“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.