From countering fascism and nurturing independent music, to viscerally pummeling Greek guitar gods - Portugal's first ever showcase festival triumphs on its sixth edition
Cai Trefor
16:40 15th April 2019

Guimarães, Portugal, may not be the first city which springs to mind to visit for a festival but for those growing numbers drawn to Westway Lab professional conference and showcase festival it's becoming an annual jaunt that cannot be missed.

Officially, the event spans two weeks, but most things connected to it happen over four days (10-14 April). Centrally located, Westway Lab takes place in numerous places in the city but mainly at the spectacular Centro Cultural Vila Flor which is at the top of a tree-lined avenue a short walk from the heart of the city. CCVF, as it is abbreviated, incorporates a modern complex built in 2005 (here there are two auditoriums, a concert cafe, restaurant, exhibition space, and an outdoor pop up stage) and an old palace and gardens. The palace is decadent and built by poet Tadeu Luis Antonio Lopes de Carvalho de Fonseca and Camoes in 18th century. It's a place with a beautiful tree-landing garden and went on to be used to welcome royals. Even in a city with a stunning array of well-preserved medieval buildings and a jaw-droppingly beautiful web of cobbled narrow streets, it stands out as one of the most impressive buildings in the city. It’s a welcome hub for the few days Gigwise spends here attending talks, panels, and watching shows listed on the meticulously crafted festival programme. Here’s what we learned as one of the many international guests at this year's edition:

Fostering internationalisation is lucrative for the Portuguese music scene

One of the key aims of Westway Lab is to have a process for developing the young, growing contemporary Portuguese music industry. It's putting the wheels on what was, a decade ago, a less outward looking and collaborative vehicle. For Westway Lab's co-founder Nuno Saraiva, who is speaking to Gigwise whilst sat in CCVF, the process of spawning Westway Lab – the first ever Portuguese showcase festival and conference festival – in 2014; in addition to the creation of AMAEI (Portuguese Independent Music Association; run by Ana Rita who founded Level:Up distribution) in 2012, and the export office Why Portugal in 2016, have all essential measures in getting results for artists in the independent sector; predominantly. Their notable work behind the scenes collectively on indies has, unsurprisingly, had a trickle down effect in drawing the attention of some majors: Why Portugal now works with majors as an export office with Marta Pereira da Costa being a Warner artist and NEEV also signed with a major.

Speaking specifically about Westway Lab's benefits for artists, Saraiva tells Gigwise, with a skip in his step, that it’s enabled Portugal to take part in Eurosonic’s ETEP (European Talent Exchange Programme) network which led to the Portugal country focus in 2017. "The country focus cost £100,000 between all partners but the return was over £900,000. That includes a big label and publishing deal for NEEV." A great look for the country's GDP and showcasing how the arts benefits the economy.

Saraiva also emphasises why broadening horizons and connecting with professionals throughout Europe, and, indeed, the whole world is important: "I think for Portugal it's important, there’s only 11 million people and even though there’s a good summer festival circuit there isn’t a venue circuit to tour in the winter for example. And we’re living in a global marketplace with music being digital so it makes sense to foster internationalisation so artists can make a living."

Perhaps the biggest gesture Westway Lab makes of this sort is one most people attending Westway Lab don't see: The night before it kicks off properly (9 April), 22 European export offices gather in Guimrães to discuss an EU export study for nine hours and work towards a common goal. "Before you can grow you need to make sure have a level playing field. Our export office next to France's or Netherlands' is not as big but understanding everyone is in it together," and applying things they've done in their countries in Portugal helps build a strong future for Portugal, says Saraiva.

As for an example of this internationalisation we see in real time, on Friday (11 April), the ‘Festivals Panel’ in one Vila Flor palace’s meeting rooms, BIME’s Vera Wrana (a Basque country showcase festival director) announces an open call for Portuguese musicians to apply for the Basque country festival showcase festival. It appears to be a spontaneous gesture to give back for the opportunities that Vargas has had here as a guest in Portugal. The Portuguese indie musicians sat hearing the panel start rustling in their seats and appear excited about the future. It's great seeing this sense of hope about their country's collaborative industry

And in terms of outside influence rubbing off on young professionals based in Portugal and work happening on the ground here in more 'industry' roles, it’s accelerating at a fast pace and the future seems bright. For instance, we learn over the course of the week that discussions at this festival in previous years stimulated the creation of the first digital distribution by one of the Westway staff. And the first Portuguese synch company has been founded by musician João Pascoal. It gives credence to the festival positing itself as a 'Lab' for new ideas. 

The artist residency programme concocts a powerful energy

For most, visiting Westway Lab you are late to the party; this multifunctional event actually kicks off a week prior with a seven-day artist residency programme, which places Portuguese artists with musicians from across the world. The idea is fairly simple: Put musicians who’ve never met, get them to live out of each other’s pockets in an old building outside Guimarães called Centro de Criação de Candoso. Have them jam together in small groups of two or three and agree to play a showcase gig after. There’s no pressure to play finished songs or record and there’s a healthy emphasis on the process of collaboration as opposed to the result.

