NOS Alive Festival 2016: The Best Performances

“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 2016 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 the performances that best defined this year’s installment.

The 1975

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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.

Foals

“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.

Pixies

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.

Biffy Clyro

Crack down at sundown. Biffy Clyro are in uniform, naked from the waist up, and – unlike their glorious home nation – here in temperate Lisbon the balmy evening is giving more than a few people reason to bare flesh. “Wolves of Winter” is first to rattle through the festival sound system, many decibels louder than the tempered volumes of this festival’s UK equivalents, the song will become Biffy’s call to arms in what is now their seventh full album/tour cycle. ”Obrigado” Simon Neil offers the locals, his thanks post a blistering rendition of “Living is a Problem Because Everything Dies”. The Portuguese salutations are well meant but go lost in translation – especially when foreign visitors account for over half the NOS Alive crowd, more than a couple raising the Saltire tonight.

“Friends and Enemies”, a new tune with spunky eighties retro-pop style, sounds not light-years from their warm up act The 1975 and certainly supports the Biffy rhetoric – this new record has them throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. It’s familiar favourites, like “Bubbles”, “The Captain” and “Mountains”, that reliably deliver though, each one sending NOS Alive up in a chorus of rapturous fandom – arms pointed to the sky through each anthemic refrain.

“Can we play all night?” James Johnston queries, “we can jam with The Chemical Brothers.” It’s a popular suggestion but one that Simon soons puts paid to: “Maybe I’ll mind. It’s not for me that shit.” “Many of Horror” and “Stingin’ Belle” provide the final sing-alongs before Biffy bid farewell to Lisboa. This monstrous display of force, even with the obvious omissions (“God & Satan”, “57″ anyone?), bodes well for their much-anticipated return to Reading and Leeds headline duties next month.

Tame Impala

“Oh, I see what you’re doing Lisbon,” smiles Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker with a devilish grin, “taking your clothes off in front of the camera. Do what you want, this is a festival.”

Amen, and never as the track “Let It Happen” seemed more fitting as droves of sun-kissed beautiful youths, both male and female, take to the skies on their friends shoulders to lose their minds and a few items of clothing. From Primavera to Glastonbury, Tame Impala’s mesmeric psych has proven to be the sound of summer 2016. With a full-bodied world of sound, an angelic voice and a genuine, warming heartfelt sentiment that runs through all they do, they simply couldn’t do more to make you fall in love so absolutely – then they throw in cannons full of ticker tape. Pure, audio, visual bliss.

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, mouths 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.

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.

Radiohead

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.

Arcade Fire

The word ‘Radiohead’ was still echoing around the site in Lisbon on the closing evening, as the eyes of animated fans still beamed wide in disbelief. Following in their footsteps would be too daunting a task for most, but from the opening burst of first track “Ready To Start”, a similar level of religious fervour greets the band – as symbiotic waves of joy bounce between them and the crowd. It’s quite clear if there’s anyone capable of picking up the baton from Thom Yorke and co – be it tonight or in terms of leading the musical vanguard – it’s Arcade Fire.

“I think white men have run the world for a while, I think it’s time women and people of colour tried for 100 years or so,” spits frontman Will Butler in his only but perfect utterance of the set. Shrieks of approval from the like-minded and liberal masses greet him, before effortlessly sinking back into their ocean of glorious noise. While no new material is aired, tonight’s set is evenly balanced between their four game-changing albums – as well as nods to Nirvana and The Sex Pistols as they weave brief snippets of covers into tonight’s technicolour tapestry.

Running from the off with a smattering of favourites from The Suburbs, an early climax comes when Regine Chassagne takes control for “Sprawl II”, as she gleefully twirls across the stage as a carnival atmosphere overcomes Lisbon. Then Reflektor’s title track into the soul-renewing “Afterlife”, tropical bounce of “We Exist” and the art-rock wig-out of “Normal Person” remind us what immaculate form they were in when they last left us. There’s never a moment where we aren’t arm in arm in stunned silence (“My Body Is A Cage”), jumping as high as gravity will allow us (“No Cars Go”), dancing past oblivion (“Here Comes The Night Time”) or feel close to bursting in joyful chorus (“Rebellion (Lies)”). The overwhelming closer of “Wake Up” leaves all present overwhelmed, and not in the slightest bit cheated at the lack of encore.

With an effervescent spirit, Arcade Fire honour their past, play like a band celebrating every second of the present, and leave us desperate to behold their future. It’s just feels so damn good to have them back.

Categories: Features, Reviews