Vibe: (usually vibes) A person’s emotional state or the atmosphere of a place as communicated to and felt by others.
I made it to Marquês de Pombar after a quick ride on the metro. Without being 100% certain of the event’s exact location, I relied on the ever-faithful homing beacon that is the faint sound of a kick drum. It drew me towards the bottom of Parque Eduardo VII de Inglaterra. After sorting my wristband from the lovely people in the ticket office, I went straight into the backstage area where comfy beanbags and assorted seats were scattered about the grass. I went past a few of the organizers, with an “Olá, tudo bem,” to check out the rest of the site. I circumnavigated the grassy area that surrounded the Main Stage to get to the Hillside Stage, which, as the name suggests, was on a steepish bank and was quite small in comparison to its big brother below.
Laying on a tree-dotted grassy slope adjacent to the stage a few minutes later, it dawned on me that the organizers had done a very good job making this feel like a festival rather than a three-day party. Sometimes, events that end relatively early (1:00 in this case), whether because of location, available amenities, or just the crowd, can lack a certain feeling. Even before the real festivities had kicked off you knew that LISB-ON had got everything that was in their control spot-on.
A tickle from my phone signaled the arrival of my partner-in-crime and photographer for the weekend. We sorted his wristband and went back in. Todd Terje, a Norwegian DJ, songwriter, and record producer, had taken over as captain on the main stage, and he led us through more genres then you can shake a USB stick full of music at. House, breakbeat, and disco were all featured and seamlessly mixed for an ever-building crowd as the nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday brigade arrived.
A highlight from the set had to be Todd playing a cover of his own track Inspector Norse (can we all agree at this stage that it’s a certified classic?). He dropped a soul-laced breakbeat version by The Gene Dudley Group and, mixed with the Portuguese sunshine, you could do nothing but smile.
As we returned backstage, the chronicles of the beer fridge began. When you unleash two Irish chancers at a festival, we will always be on the lookout for a beverage or five. The eagle-eyed photographer spotted an unknown man who entered one of the portable buildings with nothing but hope in his hands but left with an ice-cold bottle of beer. We decided to investigate. Inside was a fridge of complimentary beer and water. This would certainly not be our final time here over the course of the weekend.
Todd finished, and his final track was mixed into by one of Kompakt records co-owners, Michael Mayer. With his start, the atmosphere began to change — the techno had arrived. The crowd found their collective flow as Michael poured techno kicks and highs on them. He swayed and smiled behind the decks with a confidence clearly honed over the years.
We made our way back to the Hillside Stage to see Jayda G, a Canadian producer and DJ. The festival vibe at that stage seems to have been created by the overhanging trees, which danced between the people. The booth also had a mixture of plants onstage and was super cozy and inviting. There was a slight technical hitch at the start of her set, which led to her not being able to mix into the previous artist’s (Sassy J’s) track. Once sorted, Jayda began in her familiar style with a soulful late-’70s-sounding record. It took her about three tracks to really settle into her groove, made known by a smile and her characteristic dancing. While she may not be the best at mixing, Jayda G’s dancing, and the ecstatic look on her face as she sings along to her selections, really draws the audience into her world. The atmosphere on the dance floor was joyful and energetic. Watching her play, it was clear that she embodies and exudes the music she is serving up.
The sun was starting to drop, and people were beginning to let loose. We sat sipping beer from the fridge-of-treats as we devised a play to talk to Michael Mayer after his set. A list of questions was made to break the ice. Michael had finished and was talking to some people next to his assigned cabin. With a last sip of dutch courage, we began with, “Hi Michael we’re…” Without a second thought, he invited us in for a beer and a chat.
Whenever we were in the backstage area, we could really feel a family atmosphere: people talking and laughing like old friends, and organizers mixing with the scattering of artists. Michael told us how special Lisbon was to him as he has been coming here for more than 20 years. The guys who were running around organizing everything were old friends of his from the late ’90s and early ’00s, he told us. They were the guys booking him back then. This family feeling was starting to make sense.
The last act of the evening was Rødhåd. He is often referred to as a techno Viking because of his dark clothes, red hair, red beard, and full-sleeve tattoo. He is known for hard, fast, uncompromising techno. His sets have quite an industrial sound, and I was unsure whether it would suit the quiet tropical vibe of LISB-ON. Twenty minutes into his set, my question was answered. The Viking invader stood up there smiling from ear to ear as he delivered each new brutal sound. The controlled aggression of the crowd’s dancing was a theatre piece in itself. His techno is a meticulously thought-out banquet table, where place settings are reminiscent of Downton Abbey. Rødhåd, as the waiter, then plops lasagne on your plate from such a height that some shrapnel-sauce gets on your best tunic. Classy and industrial all rolled up into one.
Upon arrival, you could feel there was a little more energy in the air than the day before. Gentle house-tinged disco pulsed from the main stage and people swayed. St. Germain was the only “band” playing over the weekend. A beautiful melting pot of nu-jazz and house with a relaxed reggae-type vibe. All seven members of the band eventually took to the stage with an array of organic-looking instruments and the electronic conductor Ludovic Navarre stood in the middle of it all. I would love to be able to tell you all the instruments that they were using, but I can barely hazard a guess. In the heat of the sun, beers in hand, sunglasses on, and techno looming, they were a very well-curated choice. An extra loud cheer went up when the pacy jazz-style drums of St. Germain’s well-known song Rose Rouge rolled over the masses.
