Rock In Rio is enormous. Held 27 - 29 September and 3 - 6 October at the Olympic Park, the 385,000 m2 site is an eye-popping feast for the senses when the fest is in full swing. In addition to a spectacular array of stages – including the biggest main stage in the world – they’ve woven into what would otherwise be a straight up music festival attractions more synonymous with a theme park. For instance, there’s a rollercoaster, a gaming area, a zipline, New Years Eve-worthy firework displays reacting to the beat of the famous Rock In Rio theme tune happening nightly. To top it all off, the festival's backdrop is a verdant, mountainous rainforest to make you feel truly far from home and landed somewhere special.
Above and beyond any physical construction, however, it’s the famously passionate Brazilian crowd that makes Rock In Rio an event to remember for a lifetime and history plays a big role in this.
Conceived by Brazilian businessman Roberto Medina, Rock In Rio began in 1985, the biggest rock concert in the Americas at the time and held just down the road from where it is now. It was held at a time when Brazil was emerging from a period of military rule, marking a time of liberation. Subsequent editions, including a reciprocal event in Lisbon, extend this deeper role as more than simply a music event.
It faced a big backlash in its attempt to continue business. The more lax but still conservative authorities were afraid of the empowerment it would give ordinary citizens, so it was stunted; this is according to Roberto’s daughter and vice president Roberta Medina.
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But it’s held strong – to the delight of most Brazilians – after numerous teething problems. And it is still carrying the booking weight it did in ’85 now, too. The prerequisite for booking is bold: it wants the biggest bands in the world; and it gets the biggest bands in the world. The list below is a re-cap of the acts I enjoyed most, mostly touching on the big names, with a couple of hidden gems as well. First up: Weezer, who nailed it.
Weezer's set is as lean as they come. Stacked with rousing bangers that will last through generations to come: ‘Hash Pipe’ and ‘Buddy Holly’, the set hits, matched by equally rowdy highs when they unleash their note perfect covers of – to name a handful –, ‘Happy Together’ (The Turtles), ‘Paranoid’ (Black Sabbath), ‘Lithium’ (Nirvana). It’s the latter which Weezer have only just recently introduced into their set because of opening for Foo Fighters on tour in recent days. The way singer Cuomo Rivers introduces it is touching: explaining Foo Fighters are one of his favourite bands but it’d be weird to cover them before they go on. So he launches into ‘Lithium’ to the elation of every single fan in the crowd. Grohl reportedly is in tears at this point backstage. When he later comes on stage with Foo Fighters, before playing ‘Big Me’ he thanks “Sweet Weezer” and says he misses playing that song a lot. And on a nerdy point, Weezer pack a punch, clear aural gold. Maximising the use of one of the best PA systems in the world with a live mix for the ages, they could not have played any better. A thumping victory.
Going on after Weezer is a bit of a challenge for any band but Foo Fighters are well adept at headlining massive festivals and immediately have the crowd in their palm. Most of the crowd it turns out haven’t seen Foo Fighters before; they have that energy of waiting a lifetime for something and the relief of being grated it – and it’s a rambunctious thing to be a part of, touching even after having seen them countless times. It’s a two hour set with some wig outs and a strong journey through their back catalogue from the first album to now. Much of it is routine but compared to their headline Glastonbury set in 2017 it features slightly less chat and pours more focused aggression into the songs when it's called for; making it feel a bit more feral and exciting. Bludgeoning heaviness is of course offset by more clean, melancholic parts in their music and on this occasion; tenderness manifests when a man from the crowd pops up on stage before ‘Best Of You’ and proposes to his partner. Sweet romantic.
Some of you may know these from the Fargo soundtrack or catching them at Glastonbury’s West Holts stage. They’re a DIY band who’ve built a following for their notoriously distinguished live shows and word of mouth drives a lot of their blossoming following. Rooted in Ukrainian folk, Olena Tsybulska, Iryna Kovalenko and Nina Garenetska have sung together since childhood. From there, singer and multi-instrumentalist Marko Galanevych comes in to meet them under the suggestion of artistic director Vladislav Troitsky to form a special group. Together, they’ve plumbed the depths of various styles of atypical music and fused it with their roots. The sounds that seep in and upset folk purists are – but aren’t limited to – African rhythms, Philip Glass-esque atmospherics and uptempo hip-hop lyricism, these unconventional reference points making for a striking foundation. The crowd at Rock In Rio are all pretty new to the band, and some appear bemused. But others are totally immersed in the harmonic journey and its refusal to compromise to bend to classification, to follow convention.
With 35 years of Rock In Rio approaching, there’s been a big push on site to commemorate the ’85 edition. There’s even a street built like a movie set called Route 85, with sculpture, a cinema screen documentary, a bandstand and a ye-haw saloon. The line-up too makes frequent flashbacks, with a handful of acts booked that year making a return. Of the lot, Iron Maiden are most prominent. Bringing their Legacy of the Beast tour to Rock In Rio, it’s a set that’s as captivating for the eyes as it is the ears: the props and pyro are astonishing. Apart from hearing singer Dickinson make charming remarks about the inaugural edition, stating, “This was the biggest concert in the word, certainly in the Americas,” and then adding, “Each time is as good as the first.” It’s the simplicity of being able to raw back the words to ‘Run To The Hills’ that’s the most memorable. Oh, and the incredible tuneful, uplifting Rock In Rio anthem that comes just after they leave the stage, in perfect sync with the fireworks, as everyone hangs on even later into the night. We get this every night and it’s glorious and what makes me realise how much RiR puts into the things other festival might brush over.
