The National and Kendrick Lamar light it up…

This might sound like a line straight out of some easyJet in-flight magazine, but Porto is a city all about discovery. Nestled in the picture perfect Douro river estuary, its age-old buildings, port cellars and gastronomy (see: meat sweats) are all added extras that you might not consider when purchasing a NOS Primavera ticket. It’s a glossy city break and world-class music festival, all in one.

First, some admin: to clear up any confusion, the three-dayer previously known as Optimus is this year hijacked by telecommunications firm NOS, who christen it with their name (and extreme branding). The event is still a baby – only in its third run – but having a sister festival as giant as Barcelona’s Primavera Sound means that its more intimate Iberian counterpart is easy to overlook. Yet when you compare both line-ups, Spain's isn’t vastly better – larger, sure, but there’s a lot of artist overlap.

One such performer opens the main stage on Thursday night; our first licks of the Portuguese tongue courtesy of Brazilian legend and tropicalismo pioneer Caetano Veloso. The lusophone education doesn’t end there, though – with other local acts footing the bill alongside internationally recognised artists. But unfortunately Clash arrives too late and full of Lidl vodka to fully take in these smaller bands. Instead it’s Sky Ferreira we loll in front of, soaking up her sleek, twisted pop as she charms the crowd from behind blackout shades.

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Down at the venue everything is meticulously - almost militaristically - well organised. Grassy and wooded Parque da Cidade is our setting, where green hills form amphitheatres to the stages so that even the tiniest of people enjoy a perfect view. There’s also barely any waiting in line, whether it be for a Super Bock or a sausage sandwich, and we’re even spoilt for choice over which toilet cubicle to grace with our presence.

Like a modern-day, chronic-loving Oliver Twist, I’d ask the bookers for more hip-hop, please. Or at least more than one representative of the genre, as Thursday’s finale is undoubtedly the highlight of the three days. Kendrick Lamar recites his nuanced tales of adolescence, backed by an explosive live guitar band. The West Coast rapper’s weirdly exaggerated level of security – a mini van driving him the 10 metres from dressing room to stage, and four bodyguards? – is all forgotten as soon as the first strums of ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’ pierce the balmy air.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that The National are really, really good live. Bathed in a pale blue light, they don’t disappoint on the Saturday – the band’s understated drama proving exceptional in a triumphant segue from ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ cuts into Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Chicago’. Remarkable stage presences continue, with !!!’s Nic Offer hopping the length of the stage barefoot in eye wateringly short shorts, pausing for breath only to yell the lyrics to sing-along fave ‘Even When The Water’s Cold’.

But for Haim, though, not even an engaging live performance (well, Este’s facial expressions) can detract from their vapid indie-pop output – Clash is not convinced, sorry. A slow clap also goes to the tired Pixies who, minus Kim Deal, have about as much charisma as a baked potato; and Cloud Nothings, whose “we’re gonna play one last song” routine five times over doesn’t help what is a pretty lacklustre set, hampered by poor sound.

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So it’s a testimony to the euphoric disco strength of ‘It’s Album Time’ that Todd Terje rolls out in a grey hoodie and laptop and reduces the crowd into a glittering, loose-hipped frenzy. The Pitchfork stage is in a state of rapture by the time ‘Inspector Norse’ comes on, warmed up well and truly for a smattering of Bicep’s muscular machinations. Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington’s Darkside project emerges an ethereal beauty, with a rotating mirror disc and thick plume of smoke supplying the ideal backdrop for textural cut ‘The Only Shrine I’ve Seen’. But the electronic portion of the festival – not forgetting a dizzying workout from the John Talabot-championed Pional – is teasingly small (for this writer at least). We leave the site itching for more four-to-the-floor action.

NOS’s laid back, intimate atmosphere is surely something of a rarity for a festival that sees 70,000 people rush its doors over its three days. It’s so far removed from the gurning mouths, hotpants and mudbaths that’d greet you at a UK festival that it’s almost comical. The crowd is more a meeting of straight-up music enthusiasts than those solely looking to lose their minds. Which is no bad thing, of course.

Like a carton of Don Simon compared to a dusty bottle of 1982 fortified wine, perhaps it’s time to leave behind the mosaics of Gaudi-land and hop across the peninsula next year for something a little different. Obrigada, Porto.

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Words: Felicity Martin
Photos: Hugo Lima

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