Lisbon's NOS Alive was stacked with big names. Out of all the gigs on day two and three, Thom Yorke and The Chemical Brothers were perhaps the pick of the bunch
Ben Willmott
21:00 15th July 2019

After the triumph of The Cure's performance, a high bar has been set for the rest of the weekend's act to reach. With a mere four albums under their belt, Friday's main act Vampire Weekend may not have the same experience to draw on, but their songbook of classic is already bulging.

You know when you're watching a football team and they suddenly hit their stride? Some kind of magic begins to flow and the goals start flying in? There's a section towards the New Yorkers' set tonight that feels just like that moment. A sort of golden streak that reminds you that they have written a clutch of the best indie guitar songs of recent years. It starts with the timestretched vocals and three chord thrash of 'Diane Young'. Then someone in the audience – we can't be sure but it sounds like a music journalist who may have been sitting near the free Sagres tap for a little bit too long - shouts for 'Cousins' and a second later they're playing it in all its runaway train glory, inspiring air guitar poses almost but not quite as ridiculous as the totally implausible guitar solo they're imitating.

It's swiftly on, then, through the pogo frenzy of 'A Punk', the singalong, arm waving 'Oxford Comma' and 'Campus', all from their eponymous debut. Bang bang bang, back of the net. 5-0 to Vampire Weekend.

It's the kind of magic moment that festival dreams are made of. Great to see, too, because they aren't having things all their own way tonight. 'Harmony Hall' and 'This Life' from the new album 'Father of the Bride' hold their own among earlier triumphs, but at other times it feels like they're still settling into the skin of their expanded line up.

Ezra is developing into a confident, affable frontman who has learned the art of communicating with his audience, although he's not yet reached the heights of charisma attained by the wonderful Grace Jones. Over on the second stage, she is writing the book on feeling settled in your own skin. Her face is painted in glowing symbols from some ancient lost civilsation and she's belting 'Slave To The Rhythm' out while keeping a large, luminous hula hoop in motion with an almost imperceptible shimmy of her tiny hips. It's the very definition of showbiz glamour and it's putting a few others on the bill to shame. Johnny Marr, for instance, shares his undeniably beautiful guitar playing with us, chucking in Smiths and Electronic classics and being an all round lovely chap, but his vocals are distinctly average. Let's hope that the political meltdown of his former Smiths sparring partner doesn't put him off teaming up with another great singer sometime in the future.


                                               Photo by Arlindo Camacho

Primal Scream are also still coming to terms with their considerable legacy, and despite Bobby Gillespie's sartorial triumph – his bright pink suit is probably visible from space – their vibe is ultimately a tad pedestrian. The choice to concentrate on the less nuanced moments in their career, Rolling Stones tribute material like 'Moving On Up' and 'Rocks' lends them the feel of a band going through the motions.

At least Perry Farrell's KHO remember to create a spectacle of entertainingly preposterous proportions, like some weird dream you once had where Benny from Abba was turning into Jimmy Page and playing Jane's Addiction songs while numerous backing vocalists perform in extravagant 70s costumes, basically. We hear he's working on a more or less permanent residency in Las Vegas and this stylishly over-the-top production is perfect for it.


                                                  Photo by Arlindo Camacho

Alternatively, there's always the power of righteous anger and throbbing disco music, which the Gossip remind us can be a pretty intoxicating combination by closing Saturday night. So much of today's highlights seem to revolve around expressions of female power, from Grace Jones and Pip Blom's exuberant rampage through the kind of heavy guitar pop that fills the imaginary gap between Courtney Love and Joan Jett. So it feels only right it should end with Beth Ditto doing an amazing job of rousing the tired and emotional masses, declaring “fuck Trump” more times than the president could probably count to, quite rightly rolling out their political agenda (“we're here to protect everybody”) and warning us that we need to take action before the world turns to shit. Then, and again this could have been another weird dream but we're pretty certain it happened, they rampage through a punk cover of George Michael's 'Careless Whisper' and headlong into an orgiastic sounding 'Standing In The Way Of Control'.

