Day 1. The first act I saw was LA. I’d never heard of them, but kind of wish it stayed that way. They were so painfully mediocre. Their style is like a Springsteen inspired style of American indie rock. They were competent, but boring as all fuck – with the most clichéd lyrics e.g. “Living in America, Dying in America”. What could you really expect from a band with the least inspired name since America.
The 1975: I was sceptical – because from what I’d seen and heard, I was pretty sure they’d be one of these indie pop buzz bands that will be quickly forgotten. However – they were a nice surprise. Their recordings sound a bit thin and shrill, but live their songs really pop. Heavily influenced by the funk influenced British pop of the 80s (Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, David Bowie) – they held it down. The front man was a good singer and had an easy presence, while the rest of the band were tight. Not going to buy the record – but do recommend checking them out live.
Vintage Trouble: A truly outstanding live act. I’d listened to them on the Spotify Playlist as part of my homework for the festival – and thought their songs were derivative and boring (much like their band name). However, the stage show transcended the one-trick music. Mostly because the front man really sold it, and put so much of himself into it. He really dug into the Sam Cook, Otis Redding, James brown stage show. Dancing like a demon, spinning and spinning, down on his knees, then jumping and screaming. At one point he walked through the crowd to the mixing desk at the back climbed up on the surrounding barrier then crowd surfed back to the stage without dropping a note. They were a relatively small band for the festival being a 4 piece (essentially a 3 piece with a singer) so credit to them. The music was simple and familiar (you could basically sing Mustang Sally over the top of any song they played) but their showmanship more than compensated for it. Great guitarist too.
John Grant: I didn’t see much of his set so take this with a grain of salt. John Grant was recommended to me by a couple young guys on separate occasions. So I had a listen to some tunes of his, and was unimpressed. Boring folk rock. I was told I had to see him live. I watched 2 songs and was underwhelmed so I left. One of the 2 songs sounded exactly like a SMOG song (I think) – but with different lyrics. Meh.
Robert Plant: Shit yes! Just so much yes. I wasn’t too fussed about Robert Plant going into it tbh. His solo stuff has never really gripped me, and I felt he was an ageing rocker trading on past glories (which is at least partly true). However – OMFG – he and his band were outstanding. They played 50% Led Zep, and 50% originals or covers. As a Led Zeppelin fan I always thought his voice was proficient for the style – but not really distinctive – but now that he’s older and weathered, he sounds amazing. He still hits every note, yet it is now imbued with character – like a single malt aged 18 years in an oak cask. His band were top-shelf as well. I’m told by my colleague that it is made up of local legends, the sorts of guys that are well known in their home towns (Like Skin Tyson – the guitarist that hails from Liverpool). When playing Led Zep songs it is hard to imagine the original line-up doing it better. They did not sound like a covers band, they owned those songs and they all had the free-flowing feeling that they could (and did) go in any direction at any time. Even Robert Plant’s originals came over really well. My liverpuddlian friend correctly lost his shit.
Wolf Alice: The Kids loved them. I thought they were alright. Not a bad live band, but basically you get what it says on the box.
Pixies: Played 24 songs in like 1.5 hours. I missed some of it because I am a human being and have biological needs. I’d seen them in 2010 when they played the Vector Arena in Auckland. They Had Kim Deal back then, and sounded better. The current bassist is good, but they lacked a bit of punch – and Deal’s stage presence used to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Still, it was a Pixies show, you got the hits, Joey Santiago still rocks, Frank Black is still a bit of a charming loser.
Soulwax: I didn’t catch much of Soulwax, but was impressed with what I saw. I love it when dance music that sounds like it was all recorded in Ableton by one bedroom producer, is played entirely live with a killer band. Really powerful sound.
Chemical Brothers: Headliners for the first night, the Chemical Brothers had an insane visual and lights show. The supporting visuals were perfectly synced with the music (which suggests that their knob twiddling was all for show – but we’ll let that slide). They were at their best when playing the hits. When they weren’t I just felt I was at a 90s rave – which isn’t my thing – but if it’s yours, you would have loved it (I don’t think it was most people’s though). You can’t help losing yourself into the music and dancing. The visuals get pretty hypnotic. Mostly they played with the motif of animated people moving in time with the music (walking, being hit by objects, falling and hitting things – all on the beat etc.). Some of the imagery got a bit intense at points. Maybe it’s the catholic schoolboy in me – but having infinite permutations of medieval depictions of the devil flashed at you for 8 minutes straight can make you feel like you’re having a bad trip – even when you haven’t dropped anything. Aside from that section – the set probably would have been even better with chemical assistance. The chems didn’t disappoint. If you haven’t seen them “live”, and you get the chance, I would recommend it.
