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FESTIVAL REPORT: Optimus Alive
Chris Roberts , July 30th, 2013 11:18

Chris Roberts heads to Portugal for the annual Optimus Alive festival for Depeche Mode, piloting a boat, much "obrigada" and the strange realisation that, in Lisbon, Alt-J are bigger than God

The most commonly used word at this highly enjoyable three-day Lisbon festival is "obrigado", meaning thankyou. Or "obrigada", if you're female. On top of regular politeness, all the British and American acts have evidently been advised to say this at the end of songs and sets. It's the only Portuguese word they've learned so it gets said a lot. You can have fun spotting the males saying "obrigada" and the females saying "obrigado". Or you can have a whip-round as to how many seconds after the end of each song the bloke from Green Day or Jessie Ware or the guy from Editors will take to remember to say it, knowing it'll get a big cheer. (In fairness, the youth of Portugal seem happily inclined to cheer absolutely anything. "This is the last night of our tour", say Kings Of Leon and Tame Impala. "Hurrah!" cheer the Portuguese, meaning to be supportive). Dave Gahan doesn't overcook the "obrigado" stuff, being a proper tattooed eye-linered narcissistic bona fide old-school synth-rock god. Phoenix seem to forget about it completely and just say "Merci" a lot, but then they do play on Bastille Day.

Outstanding moments include the mighty Mode banging out a run of hits to close their show, Jessie Ware sounding exactly like Evelyn "Champagne" King, the sound of Jurassic 5 wafting across the river in retro ripples as we arrive at the festival one night BY BOAT, and the strange realisation that Alt-J are incredibly popular here. While we may be crap at Portuguese, the Portuguese have no trouble whatsoever singing along perfectly to lines like "triangles are my favourite shape" and "in your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure".

Lisbon is a pastel-coloured city with enchanting cobbled streets, built on seven hills, beaches nearby, similar perhaps in tone and timbre to Barcelona. Its yellow trams and funiculars are a picture and its Gothic escalador is quite something, like a space rocket designed by H.R. Giger. Walk around in the old Alfama district and little birds nestle on your shoulder like you're in a Disney film. Take in the view from the Bairro Alto and you hear a busker singing Fado music, accompanied by his daughter beating out the rhythm on an empty Evian bottle: more affecting than that sounds. All Lisbon lacks, to the ignorant visitor's eyes, is icons. It lacks one truly iconic building, street, monument, artist, famous person, focal point. Vasco Da Gama and Magellan are ok, but Henry the Navigator has never really caught on globally. The Christo Rei statue is visible from most places but is a 1950s tribute to Rio's bigger one. The tourist's sense of wonder is elusive. But the five-star hotel is a converted palace loaded with period furniture and vases and bordered by tropical gardens, palm trees and a pool, so, you ask me, Lisbon is magic. On the wall of the foyer hang signed thankyou photos from Madonna, Prince and Christine Lagarde, which, it must be conceded, are more impressive than the ones in my local kebab shop. And when our hosts send a boat to transport us to the Depeche Mode gig and let me steer for a bit, the views of the fairytale-pretty Torre de Belem are just fine and I find myself saying "obrigado" even more frequently and repetitively than Edward Sharpe or the bloke from Two Door Cinema Club do onstage.

Near the harbour ten minutes' drive away is the festival, huge to my inexperienced festival eyes but "medium" to those better-versed in festival-ology. One massive stage – to be headlined on successive nights by Green Day, Depeche Mode and Kings Of Leon - and two smaller ones. (Last year's headliners were Radiohead, The Cure and Stone Roses). Night One sees Green Day doing their cartoon-punk "1-2-3-4!" thing for what seems like five hours. It makes me wish something new and vibrant like Prog would come along and rattle this worn-out orthodoxy. Two Door Cinema Club have swiftly become a proficient, pleasant, confident big act: hard to passionately dislike but as much Daniel Powter as Kaiser Chiefs. I missed Biffy Clyro and Stereophonics because nobody pays me that much. Instead I wander into a big tent where Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' are playing their hippie-gospel-soul-folk, and am impressed by something I can only describe as "spirit". There is a loose, uncontrived bonhomie about this ensemble: they have the kind of fuel and force and free will you can't feign. Their evident happiness is infectious.