In speaking publicly at an informal conference in the old town about the experience to festival goers – something creative director Rui Torrinha does annually to create transparency about the residencies – this year seems like an overwhelming success. Canada’s Tribe Royal describe making “friends for life.” And there is a shared sense of graciousness for the experience of being in this unstructured writing camp. As to why it’s unstructured and there’s no pressure to record and make finished songs, I ask creative director Rui Torrinha about it and his response is fairly spiritual: It’s about nurturing a powerful energy and seeing people free and expressing themselves that is most important.

As for the showcases, which are four concerts held across two subsequent evenings at Cafe Concerto in CCVF, the level of musicianship is strong. The Latin-influenced melodies and hip-hop inflections from Yousune mix with 70s alt-rock style of Canada's Tribe Royal; intimate love songs performed in a stripped back way by Captain Boy and Italy's Violetta Zironi feel complete; the transcendental analog electronica from Lince and João Pascoal is an audiophile's dream; and upbeat indie from Austrian band Mickey and Beatriz Nunes brings a nu-rave feel that goes down well. The latter come across like a finished proejct and have plans to record, according to Nunes' management. Bravo.

Opera-trained two-piece garage rockers Les Deuxluxes leave us awe-inspired

Westway Lab invited Canada to be the focus country this year – it's a common thing on the showcase festival to have a special emphasis on a given territory. This year was the first Westway Lab to have this focus on a country outside of Europe and the esteemed Canadians picked to play are Megan Nash, Sarah MacDougall, Les Deuxluxes, Tribe Royal, and The East Pointers.

It's Les Deuxluxes, though, that catch our imagination the most. The two-piece employ tight, distorted riffs with snarling vocals which give a sense of defiance and an attractive amount of self-confidence without being too ego-driven. It’s a show that has the security on edge as we start transforming the back of the 800-cap modern amphitheatre into a moshpit, before going down to the front row and being starstruck by these two unknowns from Montréal. Immediate comparisons to The White Stripes and The Runaways can be made but there’s nothing watered down. They bring throwback garage rock sounds and make it fun and vital in 2019 which isn't an easy thing to do. Having lead vocalist and guitarist Anna Frances Meyer first train as an opera singer definitely gives them an edge. As does her drummer, whose dress sense suggests a youth firmly into 70s rock and glam and psychedelia, since he simultaneously plays guitar and looks like a classic blues legend in the process. It feels utterly complete and ready for international domination.

Greek band Theodore are mind-blowing

Saturday at Westway Lab (13 April) marks the final day of talks and all panels wind down before lunchtime. This day has much more emphasis on live shows, with shows running all day in the city and all night back at CCVF. Our highlight, however, is Athens-based band called Theodore who play an outdoor show at Bar Ramada – a venue tucked away from the web of narrow streets most tourists gather at yet worth the short walk away from the main drag. One of the key draws of this venue – it's a real highlight of the City showcases – is the chance to see the remnants of the city’s medieval tanning industry as a backdrop for the pop up stage: these three-metre tall rotating tanning drums become beautiful props. And it looks especially cool for Theodore's apocalyptic mix of guitar, drums, vocals and electronics. 

Their towering sound, which has no right to sound this big for a showcase festival, is helped by a stadium-ready backline and umpteen effects pedals. In contrast to their recorded output which ebbs and flows between soaring cinematic atmospheres and tender classical, bleak atmospheres, they’ve gone full pelt. And it’s a decision that serves them well: the more hard-hitting guitar-driven material evokes The National’s weighty, textured sound and even without a huge lightshow and it being day time here at Bar Ramada, nothing feels like a compromise in their execution. They’re tight, confident and Theodore – the singer from whom the band gets its namesake – flutters around his mic stand with the sort of restlessness Thom Yorke gives off when he's hypnotised by his own band’s prowess. It’s an infectious mood to be around at six o' clock on a Saturday night, tee-ing up the rest of the night’s promise beautifully. No wonder they supported Sigur Ros in their own neck of the woods. Great band.

Anti-fascist messages are given a platform

Thinking back to our time spent at the Vila Flor Palace where the conference was taking place, one of the most profound things we learn from there happens when the attention moves away from technical business chat and towards something even more universally relatable.

The message, which is the foundation for a lot of what Westway Lab bases its actions on, comes from Berlin Lollapalooza festival director Fruzsina Szep's talk. Specifically, the Hungarian-born professional's presentation about the advocacy campaign Take A Stand. 

Szep, who also ran Sziget festival for years and co-founded this campaign, tells us of its mission to communicate "tolerance for all cultures, genders, races, religions, sexual orientations, colours and origins" and use festivals as a communication platform to get this across. Important because the industry has over 100 million people attending annually who are open to engaging with such messages. During the talks she shows images of different publicity stunts they've done with artists and crowds at massive festivals

And it's difficult to imagine a better person to lead the campaign: the director gave Lollapalooza an ultimatum of leaving her post if they proceeded to have Kanye West on their festival bill after he allied with Trump. Given the perpetual need to counter populism and right wing fascism, seeing someone parading such a case feels unquestionably important. Plus, kudos to Westway for having her present Take A Stand in front of so many other people working the festival industry as it helps more festivals to ally and get involved. Discover more about Take A Stand.

Discover more about Westway Lab here if you're interested in attending next year.

Grab your copy of the Gigwise print magazine here.

Photo: Cai Trefor