Though it’s had a few different names over the years, NOS Alive has been taking place in Lisbon since 2007. Like some of its European counterparts, it offers a breath of fresh air compared to the standard structure and setting of the big American festivals. It’s on a park on the water and, like Primavera, mostly takes place from the evening through the early morning — altogether a more survivable festival experience than the more unforgiving iterations of Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza. With a lineup placing Portuguese artists alongside a more idiosyncratic selection of international acts, it’s also a chance to take in something a little more unique.
NOS is sort of structured as one long row that opens up into a wide main-stage field. In terms of layout, it’s a slightly smaller fest, with two other primary stages — one somewhat amusingly and inaccurately entitled “NOS Clubbing” and the other a tent stage. On the first night, the tent hosted raucous sets from Ryan Adams and Royal Blood, but there was a kind of synergy to how the mainstage was booked: Alt-J and Phoenix made sense back to back, and then the xx served as a logical transition point between all the European synth-pop and the late-night decadence of the Weeknd. It’s still somewhat bizarre that the xx have ascended to this place of being downtempo fest headliners — their sets are still a little sleepy for that point in the night — but when things picked up with the pairing of Jamie xx’s “Loud Places” and “On Hold,” it was a perfect festival moment.
On Friday, Foo Fighters’ headlining set loomed over the whole day, and then wound up being so triumphant and straight-up fun that it pretty much overshadowed everything that had preceded it. But there were good to reasons to get there early (by NOS standards). Savages played in the evening and brought all the ferocity their live show is renowned for; Jehnny Beth did the thing where she climbs out into the crowd and balances on people’s hands and shoulders, still somehow delivering some of her most intense vocal parts. They were followed by Warpaint, whose unspooling, humid psychedelia provided a necessary comedown and interesting counterpoint to the heaving post-punk squall that had preceded them. That night also had a curiosity on the mainstage: the Cult. This was…slightly more disappointing. Ian Astbury’s voice has held up surprisingly well over the years, and hearing songs like “Rain” or “She Sells Sanctuary” was cool, but even though the Cult lost their way a very long time ago, it’s still a bummer to see a band with some of the most underrated/forgotten music of the early ’80s age out into some kind of generic biker hard-rock group that sounds built for the universe of True Detective Season 2.
After Foo Fighters’ climactic Friday set, NOS Alive’s Saturday was a bit quieter — it didn’t feel quite as crowded or feverish, with a lineup that had highs mixed in with less inspiring moments, like Cage The Elephant (who are at every single festival of 2017) and Imagine Dragons (who are Imagine Dragons). Along the way, there was exciting stuff like Benjamin Booker’s scorched garage-blues, an insanely catchy set from the ever-professional Spoon, and the beauty of a revived Fleet Foxes. The big hook, however, was Depeche Mode, a group that is definitely not a typical choice for a festival headliner from an American perspective. And they weren’t a typical festival headliner for a legacy act either — they sacrificed old favorites and hits (which sadly meant no “Just Can’t Get Enough”) for new material. But they sounded incredible across the board, and when the hits did pop up, it was stunning — you can almost forget just how classic “Enjoy The Silence” is until you see a huge crowd singing along, arms outstretched, through its entirety.
There are little things NOS Alive suffers from — the layout sometimes leads to crowd movement issues, its desirable location has the flipside of occasionally being a pain to get home from quickly, and a main-stage area flanked by a ton of corporate-sponsored viewing decks, while colorful or whatever, is a bit much. But this stuff applies to a bunch of festivals. The tradeoff with NOS Alive is you get a cool lineup on pleasantly mild Portuguese nights, and then the next morning you can go walk through gorgeous Old World streets throughout Lisbon and eat some of the best food of your life. If they keep booking interesting lineups, one has to imagine NOS Alive will become a bigger name internationally in years to come.