer) were ecstatic and spazzy, at one point looking at each other as if to say, “Look at what we’ve created!” Yorke lotus-flowered all over the stage with a smirk I haven’t ever seen before, spewing a swarm of “bla bla bla’s” between songs just to fill the air. They seem especially connected to their audience as well, giving equal force to long-loved classics and tracks from their latest LP. The second song of the encore, though, furthered Yorke’s warm connection with the crowd, leading an acoustic singalong of “Karma Police” that matched the volume of any response all weekend. Radiohead played with austere, almost ceremonial ferocity.
“Is it a dream? Is it a lie? I think I’ll let you decide.” Relatively removed from their most recent record, there was some question as to what sort of set Arcade Fire might offer at NOS Alive. The answer: a mammoth, 19-song performance that drew equally from their four studio albums. And if you were to sketch out a sort of career-spanning display of the greatest hits, you’d be hard-pressed to outdo this. “Rebellion (Lies)”, “Ocean of Noise”, “Ready To Start”, and “Reflektor” all drew massive shrieks from the crowd, as did brief teases of Nirvana’s “All Apologies” and The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”. The shimmering, always magnetic Regine Chassagne spun and twirled with streamers held high, dancing along to her vocals on songs like “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”.
Whether it was Win Butler dancing with a Portugal football-scarved papier mâché double or leading a massive rendition of “Wake Up”, Arcade Fire’s set felt like a victory lap, a celebration of all that they’ve done before they move on to whatever comes next. I stayed ’til after the end as my body swayed from dancing so raucously until I eventually shuffled out of the area with tear-drenched cheeks and confetti’d hair, disappearing into a dense soup of human beings as the dust hovered like a ghost nearby along the sea. That sense of emerging into a world I suddenly didn’t recall anymore seemed overwhelmingly fitting; rarely has a band left me feeling like that — not just alive, but revived and reborn.