LISBON, PORTUGAL—For tens of thousands of Europeans, Rock in Rio Lisbon continued Sunday, culminating with headliner Justin Timberlake and a live Underground Sound of Lisbon reunion set. But for this American, well, I'm already halfway to the States. If I was going to miss any of Portugal's most beloved music weekend, it was going to be the "pop" day.
And three days seems like enough to reflect on the Rock in Rio experience, which will come our way May 2015, albeit with a somewhat different—and likely augmented—presentation.
If there's one dominant impression with which I leave Rock in Rio Lisbon, it's multiculturalism. That's a no-brainer, as I experienced this in a country other than my own. But it nonetheless made me think about how the festival might play out in Vegas.
Many of the performers and DJ acts in Lisbon—especially those that graced the smaller stages—hailed from all over the world, especially Portugal, Brazil, England and the U.S. Portuguese acts typically warmed up for the British and North American heavyweights. Even within the headliners, there was a fair amount of crossover—namely, the rhythm and blues of the Rolling Stones and the occasional Haitian reverie of Arcade Fire.
While it's hard to say whether American music devotees—notoriously a fussy and provincial fanbase—will see a worldly lineup as enticing or off-putting, the prospect of programmers attracting people with enough of the familiar but still giving them exposure to international acts will go beyond what other music festivals have done to introduce new flavors and faces to Las Vegas. Anyone grabbing food in the City of Rock will likely witness a Brazilian act performing nearby, or a British one they've only heard of by name—to say nothing of the electronic stage, which is bound to rely on continent-hopping DJs.
Furthermore, it will sweeten the deal for overseas music fans (especially from Brazil) who likely need little incentive to experience both their favorite acts, and those from America, right on the Strip. Whenever I revealed my hometown to festivalgoers and staff this past weekend, the first response was always some exclamation about Rock in Rio going to Las Vegas. I couldn't tell if the lure for them was more the event or the host city.
Another aspect burned into my memories of the Lisbon festival is its hypercapitalism. You'd be hard pressed to find a music confab that isn't out to make money, and even the purist weekenders—i.e. Detroit's techno-oriented Movement Festival—lean on their sponsors. But Rock in Rio's corporate partners are omnipresent and inescapable. Some of them, like Heineken, flanked the mainstage area with three different multi-level structures screaming their logos. Vodafone, a leading cellular communications company in Portugal, not only branded the main stage and the "indie" stage, but had multiple stands where attendees could pick up inflatable chairs—and queue up for these seats attendees did.
As I've written previously, Rock in Rio founder Roberto Medina comes from the advertising world, even if he says he's not an ad man, per se. He fervently believes in carrying a message through a network of marketing and media channels, and that the ensuing windfall enables philanthropy. He also believes there's tremendous opportunity with his multiplatform intertwining of communications and advertising in America, which hasn't wholly embraced this strategy—at least not at music festivals, save for maybe Warped Tour and the defunct Ozzfest—to its full potential.
I doubt a blizzard of corporate iconography will scare off the mainstream demographic Rock in Rio seeks to attract, and the endgame is to make the festival—which will force potential ticket-buyers to pay for a whole weekend, rather than offer single-day options like it does in Lisbon—a cheaper experience. But to a music fan like myself, the bombardment occasionally got distracting. I'm no more likely to buy Heineken beer after Rock in Rio, mostly because I'm so sick of seeing it every minute. (I will say this: European Heineken tastes much better than American Heineken, which tastes like the piss of someone who just drank the European kind.)
Thirdly, the words "music festival" often make one think of a Coachella-like event that might appeal more to music geeks than passive listeners. Rock in Rio isn't really that type of festival. Anyone holding out for blogger faves like the War on Drugs or Tune-Yards to rock the Strip in May shouldn't hold their breath.
That being said, who can go wrong with the Rolling F*cking Stones, especially with guest Bruce F*cking Springsteen? Arcade Fire played another great 2014 festival set, one that got the crowd dancing and singing much more intensely than it did at Coachella six weeks ago. Lorde, who I dislike, exhibited a bewitching, vamping demeanor that was oddly compelling, even when her songs weren't. Coincidentally, all three of those scheduled acts were either performers at or candidates for Coachella 2014.
And the Electronica Stage mercifully dodged trends and gimmicks in favor of tradition and musical progression. Anyone disheartened by commercial EDM's stranglehold on our clubs (and EDC) may very well be drawn to Rock in Rio in 2015—that is, assuming 1. Rock in Rio USA partner MGM Resorts doesn't give its nightclub brands carte blanche to run roughshod over the historically non-mainstream stage, and 2. Clark County doesn't require the festival to end each night before grandma's bedtime.
Finally, Rock in Rio was a well-rounded experience. If you're weren't so hot on Linkin Park (apparently I was in the minority) or any of the other acts playing during that same time slot, you could do some variation of karaoke, go air-mattress high diving, hop a zipline over the mainstage crowd, learn a dance routine (or watch one), get blasted with body paint and flour for a freaky new look, ride amusement park rides or even get a freakin' haircut.
I spent an average of 10 hours a day at Rock in Rio and I didn't partake in any of those things ... only because I was too busy with music and food (and reporting). I didn't even get to see the city of Lisbon beyond the routes in between the festival and my hotel and a side trip to a pretty incredible Portuguese seafood restaurant (where I ate, of all things, barnacle—delicious, slurpable barnacle).
So I missed out on some things. Thankfully, I'll have a second shot at them—next May at Rock in Rio Las Vegas.