Over one side of the NOS Alive site is a sort of mock high street, largely brand-heavy and lined with boutiques, but about half way along you reach the ‘Fado Café’, which has one wall covered with photos of Portuguese musical legends. On the Saturday night, one of the artists celebrated on the wall – Jorge Palma – has stepped out of the picture frame to play two sets in a row front of an almost entirely Portuguese audience. Almost, because he does dedicate a song, a cover of country ballad ‘Long Black Veil’, to “Irish friends” who seem to be in the audience. He has the slightly rasping voice and melodious style of many a European balladeer, with a style that draws as much on folk rock as any local popular traditions.
I get slightly conflicting information about Palma, and I go to check him out because a journalist from music site Mundo De Músicas explains me that, though he’s not a singer of Fado (the popular style known for its intense sadness and capturing of the melancholy longing known as saudade) at all, he is the country’s best singer-songwriter. A lady in the audience, who knows all the words, tells me that his career started in the 60s. Later a younger music journalist tells me that he emerged in the 80s, after the fall of the authoritarian Estado Novo regime. Prior to the Carnation Revolution that that led to the regime’s fall in 1974, he tells me, there wasn’t really any rock in Portugal, only “yé-yé” – a term usually associated with Anglo-aping French music of the period. In fact Palma’s started out in the mid-70s, in the immediate wake of the military-backed revolution, but it does seem that the mid-to- late-80s were his golden years.
Palma is very far from being a main attraction at NOS Alive. If I’m bringing him up at all, it’s because he sits in an unusual music pocket in a festival that’s top heavy with big international names, and because the line-up demonstrates a huge Portuguese appetite for rock, a style that really took a hold here much later that in the UK. Pearl Jam (more on them later), Queens Of The Stone Age, Jack White, Arctic Monkeys… the biggest names here are the riffiest. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it – after all, NOS’ aim is to reach out to international audiences.
The interests of the tourist board and the festival are inevitably intertwined, and on the Friday the delegation of journalists is invited along to the riverside Anfiteatro de Fundação Champalimaud for a press conference. The open-air amphitheatre is part of the space-age biomedical research centre Champalimaud Foundation which, brilliantly, is also known as the Centre of Research into the Unknown. It’s an appropriate location as none of us are entirely sure why we’re here, aside from the fact that it has something to do with a group called Portugal. The Man. who are playing at the festival that evening.
At the press conference, involving the band, politicians and tourist board representatives, we learn that Portugal. The Man. have been invited by Portugal (the country) to help out with its new tourism campaign. Portugal. The Man. are in no way Portuguese but hail from Alaska and chose the name because they thought it sounded like a great superhero alter-ego. The campaign involves inviting artists from around the world to cover Portugal. The Man.’s broadly upbeat song ‘Live in the Moment’; five winners will eventually be selected, included in a promotional video, and invited to play Portuguese music festivals. All this is more fun than it has any right to be, partly because the band seem absurdly delighted that their choice of name has panned out this way, and thanks to the hosting skills of TV presenter and actress Filomena Cautela (“drink a shot every time we say Portugal!” she suggests, after having called the sun a “bastard” for hiding behind the clouds).
The previous evening, I arrive at the site - at the Western end of Lisbon, an agglomeration of stages, hoardings, food stands and synthetic turf planted just a short stretch from where the Tagus river meets the Atlantic Ocean - in time to catch Juana Molina one of NOS Alive’s more adventurous bookings, with her wonderfully spindly, circular compositions and gargly vocal effects. She’s followed by French singer Jain, who is kitted out in a blue uniform with red lapels - a look she’s got together for her second album which, when she stands behind her podium with its panel of 50s sci-fi film set knobs, makes her look like a friendly dictator (instead of the friendly boarding school head girl look she had for Zanaka). She’s also very quick to ensure that everyone is jumping and dancing in time (from the second song in), which doesn’t prove to be too difficult as the rubbery rhythms of debut-album numbers like ‘Come’ and ‘Makeba’, plus the slightly tougher-sounding new tracks, prove irresistible to the crowd.
The first look at the main stage comes with the somewhat incongruously programmed Bryan Ferry. No complaints from me though as, alongside undulating solo hits like ‘Slave To Love’ and ‘Don’t Stop The Dance’, Ferry makes room for a swathe of early Roxy Music tracks – ‘If There Is Something’, ‘Virginia Plain’, ‘Ladytron’, ‘Re-Make/Re-Model’ and even ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’. Is there a heaven? I’d like to think so.