Maiden and Slayer perform on what’s unofficially classified “Metal day”. A significant name in their own right regardless, godfathers of thrash Slayer’s set has added draw because it’s their farewell tour and they’re at the very end of it – they’ve certainly played their last ever UK shows. The respect shown from the audience, a large amount of whom are wearing Slayer tees, is truly incredible. To Slayer’s credit, however, they don’t milk it and focus on just giving people a good time with their no nonsense, speedy dual-guitar attack and dark songs. The light touch comes in guitarist Gary Holt's gleefully antagonistic 'Kill The Kardashians' t-shirt, first worn by him in 2015, prior to the reality tv family reportedly ripping off some legendary heavy metal designs and emblazoning their faces all over them, angering the already seething Holt in the process. The argument’s still going on.
Thrash metal veterans Sepultura may not carry with them any of the founding members: the longest servicing member is Andreas Kisser (he was here in 1985 with his father watching AC/DC) who has been on every release since their second album (1987). But, original or not, the ensemble before us today is just staggering. Their wide-ranging musical taste; ability to go to metal’s extremes and retain a melodic edge gives them strength over their peers. For instance, they’re able to get to the essence and beauty of the original when they cover ‘Angel’ (as originally sung by Horace Andy and Massive Attack) but also trigger a dozen (!) or so circle pits in a crowd of 100,000. A truly outstanding role model band for budding musicians and a band sticking to their own path and re-modelling everything they’ve been taught into distinctive aural masterpieces.
No Party For Cao Dong
Taiwanese indie guitar sorts No Party For Cao Dong are a fairly unknown band outside of Asia but this is changing. Massive in Chinese-speaking countries, songs from their debut album The Servile form the bulk of their live set. Their frank, melancholic songwriting, according to Liverpool University music researcher Chen-Yu Lin, is about the tattered hope and dreams of millennials who’ve suffered fewer opportunities than their parents’ generation as a result of an economic slump. Their sound weaves effortlessly, beautifully through Minus The Bear-esque fretwork, boisterous Cribs-y shouted choruses, Muse-sized riffs and plenty of cinematic, tender, introspective moments – moments to make the set feel like a short film. Passers by love it and the crowd swells with every passing minute on this last night of the festival.
King Crimson are masters (an understatement) in what they do and don’t conform to the shape of any other band I’ve seen. The seminal prog kings stage three drummers, who have meticulously polished chrome on their kits, at the front. In turn, the percussion becomes the visual, melodic and rhythmic centre-piece of the music. Founding member and custom Silvertone-wielding guitarist Robert Fripp, who was a huge influence on and collaborator with Bowie, prefers the back left of the stage and listening attentively, ensuring the immaculate articulation of the music. Saxophonist Mel Collins is a singular talent too, as is lead singer Jakko Jakszyk on his custom PRS 24, which has the In The Court of the Crimson King cover inlaid. The climax of the show is undoubtedly the most extroverted 10 minutes long or more epic version of '21st Century Schizoid Man’ with a jazz interlude. Not a massive crowd show up – it’s Sunday – but, you know, those who are there (and it’s still in the thousands) will tell you they witnessed some magic.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
It was emotional for Chili Peppers’ fans having to witness the departure of John Frusciante all those years ago, but this Rock In Rio show is the third time I’ve seen them since he left and the first time I felt truly warmed to replacement Josh Klinghoffer. Fully comfortable in those big boots he’s had to fill, he puts his own stamp on guitar solos originally mapped out by Frusciante, or one of the other guitarists, and is comfortable in responding to patter from Kiedis. The crowd soon learn from Kiedis it’s his birthday and so he says as a gift to Josh, who originally played this cut on drums with one of his bands 25 years ago, they play the b-side to 'Under The Bridge': 'Sikamikanico'. And it's played live for the first time in their career. Later in the set, Klinghoffer gets the stage to himself to sing Tom Waits’ 'I Don't Wanna Grow Up'. Later we will learn he also has a solo album coming. So all power to him.
As far as RHCP go in the 21st century, tonight, the whole band are on their A-game. Not overly playing into what the crowd would want actually serves to benefit them. There's no sign of ‘Under The Bridge’ and ‘Easily', instead, a great b-side and a few covers show the band playing things they aren't tired from and omitting a better energy.
Muse do a slightly trimmer version of their indoor arena show but still have the same showstopping props. Elevating the existing power of the trio into a new artistic heights is the massive puppet Murph (a big alien robot) as well as dancers in LED strip ornamented hazmat suits and big concert drums. Gobsmacked by the visuals in front of them, a lot of people reach for their phones and it’s only when the all-time favourite hits come out that I see the full bounce of the crowd. ‘Time Is Running Out’ gets an especially immense reaction as does ’New Born’, where Bellamy decides to launch his guitar into the air repeatedly when it’s plugged in. It’d be a good, bombastic finale, but they come back for 'Knights Of Cydonia' and belt those lyrics which have an extra eerie resonance right now: I'll show you a god / Who falls asleep on the job / And how can we win / When fools can be kings? With the nightly fireworks display following on from that, I call it a night and feel it's a great end to an immense 7-day festival of insanely strong sets played in paradise. Obrigado Rio.