NOS Alive festival review: The return of Europe’s friendliest festival brings spectacular musical turns

·5-min read
Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons at the Saturday headline performance at NOS Alive (Joao Silva)
Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons at the Saturday headline performance at NOS Alive (Joao Silva)

It’s pretty impossible not to have a great time at NOS Alive. Take the setting: the astroturf-covered docklands of the Passeio Marítimo de Algés in Portugal, flanked by the steady-flowing Algés river on one side, and Lisbon’s cheerful pastel-yellow and pink houses on the other. The journey to the festival site takes you past some of the city’s best architecture, from the 16th-century Belém Tower to Ponte 25 de Abril, a striking suspension bridge linking the city with Almada. Then, there’s the weather. For sun-worshippers, it’s ideal: the Portuguese heat starts rising early in the day, with cool river breezes providing respite into the evening.

The first day is lightest in terms of foot traffic, but a smaller turnout doesn’t stop the crowds from making their presence felt. At the Heineken stage, Irish rock band Fontaines DC have Wednesday’s audience in the palm of their hands. If the tent had walls, sweat would be dripping down them; the heat of the early evening leaves fans damp but merry after some intense moshing to “Boys in the Better Land”. As the festival goes on, the giddiness is sustained. In Thursday’s late afternoon slot, Celeste mesmerises with her powerful and crisp vocals.

The day’s highlight – perhaps the highlight of the whole festival – comes later with Florence + The Machine. Alternating her set list with new tracks such as “King” and classic crowd-pleasers including “Dog Days Are Over”, Florence Welch dances and twirls across the lengthy stage in a fantastic display of stamina. In a more vulnerable moment, she shares that 2011’s “Never Let Me Go” has been left out of her set list for years, as it reminds her of a sad time in her life. When she sings it now, the audience evidently senses its potency – there are goosebumps all around. By the time we reach her double encore of “Shake It Off” and “Raise It Up”, the mood is downright celebratory.

In their Portugal debut, indie band Sea Girls have a great crowd turnout on Friday at the Heineken stage. A small cluster of diehard fans mix with newcomers, but everyone ends up singing along to the anthemic hook of “Ready for More”. On the main stage, west London’s finest, AJ Tracey, has the crowd bopping to club banger “Ladbroke Grove”. A quick glance at the rows of black T-shirts with spiky logos proves that many at the front of the stage have set up camp for Metallica. Yet they seem intrigued by the cool-and-collected rapper, not perturbed. Royal Blood go on to electrify the crowd, commanding us to get wilder during their thunderous singles “Trouble’s Coming” and “Figure It Out”. Despite swigging from a tequila bottle throughout, drummer Ben Thatcher keeps us spellbound with solos of astounding complexity and incredible precision.

By the time it’s Metallica’s turn on stage, the buzz is at an all-time high as thousands applaud their arrival. “After 41 years, still kickin’ ass,” frontman James Hetfield declares. It’s a fair point. Despite being a newcomer to the metal pioneers, I join faithful supporters in the snakepit, just a few feet away from the band on the final date of their European tour. The performance is a true spectacle: these four horsemen of the apocalypse are committed to giving their audience a night to remember. Renditions of favourites such as “Nothing Really Matters” and “Enter Sandman” are transcendent, especially when surrounded by thousands of hardcore fans.

On Saturday, three-piece sister band Haim open proceedings with the deceptively upbeat “Now I’m In It”, its perky instrumentation contrasting against darker lyrical themes. By the time Da Weasel take to the stage, the heaving, sweating crowd is fizzling with excitement. The Portuguese hip-hop/rock group are a big deal – even fans busy buying beers can’t stop themselves from joining in with the words to their funky 2004 hit, “Re-tratamento”. Meanwhile, the Fado stage is constantly filled to the brim with fans hoping to catch performances by Sara Correia and Marco Rodrigues, two examples of young artists reviving the centuries-old genre characterised by acoustic guitar and impassioned, mournful vocals. For Phoebe Bridgers back on the Heineken stage, there’s a different kind of excitement: the fans are in love, and they want her to know it. For “Graceland Too”, Bridgers barely needs to sing a word – the crowd have her back.

NOS Alive – fireworks at Metallica set (Jose Fernandes)
NOS Alive – fireworks at Metallica set (Jose Fernandes)

Finally, all eyes are on Imagine Dragons for their stadium-worthy closer on Saturday’s main stage. There’s a floor-quaking performance of “Believer”, as a shower of red confetti just 20 minutes into their set brings a suitable amount of bombast to the evening. Dressed in a mesh vest top and simple black shorts, lead singer Dan Reynolds is magnetic; no matter where you are on the festival site, there’s no ignoring his powerful voice.

There’s an atmosphere of fun and friendliness that feels completely unique to Nos Alive. Despite being mostly rock and electronic focused, the 14-year-old festival does well to integrate Portugal’s traditional Fado music and stand-up comedy scene, plus as well as giving rap, pop and soul artists their time to shine. Come for Lisbon (and the incomparably delicious pastéis de natas), stay for the promise of a damn good time.

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