Over the last 11 years under a few different iterations, Lisbon’s NOS Alive has sneakily become one of Europe’s more appealing festivals. It isn’t hard for international fests to be more enticing than the ones stateside these days, where lineups have become increasingly repetitive. NOS Alive, like other European festivals, tends to offer something more unique in comparison, whether in acts you don’t see booked for American festivals as often or in international acts you don’t see in America, period.
But with the 2018 iteration, NOS Alive also stood out against some of the more widely-known European festivals. There’s an infamous, gigantic, messy sprawl to the monoliths like Glastonbury and Roskilde. There’s an expansiveness to Primavera that is exhilarating, but also a whole lot to take in. NOS Alive is an easier one to grasp, and an easier one at which to see pretty much everything you want. With just three main stages and a few tinier corners, and with a venue as idyllic as a waterside park in Lisbon, there’s a pleasantly manageable vibe to NOS Alive even when the grounds get jammed with festivalgoers ahead of each night’s big headliner.
Like last year’s installment, the 2018 NOS Alive was a festival that felt a little more dominated by rock. This was especially true when it came to the headliners: ’90s titans like Nine Inch Nails and Pearl Jam, Arctic Monkeys in full world-conqueror mode, Queens Of The Stone Age and Jack White coming with lots and lots of riffs. If you like guitars, there’s a lot to love at NOS Alive.
The festival’s opening night established this identity, with a series of loud rock sets as well as some names you wouldn’t normally catch playing to a field of people in the States. Early in the evening, you had a remarkably well-preserved Bryan Ferry delivering a set stacked with old Roxy Music favorites, and the beloved Brit-rock outfit Wolf Alice roaring through new material from last year’s Visions Of A Life. Nestled between the sets, you could catch something different in the form of the French singer Jain and her global pop. Later on, Khalid would take over the same stage and inspire a big singalong to “Young Dumb & Broke,” and SOPHIE would play at 3:10 AM for those festivalgoers who were still standing.
Sometimes there’s an energy on particular festival days, where you have a name big enough that it seems most of the crowd is there for one thing specifically. This is another funny aspect of traveling to festivals in farther-flung locations than Chicago or NYC: In America, Nine Inch Nails’ feral, hit-laden set would’ve been the big climactic finale on the festival’s first night. And it was certainly climactic, but it was followed by Arctic Monkeys. That band’s big in America, but they seem that much more gigantic and iconic overseas. Back when they were touring AM and holding down late afternoon slots at Bonnaroo’s main stage, they sounded like a powerful rock band. Now, they somehow make their new lounge lizard moon hotel concept music work in a primary headlining slot, right alongside all the heavy-hitters people have known for years.
Friday leaned a little further into the indie sphere, though still one where rock enthusiasts would be well-served. Japandroids kicked things off early, while Black Rebel Motorcycle Club offered a chugging, distorted set on the mainstage. Later on, there was a noisy Yo La Tengo set giving way to a customarily excellent performance from the National, who it’s still somewhat bizarre to recognize as having become one of the best festival bands we have right now.
That’s a band you don’t have to try hard to find at a festival, and there were a few other stalwarts that night, including late night sets from Future Islands and CHVRCHES. Both of them were crammed into one of the tent stages well past midnight, crowds spilling out into the surrounding areas. And both of them provided reminders that they are very, very good at this. The frenzy that overtakes a crowd when Future Islands starts “Seasons (Waiting On You)” is far from getting old still.
About that notion that one band’s energy can take over a whole festival: On the final night of this year’s NOS Alive, Pearl Jam was headlining. I’ve come across Pearl Jam at a couple of festivals over the last 10 or 12 years, and it’s always the same. The day they play, you will see a million T-shirts with old ’90s PJ art. You will see a crowd far bigger than any other headliner’s cram into the main field, early, as if the entire festival has gathered for this one act. Like Foo Fighters at last year’s NOS Alive, all roads led to Pearl Jam on Saturday.
Now, there was still a lot of stuff to check out otherwise. Alice In Chains dutifully but effectively ran through most of their classic songs, and Colombian pop singer Lao Ra stood out as one of the artists you’re less likely to encounter at an American festival. Franz Ferdinand, making everyone feel old with the realization that they were one of the more legacy-leaning names of the weekend, played a take-no-prisoners, fiery set that left you with the impression that they’re surreptitiously one of the most gratifying rock bands of their generation to catch onstage.
There was certainly a fervor for Jack White when he appeared afterwards, but it still didn’t feel quite as intense as what happened next for Pearl Jam. Arriving onstage around 11:30, the ’90s legends started the set with a slow-burn feint in the form of Yield’s “Low Light.” But then they went right into “Betterman” and didn’t really let up for most of the set, charging through “Go” and “Do The Evolution,” inciting soaring singalongs to “Given To Fly” and “Corduroy,” and offering a moving set closer in “Rearviewmirror.”
You could quibble with some of their decisions — are back-to-back covers of “Imagine” and “Comfortably Numb” necessary within the confines of a festival set? But those were small concerns in the end. Pearl Jam’s set toed the line between the big, widescreen crowd-pleasing approach, and little touches for longtime fans. They played their beloved B-side “Down.” They played a furious, transporting “In My Tree” — a standout from No Code and one of their best songs — right into “Black.” And at the end of it all, they did “Alive” and brought Jack White out to assist in covering “Rockin’ In The Free World.” It was the kind of festival set that left everyone else decimated. It was the kind of festival set you walk away from saying “Well, that’s how it’s done.”
Given, once more there were nice additions for late night sets in the tents. (One other nice thing about NOS Alive is they still have bands on in the middle of the night, rather than some other festivals’ tendency to approximate a club vibe with a slew of DJs once it’s hit two or three in the morning.) MGMT and Perfume Genius were still to come for those who could stick around. But at that point, the highs of the festival were already established. Pearl Jam, and the other guitar-driven headliners, had left their impression: NOS Alive 2018 had ended as it begun, with a kind of catharsis and magnitude specific to rock music.