But I want to bust my moves while nobody from Britain is watching or laughing at me so I glide gracefully into another marquee where Jessie Ware is doing her low-key but warm and slinky re-boot of Romford/Watford 80s soul. I find her Sade-like rhythms infinitely preferable to the try-hard gut-busting of Adele or Amy Winehouse. Most songs sounds like something Joyce Sims might have emitted between 'Come Into My Life' and 'All And All', and the woman's voice is terrific, her compact band understatedly leaving all the right gaps. I worry that liking Jessie Ware makes me the kind of person Sky's version of the South Bank Show or the BBC's The Culture Show is targeted at, but not for long. Ware is a funny one: likeable enough, but now nervously overcompensating for onstage shyness by babbling too much between songs and trying to engage with the females in the front row like an uncomfortable head girl at a rowdy hen party wanting to show she's not stuck up. She has absolutely no pop star charisma, yet her music is seductive and honeyed.

Night two is all about Depeche Mode. Editors are well-received, playing oldies like 'Desire' and stuff from their new album We're Now An Exact Replica Of Echo And The Bunnymen Without The Poetry Or The Sexy, but you can never take love songs (presumably) about Edith Bowman seriously. The Mode have history, weirdness and the C.V. of emperors on their side. You can both take them seriously and camply. They are both self-mocking and deliciously earnest. Dave Gahan is seer, survivor, showman, stripper. They open with 'Welcome To My World', and material from Delta Machine is met with something more than patience, something less than awe. A few teasers aside, they keep the crowd waiting for the anthems: then there's a giddy romp through the likes of 'Personal Jesus', 'Enjoy The Silence' 'I Feel You', 'Just Can't Get Enough' and 'Never Let Me Down Again'. As ever, Depeche give plenty but leave you wanting more.

Tame Impala are the early tournament-leaders on Night Three. It's strange that their mix of psychedelia and Syd Barrett-era Prog has been so hailed in the music press, but, while at core disciplined, they spiral off into some lovely areas of guitar grand guignol tonight. They stand out markedly from "indie" conventions. You'd think more bands might twig that's worth trying. One imagines they'll get better and better over the next few years, while getting less and less praise as the media gets bored. I find Phoenix a bit boring, but I can no more explain why than I can explain what they are. Obviously they are quite popular now, so you'll know what they are in your own head. I just hear and see a random Beck-based mish-mash of pop and dance and rock and Sofia Coppola-approved style-signifiers and none of it sticks beyond the time it takes to say, "Whatever happened to Air?"

Just time to catch Blaya sticking their arses out at the audience before we claim a place at the back of the Alt-J marquee five minutes before they come on. I figure these Mercury-winners are so uncool and disliked that I can quietly admire their angles and precision while chilling my bones. But I have made an error of judgment. As the unprepossessing swots come on I am engulfed in Portuguese bodies, bouncing and flailing with untethered abandon. Seriously, who knew Alt-J were bigger than God in Lisbon? I am soon so battered and bruised that I try to get out, but the only way I can wriggle through the massed sardines is to leave the festival and come back in again at another entrance. Then I am intrigued enough to sit near enough to hear and watch the screens while preserving my limbs. It is so, so, so odd that this scientific, professorial music has translated. I confess I like their album – there, I said it – and would call it Gentle Giant for The xx generation. With a lick of XTC. I think it's ambitious, clever and deft, and subtly reveals more on each listen. Sorry. Maybe I'm Portuguese or something. Tonight they seem genuinely surprised by the ecstatic response and thank the euphoric throngs for making this the best gig of their career. I'm relieved when they say that, as it suggests it's not just me finding it all a bit crazy because I never leave the house.

Back in the steady-as-she-goes world of guitar rock, Kings Of Leon are satisfying all ages with their muscular, rarely surprising riffs and growls. They're honest, if you value that trait, and one or two of the crossover hits demand you jiggle one knee around a bit. They'll need their new album to enter the popular consciousness more than the last one if they're to sustain as major players in their field. There's an undeniable clock-watching plateau before the inevitable big finale about using somebody to set your sex on fire and all that. During this, the herd goes absolutely batshit. I'm guessing. That's how these things work.

A few more lashings of "Obrigado!" and Optimus Alive 2013 is drawing to a close. (Other names you could have seen included Vampire Weekend, Crystal Fighters, Crystal Castles, Disclosure, Band Of Horses, Jake Bugg, Django Django, Deap Vally and Icona Pop). It seemed to me rich with things you take for granted when you're there but would sorely miss at such an event were they not: a friendly but not in-your-face crowd, a relaxed approach, a complete absence of any pressure to do anything unless you fancy it, an air of whatever the Portuguese for "laissez-faire" is. Possibly the best thing Lisbon's delivered since Henry The Navigator.

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