Each July, the festival NOS Alive takes over a stretch of land just off the water in Lisbon. If your Instagram feed is anything like mine, it might feel like literally everyone you know has been to Portugal in the past couple years. And while visitors from America and the UK might’ve recently figured out how beautiful Lisbon’s Old World streets are, they might also find that it has some of the more enjoyable festival options in any given summer, too. Just as it did in 2017 and 2018, NOS Alive had another strong year of curating an array of international talent that might not play Portugal so often otherwise.
The lineups of NOS Alive have always been a little bit top heavy — major international names sitting at headliner status, with more local Portuguese acts or the occasional DIY-level rock band popping up lower on the poster. This year was no different, although it might’ve been even more impressive in terms of big act firepower. Where in recent years there could be one act, like Pearl Jam, overshadowing current festival journeyman like the National, there didn’t feel as if there was one single huge name lording over NOS Alive 2019. Instead, it was a pretty constant series of big field conquerors: the Cure, Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver. Even the festival’s tent stage across the grounds had people like Robyn and Thom Yorke.
Another consistent aspect of NOS Alive is that, compared to many other festivals in Europe or Stateside, it tends to skew a little closer to a rock focus. Though its 2019 incarnation wasn’t quite as riff-driven as last year’s, there was still a lot to love for those still enamored with guitar music. As it typically goes, there was a blend of more of-the-moment names with some big legacy artists. NOS Alive always seems to have a couple ’90s alt-rock icons around, with the grunge era this time being represented by Smashing Pumpkins and Perry Farrell with his new Kind Heaven Orchestra. Amusingly, it wasn’t too hard to overhear conversations in which, not realizing Farrell was the leader of Jane’s Addiction, people puzzled over the aging rocker with the set that came off like a theatrical sex circus, or something.
As for the more indie-oriented part of the fest, Sharon Van Etten played a weirdly early evening set. Heavy on new material from Remind Me Tomorrow, it was a showcase for Van Etten’s powerful vocals and the new rockstar vibe she’s cultivated upon her return; it’ll likely come as no surprise that “Seventeen” proves that Van Etten can write a hell of a festival-ready jam when she wants.
On the final day, there was the one-two of Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and Idles on the same stage — a well-arranged pairing for those interested in a rising generation of guitar bands. Having been on the road seemingly constantly in the last year and a half, RBCF are a well-oiled touring machine now. Live, their three guitar lineup is a lot more audible than it might be on their recordings; there’s a heaviness and muscularity to them onstage, even as their propulsive, efficient songwriting keeps everything moving along breezily.
Idles, in comparison, were a nonstop eruption. Their live reputation precedes them, and they have gotten bigger and bigger in Europe. The crowd packed tightly into the tent and spilled far out in every direction; the band were treated almost like one of the weekend’s main headliners.
That is, perhaps, one of the more interesting takeaways you can get from the European festivals that still have a ton of international acts rather than solely focusing on local talent: just how much context can shift the experience of seeing bands you already know well. Idles are popular in America, but clearly on a different level here. And NOS Alive 2019 was full of little surprises like that, things you just wouldn’t see at an American festival.
That meant you could watch Mogwai’s majestic post-rock flow forth across a sprawling mainstage field. You could see Grace Jones perform all her classic songs, with a broad variety of masks and hats, and wonder how someone can be 71 and still cooler than anyone in their remote vicinity. Rather than see Hot Chip mid-evening on a mid-sized stage in America, you could see them throw an insane dance party at three in the morning. (The same went for Cut Copy the following night.)
There were some weird surprises mixed in there, too — like Robyn somehow being on a tent stage, and then that gig not being all that crowded in the end. Being up against the Cure’s generation-uniting hits might’ve put a dent in Robyn’s crowd size, but she still brought one of the most exhilarating sets of the weekend, concluding with a string of affirming singalongs. Thom Yorke occupied the same spot two nights later — himself up against Smashing Pumpkins — and delivered a set that alternated between funkier, dancier versions of his solo material and truly moving and restrained moments, like when he opened an encore with the new version of “Dawn Chorus.”
And, naturally, a couple of those European festival context surprises were less pleasant ones. No festival lineup is perfect, and one of the more head-scratching big stage performances was Greta Van Fleet. Apparently, their structureless pastiche — solo after solo and wail after wail bled endlessly into each other, resembling a basement jam session from 1972 more so than finished songs — is also disturbingly popular across the Atlantic. The following day, Tom Walker’s bland pop represented another dip in the mid-evening programming. For what it’s worth, people still seemed to love that set, too.
And after it all, there were still the kinds of universal moments that feel that much more powerful in a festival context. The Cure sprinkled their heavy-hitters throughout, the whole age range of the festival visibly dancing to “Just Like Heaven” together. Similarly, Smashing Pumpkins’ Saturday night set might’ve strayed from the kind of greatest hits set you’d want from them at a festival, but peaked memorably with a run of “1979” into “Tonight, Tonight” into a cathartic “Cherub Rock” during the set’s final stretch. From there, you could still have one more late-night dance party courtesy of the Chemical Brothers — one last interesting touch that’d remind you that you’re definitely not at an American festival.
Sometimes it can feel like these festivals could get an unfair advantage. If you’re comparing, say, suffocating humidity in Tennessee in June to sea breezes on Lisbon nights in mid-July, there’s certainly one of those that sounds a bit more magical. Still, NOS Alive never just rests on the appeal of its hometown (or the recent surges of tourism into Portugal). As it steadily plugs along in its second decade, it has a good formula down — a handful of major headlining acts, a manageable festival site, great local food. If you’re still waiting around for an extra reason to visit Lisbon, NOS Alive could be it.