NB: At this point I should point out that while the line-up of NOS Alive is amazing – the logistics are fuckin’ deplorable. The usual festival organisation complaints are all present: No shade, hard to get a place to sit down, not enough toilets and crowd flow is terrible (people crushing to get to the loo- and stopping the ones trying to leave is a nightmare), timetable clashes (I missed Father John Misty for Tame Impala), drunk douchebags being fuckwits, and worst of all – leaving the venue and trying to get home. There is a train station and bus stop around 100m from the main entrance – it takes about 30 mins to get to the station from my hostel then a 10-minute walk to get in via the station underpass. Once the headliners take the stage they close the underpass and divert the crowd only a section of freeway that they have closed off to vehicle traffic. The crowd must now walk an extra few kilometres over an overpass to an off-ramp just to get to a station that was just a few meters away. Between the 30 min walk and 30-minute wait for the next train (because you will see your train come and go while you’re walking over the motorway) it takes 1.5 – 2 hours to get home. Also the last train leaves at 4:30am and a lot of the best acts start at 3am (Hot Chip, Ratatat etc.) so this severely affects what bands you are capable of seeing. We left at 2:45am after the Chemical brothers and didn’t get back until 5am. We were destroyed and it meant we needed to approach day two a bit differently. For contrast I camped for 4 rainy days at the Best Kept Festival and have no complaints about how that was organised.
Day 2: We only saw 4 acts, but they were all ones that we really wanted to see.
Jagwar Mar: We were really pumped to see Jagwar Mar. I love their album and had it on high-rotate in my car for some time. Their live show was a total disappointment. Just so lazy. They put no effort into their live act. The front man dressed like me when I’m severely hungover and am not leaving the house. He was wearing these really loose fitting stubbies, with a flannel shirt of over a white t-shirt. I thought I was going to see one of his balls drop out the bottom of his shorts at any moment. The bass player hardly played and when he did it was sloppy AF. He mostly stood around striking poses. They perform as a three piece with most of the sound being supplied by the guy manning the sequencers. Not many keyboards were played, and I get super sceptical when the guy running the sequencers and samplers hasn’t touched anything leading up to a drop. The singer was off-key too. At one point he layered up his vocals on a looper, except he was singing so out of key that it sounded terrible. These out-of-tune vocals kept looping, and to make it worse the music dropped away at the end of the song leaving this mess of flat harmonies echoing around on their own. 2 stars out of 5.
Courtney Barnett: She’s awesome. Such a relief to see a three piece just get up, plug in and rock out. Her lyrics are great, she’s a great guitarist and her band feels like a band. I don’t have much to add. I loved her set. Sounded huge.
Tame Impala: Holy Fuck these guys are amazing. You must stop what you are doing, and see if they ae playing near you soon. If not, put on their latest album Currents and console yourself. Tame Impala were the absolute highlight of the festival. Every song had all the psychedelic sounds and effects from the records, but were played live by incredibly good musicians as part of an impressively tight band. The drums and bass locked in perfectly, but never lost feel. This contrasted with the washy synths and phased out guitar. Kevin Parker has developed a sound that is really unique, and would otherwise seem difficult to translate effectively to a live show, but they played every sound from the record (except for the de-tuned spoken word sections) and went on exploratory journeys while doing it. So good. 6 out of 5 stars.
Radiohead: Ok, so this set was one of the main reasons why I came to Europe in the first place. Most of my trip could be characterised as a pilgrimage rather than a pure holiday, because since I was a teenager I always wanted to visit my host family in Germany, see Beck live and see Radiohead live. It took me 17 years to get back to Europe, and I was missed both Beck and Radiohead when they came in 2012 because I was broke. Experiencing Radiohead live was the last key moment. This is serious business. Also the chances for disappointment were high.
We tried to get as close to the stage as possible and used the Tame Impala set on the main stage to get into position. Despite this the best we could do was to get just in front of the mixing desk (about 70m back from the stage. Everyone at the festival crammed the area because there were no other acts performing while Radiohead was on (I suspect because the acts themselves refused to compete with Radiohead for an audience).