Nine Inch Nails deliver in terms of controlled aggression, Reznor’s upper arms as thick as my head when he grips the mic, and the acid squelches of new track ‘God Break Down The Door’ adding texture to the murk. Of course they do ‘Hurt’, but also Bowie collaboration ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’, which inevitably feels timelier than ever, and is dedicated to “an inspirational friend.” After that, Snow Patrol happen for a while and then its time for Artic Monkeys. The lounge-lizard persona in evidence on ‘Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino’ seems to have been retro-fitted onto all their previous songs, all delivered now in that Iggy-meets-Hawley drawl, suspended in a state of half-parody, but ‘The View From The Afternoon’ still has real teeth.
Wolf Alice, Queens of The Stone Age, and Jack White – who’s all about the squealing solos and just squealing generally (‘Steady As She Goes’ is punctuated by Prince-like squeaks and squawks) – all turn in beefy sets. And Franz Ferdinand get the last evening off in fine style, bringing some sharp UK pop smarts to the main stage, while also steering ‘This Fire’ through an extended, dubby mid-section. Future Islands as ever are carried by the absurd energy, growling and Italianate gesticulation of Samuel T. Herring.
But I’m drawn to some of the festival’s more unexpected guests. On the Friday it’s possible to drift straight from Franco-Congolese collaboration Kokoko! to cult indie heroes Yo La Tengo!. On the Clubbing Stage, Kokoko! – musicians from Kinshasa paired with Breton producer Débruit – are alchemists who take scrap metal parts and a one-string guitar and produce brilliantly buoyant grooves that feel both ramshackle and future-focused. Yo La Tengo! meanwhile, still exist broadly in the field of rock, but with the noise pushed to the point where it blisters and curls, and the set features an epic stretch of literal guitar mangling from Ira Kaplin.
The most surprising booking, though, isn’t a musical one at all. Simon Day – he of Fast Show characters Dave Angel, Tommy Cockles and Competitive Dad and, more recently, Brian Pern – is the only international stand-up booked to play the comedy stage. Kudos for attempting to play a Portuguese festival in character as Billy Bleach, where the gag is essentially that he’s a shit raconteur, but I think the awkwardness of the experience will live with me for some time. Fortunately, his Charles Bronson-like Tony Beckton character (just out of prison after 27 years) is genuinely inspired and the routine culminates with an epically absurd prison break story. At the end he thanks two of us for clapping.
But back to the headliners and the last night, for better or worse, belongs to Pearl Jam. So ok, I generally don’t have that much time for the band, and I approach their set with some trepidation but also a genuine willingness to seek positives and to focus on their ‘integrity’, however that might manifest itself. Many, many hours later any generosity of spirit within me has been surgically drained and flushed into the sea. The sapping of life force starts with a cover of ‘Imagine’, which Eddie Vedder dedicates to “John, Paul… and Roger” and before you have time to think “Well it’s Lennon solo but ok, but Roger…?” they lurch into ‘Comfortably Numb’. Next ‘Seven Nation Army’ is crowbarred into ‘Porch’, before it’s finally time for ‘Alive’s dry-heave of a riff. Just when you think it’s over, Jack White joins in for ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ and I’m convinced this is the worst musical sequence I’ve ever experienced. I don’t think my feelings reflect those of the majority of folk at the festival though – perhaps the real issue is that it’s clearly been stipulated that no other band can start playing until Pearl Jam have finished, and nothing is going to stop them from ploughing ahead. Which means At The Drive In almost have to abandon their set, finally getting only 20 minutes, and as a result they are blazingly, brilliantly furious. Cedric Bixler kicks over gear, seems unable to decide whether or not he should remove his trousers, and signs off with the valedictory howl “Pearl Jam played really long. ALMOST AS LONG AS MY DICK!”
Back over on the Clubbing Stage, I catch a bit of The Gift, who come on a little like a Portuguese Scissor Sisters. The funky art pop of ‘Big Fish’ immediately lifts a partisan crown, and the soaring vocals of cat-suited singer Sónia Tavares raise ‘Music’ (“I’m doing for music, I’m doing for love, I’m doing for everyone around me”) to Abba-like levels of poignancy.
Finally, MGMT - huddled in front of what looks like a giant inflatable Tamagotchi - get their shot at the main stage, and their thin, clean sound and sure melodic touch make a for a soothing comedown.
There’s no denying that NOS Alive delivers in abundance when it comes to big names – the heft of this line-up, compared with the enviable location (just a tram ride from the centre of Lisbon) undoubtedly make it a big hitter. Perhaps the curious and occasional eccentricities could be cultivated further to take it into the realms of the truly unique.