There was time, not that long ago, when every band on the bill at a festival would feel the need to pontificate on the state of the world and stick two fingers up to the powers that be. Actually have an opinion and something to share. Tell the audience to “read a fucking book”, like Beth Ditto does tonight. More power to her elbow, we say.


                                                  Photo by Hugo Maceda

By the time Saturday arrives, we're left with two choices, both of which are catered for. For those planning a bump-free comedown, Bon Iver's falsetto-voiced, slow motion histrionics turns the main stage into a massive chillout space for those winding down. As drones buzz overhead and the two story hospitality 'houses' that line the edge field begin to glow impressively, it feels like we're collectively realising what a magic event this has been and how much we'll miss it.

For the rest of us, of course, option two is to keep partying to the bitter end. Proceed to stage two, then, and enjoy Rolling Blackout's nimble rhythms and tightly drilled chainsaw guitars. A great preparation for the gravel throated fun of Idles, who get busy answering the question “what would it be like if a hardcore band had amazing songs as well as awesome musical firepower and an engaging political agenda?“


                                                       Photo by Joao Silva

They don't pull as many people as their growing UK reputation might lead you to believe they could, but those in attendance are all instant converts. This is the moshpit of the weekend, almost certainly, the screens showing bodies flying, miraculously appearing standing on others' shoulders or holding up t-shirts saying 'I'm Scum' when the Bristolians crash through the song of the same name. Dedicating a joyful 'Danny Nedelko' to all of the UK's immigrants, they're a fistful of good vibes punching you playfully in the face.

Thom Yorke's set clashes with Smashing Pumpkins but what with this being only his second show in support of new solo effort Anima we're curious to see what he's up to, His show is quite a revelation, too, especially for this writer who was last impressed by him when Radiohead released their debut single 'Anyone Can Play Guitar'.

Lazy jouranlism dogma will no doubt draw parallels with the Head's Kid A album, but aside from a continued love of splintered, Autechre-like beats, this is an altogether more animated (sorry) and lively approach to fusing electronica with songwriting. Sounds to us that he's extended his record collection from the Warp classics catalogue to take in a bit of leftfield UK garage and dubstep like Burial or Mala, because this is proper dancefloor stuff operating in a much higher area of the BPM spectrum than that album.

Hair tied up in a Goa trance-style ponytail and armed with a bank of keyboards and a guitar, he plays like he's auditioning for Chic – he's clearly picked up a few hints hanging out with Flea of the Chili Peppers – and sings like he's having the time of his life. 'What have you done with the real Thom Yorke?' you're tempted to ask, before quickly shutting up and remembering that it doesn't matter because this version is a lot more fun.


                                                     Photo by Sara Hawk

So then it's down to The Chemical Brothers to round off NOS Alive 2019, and the weekend's final act does not disappoint. Taking to the stage at gone 1am doesn't stop them being a massive pull, and rolling out 'Chemical Beats', barely visible among a blitzkrieg of flashing light, it's hard to spot anyone among the tens of thousands gathered who isn't responding to its marauding breatkbeats and one of the most legendary throbbing acid house breakdowns of all time.

Not long after, they're covering two New Order songs at once, nodding to their roots by sampling Bernard Sumner's chorus from 'Temptation' and laying it over the ice cold synths of 'Age of Consent', a neat trick that New Order themselves would probably struggle to pull off. 'Hey Boy, Hey Girl' opens the floodgates for a succession of their biggest anthems re-invented and re-interpreted through a post-tribal dance music prism where breakbeat, electro, hip-hop, house and techno all gloriously unite and become one.

It certainly bodes well for the future. You can easily imagine the Chemicals returning, like The Cure, in another two decades, because their work, although very different, is equally ageless. Hopefully, we'll still be around to enjoy it too.

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Photo: NOS Alive press