Not to be confused with Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots in Transformers, this Lisbon music festival has itself transmogrified into what feels like Portugal’s national house party. Expanding rapidly from a few thousand fans in 2007 to 60,000 in 2014, it’s now the country’s premier party machine, thanks to this seductive shift in shape.
Whipping together the cream of British and European breaking talent with a few massive legends and a healthy dose of home-grown heroes, such as Buraka Som Sistema, it is a musical diet that flips between leftfield bands and underground dance. The three main headliners trod a triangle of rock. In a polygon sound clash of guitar beasts, Arctic Monkeys, The Black Keys and The Libertines went head-to-head across three nights.
The Arctics opened up on Thursday, easing us in with a comparatively subdued set, choosing a playlist that favoured subtle album tracks over wall-to-wall hits. Saturday, equally, felt slightly lacking, as seemingly only the British Libertines fans urged their heroes on. The arena was noticeably spacious as the locals sought their fun elsewhere. As ever with Pete and Carl, it was a brash and cacophonous affair, and although more coherent than many of their performances, their creaking ship and richly English voyage seems awash with the waters of fading relevance. They are sailing a course that steers them rarely near new fans.
It was therefore Friday’s top slot performance by The Black Keys that won the triumvirate rock race. Enjoying an electrifying greeting and the weekend’s biggest crowd, the Nashville-based duo’s thick, psyched up blues-rock was delivered with all the edge that such filthy anthems deserve. Songs such as ‘Gold On The Ceiling’ are fitting main stage fodder as their populist sing-along choral chants united the distinctly Portuguese and British tribes, who had no need for actual words, translation or the need to learn lyrics.
Optimus Alive then continued to provide many a lesson. Firstly, that the festival organisers are joyously adept at booking fresh talent. They seem obsessed with acts that can ascend above the hype. A programme that sports SOHN, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Parquet Courts, Caribou, Jungle, Temples and SBTRKT highlights that its powers that be aren’t merely painting by numbers, but are very engaged with spotting true talent.
We also learnt that Sam Smith is the new Gary Barlow. We then exposed that the brass-drenched nostalgia of Pavov Stelar can convert drunkard revellers into fans of electro swing within 3.2 seconds of hearing his swinging house. We discovered that Kelis, firmly an immortal name thanks to her ‘Milkshake’ rap, shouldn’t attempt playing it in her new acid jazz band format. It took 20 seconds to realise exactly what song was being butchered by her brassy skronk and trumpet-strewn rendition.
We also noticed that cover versions are increasingly whimsical affairs. While The Libertines summoned the spirit of wonky improvisation for Otis Redding’s ‘Sitting On the Dock Of The Bay’, we had earlier heard TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’ being rigorously scrubbed by Bastille. Sam Smith, likewise, opted to water down Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ all of which came after Imagine Dragons’ homicidal rendition of Blur’s ‘Song 2’. Woo noo!
Toddla T, Sheffield’s raggamuffin carnival lord, even managed a cover. Sort of. His special VIP version of M-Beat’s ‘Incredible’ is keeping sound-system culture alive with unique dubplate versions, as his re-rub included authentic insertion of “Toddla!” at crucial drops, perfectly slotting into a set of classic garage and jungle cuts.
And it is the healthy array of dance acts that fire-up after the bands finish their sets that’s one of the festival’s greatest strengths. Appearances from Pearson Sound, Pantha Du Prince, Nina Kraviz, Daphni and Jamie xx were all vividly engrossed at the forefront of evolving Europe’s electronic ecosystems.
Except Diplo. This once-great hero, so influential for so long, now impersonates an Attention Deficient Disordered Dr Frankenstein. His EDM-fuelled joyride felt more like grave robbing on crystal meth than DJing. Savagely dismembering build-ups before rudely stitching them onto non-related aggro dance drops seems Diplo’s current aesthetic. Happily ripping out epic crescendo from Daft Punk or Calvin Harris before sewing them crudely onto lurid happy hardcore chops – his set was a monstrosity. The DJ’s adoption of the mic to goad the crowd with pointless information further cast him as a perverted fairground MC, loutishly berating punters on his nightmarish and abrasive version of the waltzers.
Lowlights digested and ranting relayed, it is time for the weekend’s highlight, a run of bands that comprised one of the most seductive ends to a weekend of music. Saturday night saw all the elements of Optimus Alive combine. Insightful booking, great scheduling, rapturous and heartfelt audiences and evocative music dovetailed brilliantly. The final triptych of sound came in the consecutive prospect of the dreamy indie-rock of Daughter then the personable anthems of Chet Faker then the Chilean slow jam house romp that is Nicolas Jaar live. All three complemented each other by reflecting the kindred light of musicianship and emotion.
Our education continued. We learned that Daughter should now be heard live at every opportunity. Pined after on headphones then lavishly lauded in the flesh, they possibly have the highest clap-along ratio of celebratory hands than any other band we’ve heard. It was then apparent that Chet Faker is a monumental stage presence, a singular star capable of holding 20,000 ears with just a piano and is thus an assured future headliner. Finally, we found solace in the fact that Jaar’s patient yet lurching house remains some of the most interesting in the business.
The black board was full. Our summer school was closing. It’s been electrifying to feel so much musical appreciation in such an intimate European setting. Optimus, thanks for making us feel so alive.
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Words: Matthew Bennett
Photos: Harpreet Khambay