A supergroup bringing quasi-dead Portuguese instruments back to life shine on their debut gig
Cai Trefor
15:20 24th April 2019

Tonight's small theatre gig in the leafy suburb of Benfica in Lisbon is the first for Lisbon's socially conscious rockers The Lusitanian Ghosts.

And for Gigwise, it's a highly anticipated one: encouraged by the country's new export office Why Portugal, we've spent the last couple of years keeping our ear to the ground on the Portuguese independent scene where eight-piece band Lusitanian Ghosts are a supergroup of sorts. And we'll quickly introduce the most notable:

Abel Beja, who plays the viola terceira, is the guitarist in Primitive Reason who've opened for the likes of Misfits. O Gajo, the viola campaniça player, is a renowned solo artist in his own right thanks to his gnarly ability on said instrument. Bassist João Pascoal is best known for playing for Sony-signed The Happy Mess. And Vasco Ribeiro Casais is a classically trained nyckelharpa player (A Swedish Harp) and a headline act in his own right.

Lead singer and songwriter Neil Leyton, meanwhile, has been comparatively quiet on the Libson gig circuit but by no means lacks experience: Before living in Lisbon, the Portuguese-Canadian wrote music in Toronto, London and Stockholm and has a stack of solo albums out. He toured relentlessly, but ended up having a hiatus after the release of an album he released in 2011.

His hiatus stopped when a unique idea of harnessing the magic of quasi-dead instruments most famously used in Portuguese folk (such as the above mentioned campaniça and the once extinct viola toeira) as backing for rock and prog-inflected songs and so he created Lusitanain Ghosts' debut self-titled album. The songs on the album - at their most spiky - are about the neurosis of Portugal: Its backwards looking small town mentality and frequent inability to acknowledge the treachery of colonialism, according to Leyton himself who speaks to Gigwise backstage before the show.

Delightfully, it's not only a strong idea for a band; it's executed with outstanding technique. Leyton prowls the front of the stage with plenty of swagger, transforming this intimate space usually reserved for more folk-y gigs into something much more theatrical and arena ready. Micke Ghost, the band's Swedish electric guitarist, meanwhile, is a shoegazing maestro and concocts a savage wall of sound that gives the songs in the set their rock edge - a style he manages to make bloom on the rollicking cut 'Past Laurels'.

O Gajo on the campaniça, meanwhile, plays with the dexterity and toughness of Jimmy Page but keeps the subtlety and soul of this traditional instrument intact. But it feels deductive to single him out when the true magic of Lusitanian Ghosts is hearing the trio sat on stools with traditional instruments at the back of the stage (that's Primitive Reason's Abel Beja on Viola Terceira, the above mentioned Vasco Ribeiro Casais on Viola Braguesa and Nyckelharpa and O'Gajo) all locking in with each other. Hearing their wistful psychedelic soundscape unusual in rock music is captivating.

Drummer João Sousa and bassist João Pascoal perform lightly for much of the set but when they're given room to rock - particularly in the first half of the set, with album cuts 'The World', 'Trailer Park Memories' - they're able to inject the energy needed for frontman Leyton to bare his teeth and express anguish towards what he sees as his country's most heart-breaking side in the most damning way.

The icing on the cake of this most dynamic enrapturing live set is when seeing pianist Nelson Canoa occasionally bounding on stage to give the songs a bit of E Street Band-esque bounce.

Ultimately, the passion and precision with which everyone comes together tonight can't help but leave an impression. A standing ovation ensues with a five-minute demand for an encore greeted without one. But it's goodbye and not farewell. With Lusitanian Ghosts just at the beginning of testing out their album songs live the chances are we'll be a seeing a lot more of them in months to come. Anyone with backing musicians this good must be craving the next gig and for frontman Leyton it's an assured rebirth after all these years.

Photo: Nuno Cruz