As his flag-waving dancers, all seemingly implanted with a microchip that gives them a 3000 volt electric shock every time they hear any EDM, dissolve into the background, Portuguese Pop Idol winner Diogo Piçarra takes up an acoustic guitar and launches into his judge-swaying big ballad accompanied by the light tinkle of piano and the gentle swoosh-swoosh-swoosh of the zipwire.
Yes, the zipwire. Every fifteen seconds throughout the day, a whooping, selfie-ing punter zips across the front of the stage, flying fifty feet above the massed crowds. Why? Because this is Rock In Rio, baby. And even when Rock In Rio isn’t actually in Rio – 2018 sees its eighth visit to Lisbon and it’s also shaken its copious tail-feathers in Madrid and Las Vegas over the years – it remains the wildest city on the planet. RIR’s main purpose is to cram as many great experiences into the Parque da Bela Vista as can conceivably fit, from the main stage zipwire ride to what looks like the world’s biggest fairground grab-the-gift machine.
Wander along an Incan shopping mall over at Rock Street. Watch festival-goers attempting It’s A Knockout style challenges in a kind of steeply sloping laundrette. Get your photo taken with Darth Maul, catch a hypnotist act between DJs on the dance stage and watch the second stage from beside an actual front-of-stage swimming pool, peopled by Lisbon’s buffest bastards. Most notably, Lisbon’s famous Time Out Market has been transported here for the two weekends of Rock In Rio, with Michelin starred chefs and local culinary superstars knocking up your post-Haim pork sandwich. What no Copacabana?
The festival is loosely divided into a rock half and a pop half – headliners are Muse, The Killers, Bruno Mars and Katy Perry – although the term ‘rock’ itself is loosely deployed. Haim bring their pleasant valley radio pop to the main stage on Saturday, closing out their world tour with a show high on Brazilian drum batteries, Este grimaces and lovely retro drivetime pop melodies, but which largely jettisons their all-out rawk tendencies in favour of a bit more gloss pop balladry and Stevie Nicks ball-crushing. There there’s Bastille, who further try to punk-up the empty, boyband bombast of their advert ‘indie’ by purposefully making the screens look like they’re on the blink, and who beat on a floor tom at the end of the ego ramp throughout their cover of ‘Rhythm Of The Night’ thinking “money, money, money” with every thump. “There’s a hole in my soul,” warbles Dan Smith at one point, which is unlikely. If he has a soul at all, it’s solid brimstone.
Thankfully Muse are onsite to hand Bastille their arses on a proper rock platter. In the week that they premiere the cinema film of their eye-exploding Drones tour to the press, they decide to clear the slate with a frills-free show; just the three of them, some minimal screen visuals and pyro, a loitering keyboardist and arguably the mightiest set of pop metal mayhem of the century.
Stripping away the flash, flam and inflatables tonight seems like a purposeful rebirth of Muse’s core rock maniacs, albeit wielding twenty years’ worth of stadium slaying material. The Drones tour, originally dreamt up way back on their debut album tour, was nothing short of a technological marvel, pushing boundaries of stagecraft and arena rock possibilities, but also shackling the band’s inbuilt spontaneity a little. So RIR finds Muse wiping off the face-paint and cutting loose; Matt Bellamy the air-kicking pixie Vai, Chris Wolstenholme the moody model, Dom Howard a punk Simon Le Bon.
Opening with latest single ‘Thought Contagion’ might suggest that Muse have fallen victim to the UK-wide outbreak of Bastillitis, with its beefier take on their ever-present chorus chants. But before you know it they’re rolling out the drill sergeant video and stormtrooping into the monster glam ‘Psycho’, the tale of a soldier transformed into a mindless “Superdrone”, full of Floyd bass runs, AC/DC heft and Parque-quaking swagger. ‘Hysteria’ sees Bellamy striding along the ego ramp wielding his guitar like a flamethrower in a cellarful of zombies; come an early ‘Plug In Baby’ he’s firing feedback from his guitar straight into the crowd and playing the iconic riff behind his head like a champion. They seem, to be frank, unleashed.
After the electro interlude of ‘The 2nd Law: Isolated System’ and a run through recent single ‘Dig Down’ that strangely resembles an android Showaddywaddy, the set reaches an early peak as the churchy chorale of ‘Resistance’ becomes an unhinged riot of sound, giving way to a celebratory ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ (Bellamy playing his guitar’s neon pad with his tongue in the world’s first recorded instance of Bellamingus) and ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. A red-tinged mirroring effect on the video screens turns the band into two-headed beasts and demons, this intense slab of violent euphoria sounds like the heroic national anthem of some chaotic Underworld and Matt ends the song on his knees out on the ramp, tearing riffs clean out of the neck of his guitar before kicking the broken wreck of an instrument back up the ramp to the stage. It’s an outburst of melodic power and visceral ferocity that, with apologies to QOTSA, no other rock band on the planet can match. Downright phenomenal.
The crowd-pleasing final third of the main set – ‘Madness’, ‘Starlight’, ‘Time Is Running Out’, ‘Mercy’ – bring essential lightside counterpoint to such mania, but it’s in the encore that Muse’s true significance darkly gleams. ‘Take A Bow’ is a brooding piece of opera metal written to admonish some Dubya-era despot who will “burn in hell for your sins” but it’s grown in import since then. Like many of Muse’s on-record theories of global control systems, one percenter conspiracies and disasters in waiting, it’s a premonition from the innocent, halcyon days of 2006 that’s become terrifying truth.
It makes the call-to-revolt of ‘Uprising’ sound all the more relevant to our troubled times too - even if, in 2018, the “they” whom the song demands will not control or degrade us would be more likely considered those deranged Titanic steerers May, Johnson and Rees-Mogg rather than the shadowy overseers of the United States Of Eurasia. So Muse hit 2018 with most of their conspiracies confirmed (we’re still waiting for the Mars rover to uncover traces of Cydonian Knight), a band determined to open eyes as they melt faces.
The Sunday hordes need fear no such enlightenment – this is pure pop party all the way. Brazil’s twerkmeister general Anitta puts on a global pop show that’s roughly one per cent Carmen Miranda, two per cent Katy Perry and 97 per cent buttock. Demi Lovato delivers a bombastic pop and R&B set that walks the tightrope between S&M spank show and Adele emoting. And Bruno Mars is pure James Brown revue meets Jacko groovefest, a retro disco extravaganza featuring more fireworks than a Chinese new year and an all-dancing backing band.
Everything Mars does is tried-and-tested pop formula. He opens with the Chic-like disco funk run of ‘Finesse’, ’24 Magic’, ‘Treasure’ and ‘Perm’, in which he encourages his potential paramour to “activate your sex” as if it was as simple as turning it off and on again. ‘Versace On The Dancefloor’ emulated one of Michael Jackson’s more Disney ballads and the brace of guitar songs, ‘Marry You’ and ‘Runaway Baby’, were almost tributes to teen idol rock’n’roll. When he isn’t trying to dance like Jacko, he’s playing the two sides of the festival off against each other like the cheesiest old stadium rocker.
It’s a smart concoction – what’s spangly new pop music to his teenier fans is fond nostalgia to their accompanying adults, and he plays on his non-revisionist slant shamelessly. During ‘Calling All My Lovelies’ he picks up a chunky 80s mobile phone to mock-call a reluctant hook-up. But while his set is flabby at 90 minutes – nobody needs a drum or sax solo and surely his audience aren’t best known for their love of lengthy classical piano segments – at core it’s a fun, by-numbers retro-pop party right down to the ‘14-via-‘68 closer ‘Uptown Funk’. Hits and teeth, boys, hits and teeth.