The first 20 mins of the set were a nightmare. The band started by playing songs from their latest album, which are mostly quite soft and delicate. There was a group of about 6 to 8 Essex girls behind me that would not shut up. They just kept talking. I thought they’d shut quieten down eventually, but they didn’t. One of them started hitting on me in a really weird way. Turning towards me and rubbing her boobs on my arm. She had a running conversation with one of her friends about how she was trying to get my attention. “Make him want you.” I heard her friend say “He’s pretending he hasn’t noticed.” The boob-rubber said. Just as I was contemplating my response another friend turned up and all the girls started screaming, and whipped up into a frenzied 6-way conversation about who-the-fuck knows what. At the same time two women get on the shoulders of their boyfriends in front of me and someone else starts recording on their phone. Two blokes on the other side of me also seem to think now is an appropriate time to discuss the price of fish. So after not really experiencing much Radiohead for the first 20 mins of the Radiohead set, I decide to concede our location and seek refuge further back in the crowd.
This was the best move. I found a spot where no one was talking and they seemed as interested to be there as I was. Now I could hear Radiohead, and watch as much of them as I could see between the sea of women-on-shoulders and mobile phones.
They started of with Burn the Witch, which I was interested to see how they do live, given that it is mostly a string driven song. However, the lack of a string section was not a hindrance at all. Johnny Greenwod played the chords made up by the strings on his guitar using a violin bow, and the rest of the arrangement sounded very close, and even more powerful, played on guitars bass and drums.
A great deal of the new songs were quite acoustic, employing acoustic guitars and pianos so these translated well. For the most part everything sounded just like the record.
Then after about 30 mins of the new material they started playing “the hits” starting with My Iron Lung. It rocked. Ed Obrien seemed to be laying most of the foundation of guitar and backing vocals on most songs, while Johhny Greenwood mostly focussed on the piano and keyboards parts. However every now and then Johnny would turn up with a guitar and unleash an unholy solo from his guitar like a demon possessed savant. Such a show-pony. I felt sorry for dependable Ed doing all the foundation work only for Johnny to turn up and claim the limelight.
They played a bit from each album. Some songs that I never thought would be any good live were in fact excellent. The Gloaming is probably the best example of this. It’s one of their more divisive songs, and not generally one of my favourites. But when they played it live – Wow! Only a very small amount of it was a looped sequence. There was a lot more guitar and live percussion throughout it, which makes me want to re-listen to the recording – since I thought it was by and large digitally sequenced.
Likewise, for the TKOL material. Lotus Flower rocked and I was surprised at the how much of the digital, syncopated material used essentially the same instrumentation from their older material.
Tom Yorke’s vocals seemed a bit unfocussed at times, which was hard to defend to my mate that wasn’t a Radiohead fan.
When playing Kid A, he got the audience to make noise that he then sampled and manipulated throughout the song. It was pretty cool. Everything in its right place sounded so good through the massive PA. An old friend described that song as having “bass you could hug”, but here it was bass that was hugging you.
After about 1.5 hrs they exited the stage, briefly before returning for an encore. They really delivered during the encore playing Paranoid Android (which satisfied this little boy’s fantasy) and the best song of the entire set – There There. Holy shit that song sounded good. Both Johhny and Ed playing timpanis while Tom took the lead on a beautifully distorted guitar. Just beautiful.
After an extended wait following the encore, they did come back for a second encore where we were treated to the song that has had fans all a flutter recently “Creep”. Now, I’ve heard other bands cover Creep quite well, and usually they do this by emulating the recording, but when Radiohead did it, it was like they were bringing it back to life. Something about the guitar sound, and I didn’t get a sense that they begrudged doing it. In fact they seemed like they were having fun. Maybe that’s the more blasphemous idea for Radiohead fans. That one of the most sour and neurotic bands – actually had a good time playing their first hit.
The show closed on Kama Police, in which Tom Yorke continued playing on his own after the rest of the band had completed the main arrangement, allowing the crowd to continue singing along with him.
At the time I was just trying to take it all in. There is a lot going on onstage with each song, and I’m so familiar with the recordings, and deconstructed them so much in my mind – that it was a little overwhelming trying to just be there, in the moment and enjoy the sound.
You can check out the setlist here:
Day 3: I was fucked. I was feeling burnt out all day, ad it took me until 9:30pm before I felt alright. If the festival was run a bit better, and the schedule made a bit more sense, I would have been back there, and I would have been fine. But the level of endurance required due to poor planning and logistics was too much for me and my colleague. While there were lots of acts that I wanted to see today, they were all spread-out timewise, starting at 6pm and finishing around 4:30am. I don’t want to list who I’m missing here, but if you want to join me in my FOMO – you can check it out here:
I hope you enjoyed the review. Sorry it’s a bit long. Once I start writing – it gets its own momentum.