The whole band danced and interacted with the crowd, but always had an eye on each other. After the gig, we spoke to the bassist Sullyvan Rhino who said that each member finds their groove in each song and tries to stay in it, but a collective harmony only works if every member is on the same level. At a music festival dominated by electronic artists, St. Germain’s mixture of organic instrumentation and electronic elements was perfect.
Backstage, we got to talk to Nuno Branco, one of the backroom staff. We wanted to ask him about this family vibe. Where does it stem from? The previous day, Michael Mayer had mentioned that he knew Nuno from many years ago from a club that used to be next to the now crown-jewel, Lux. Nuno said that the word “techno” was almost taboo back in those days, so when writing the blurbs for the posters promoting the shows, you had to avoid it. As the years went by, the scene grew into what we have today, with a large-scale festival like LISB-ON being headlined predominantly by techno acts. All the guys who brought techno to Lisbon over 20 years ago are still involved. Of course it had a family vibe, these guys literally are a family, a techno family.
The sun had set, and the darkness brought with it a giddier, looser freedom. Hugs were being thrown around and dancing with your eyes closed was the norm. We took a walk to the Hillside Stage where Tama Sumo was playing. A permanent fixture in Berlin’s nightlife, it is always a pleasure to see her play. She sets a beautiful feeling on the dance floor and controls your motions with her thoughtful track selections.
Back down to the techno chaos, and Dutch DJ Young Marco had joined Maceo Plex at the decks. The two were laughing and joking as they went back to back. A highlight from this was when Young Marco dropped the Aphex Twins classic, Window Licker.
The night drew to a close as Maceo Plex finished with the melody from Riders on The Storm — the same track with which he had started.
This being my first festival in the sun, I was tired. No bed before 6 am, the backstage beer fridge had become a good friend, and I had danced a lot. But the lineup for the day would have anyone excited. Three kings in a row on the Main Stage: Mr. Scruff, Larry Heard (live), and Kerri Chandler. I know, take a moment.
Mr. Scruff kicked off the proceedings. The genres of music he goes through and the flawless way he mixes is something to behold. Everything from house to Brazilian samba. The man just has such a touch of class about him. The custom mixer that he brings with him also sounded amazing, so warm and clear, it was definitely the best sound of the weekend.
After Mr. Scruff was the inventor of deep house, Mr. Fingers, aka Larry Heard (not the new definition of deep house, actual deep house!). It was a live set, and I was unsure of what to expect. It turned out to be Larry with his partner-in-crime Mr. White. For hardware, they had CD-Js, laptops, a keyboard, a sound desk, and two microphones.
My life, like many others’, has been majorly influenced by the work of Larry. He altered the course of the music we listen to right up to this day. He is the definition of an innovator! Larry plays that deep uplifting brand of house that we are accustomed to, but it is so much more powerful live.
Mr. White, meanwhile, has a beautiful, strong, preacher-style voic,e and it just makes you smile when he sings such lyrics as “I am so proud to be in love with you.”A silent Kerri Chandler snuck up behind Mr. White and Larry. The hug between them was powerful and full of love, and the reaction of the cheering crowd only added to it. The final track of the set was the aptly named “A day in Portugal” from his new album Cerebral Hemispheres. A perfectly delicate end to his set.
After the gig, I spoke to Mr. White about whether he had a gospel background because of the way he uses the stage as an alter. He said (in a thick accent, not sure from where) that he did, and he used to “take out his gum and sing from the top of the church.” The message that they are spreading is one of togetherness and love. The world needs as much of this as possible at the moment. At a time when mainstream chart music consists of owning things and toxic masculinity, their set made me lift my hands up, close my eyes, and beam a beauty from within.
Kerri Chandler — that name means so much to me. Since I first stood in a crowded basement in Dublin five years ago, he has become a hero of mine, embodying everything I love about dance music culture. This being my fifth time seeing him, and knowing that there was a good possibility of talking to him after, I was ecstatic. His set was one of deep house, live keys, soul-filled vocals, and smiles.
The set drew to an end, and as Kerri played his last kick drum, he beckoned Larry Heard forward. “This man is probably the reason that I am here today and why I do what I do,” Kerri told the crowd. As the two had a most beautiful moment together on stage, Kerri invited Larry to play “Can You Feel it” on keys. This is the song credited with being the start of deep house. After, Kerri played it himself, spoke to the crowd one more time — “See you next time, with love, respect, and admiration!” — and walked off. A camera crew was waiting for him, but he politely told them that he was “going down to see everybody,” and that’s exactly what he did for the next 20 minutes.
The vibe of this festival was one of love, togetherness, and respect. Three factors that are the cornerstones of dance music culture. If you don’t have one of these, then you don’t have the right feeling. This is only possible when everyone buys into it together, from the artists to the people attending to the backstage staff. The final factor is curation — and this festival was perfectly curated. The last day had that special energy that can be hard to create and even harder to describe.
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