Music festivals are a very peculiar Venn diagram. Despite popping up like mushrooms across the landscape, always promising to give us a “unique experience” different from what’s already being covered, in the end they all fall into one of two categories: one is the much hyped/commercialised type which is basically an ecosystem of brands, marketing, and advertising, with some good/huge bands thrown in the middle to justify the overpricing even though the line-up always feels like pretty much the same (in Portuguese we call this “outra vez arroz”, which literally translates to “rice again”); agreed, no formula is infallible and while the risk undertaken with these events is very small there’s always a possibility of things not going according to plan — after all, one of the most beautiful things about audience dynamics is that you can never really predict the way the wind will blow.
The other is the niche festival, intending to cater to a much smaller family-like community. Tickets are usually cheaper since most acts draw a significantly smaller (although usually more faithful and enthusiastic) audience, but the whole operation is infinitely less turned towards promotion à tout prix, designed to serve simpler tastes instead and thus resorting to less branding/advertising pollution. The problem with these festivals is that they take a much bigger risk investment-wise, and if something goes terribly wrong it can mean no edition the following year — or maybe ever again. They can also become too hyped and do the crossover, but an exponential growth in numbers always means having to subject themselves to a more demanding market, and many end up losing their identity altogether in the process.
Milhões de Festa is one of the very few that has been able to walk this very narrow path where the two universes intersect, at least in most recent years. Having started as a ridiculously small niche festival which was put together by and for friends, it has gradually attracted more and more visitors from everywhere in the country and has even begun to draw a very significant part of its audience from every corner of Europe — and beyond. This in-between status is nevertheless very fragile; although it’s highly unlikely that Milhões will ever grow too big for its own boots (at least as long as it stays true to its roots, the city, line-up curation, and venues, which include the legendary swimming pools) — becoming too hyped could turn the whole thing irrelevant and obsolete — the opposite is always a possibility: the fact that it was moved from its late July slot to early September (a choice I believe was motivated by ongoing negotiations between the festival organisers and the Barcelos city hall) didn’t constitute a menace in itself, but a tradition might have been broken for some — and we all know traditions to be what these things are made of. Many complained that the line-up, although magnificently diverse and featuring both emerging and well-established artists, lacked one or two extra loud names; but in spite of the audience being a tad sparser when compared to previous editions, the Milhões energy was there with a vengeance — after all, the only way to properly break a tradition is by starting a new one.
Milhões de Festa took off on day zero (free for all) with the haunting melodies of Barcelos-based Indignu (featuring ex-Três Tristes Tigres Ana Deus) opening the main stage, a brilliant choice that felt almost ceremonial. Although people were still warming up by wandering between the Favela Impromptu events of the Taina stage while reuniting with both old and new friends, I followed a friend’s tip and checked Moor Mother’s side project 700 Bliss, which drew my instant attention both sonic and lyric-wise. I did see Mauskovic Dance Band from afar while fetching another sandwich to give me the much-needed strength for Aeróbica, a collective of everchanging DJs (the original Aeróbica was created by colleagues of mine during Fine Arts school). As the name itself indicates, it’s music to make you sweat, usually filled with dance hits from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. A beautiful way to close the first night and get us properly psyched for the three-day fest.
One of the things that make Milhões so iconic is the fact of one of its stages being at Barcelos’ swimming pools, which become an alternative yet mandatory ecosystem for the afternoons. So I obviously began the first proper day with a trip there, lounging on a chair to the sounds of Mirrored Lips, Grabba Grabba Tape, and the impromptu Arabian melodies of DJ K-Sets; I later finished my ice-cream on the way to the Taina stage, catching the end of Sereias. Although I didn’t know Krake Ensemble I was familiar with the musician behind the project (peixe:avião’s drummer Pedro Oliveira), who gathered a handful of talented musicians including ex-GNR Alexandre Soares and delivered an enthralling show with the customary energy and passion that come from many years of expertise, becoming the perfect hors d’oeuvres for one of the acts I was looking forward to the most: Lena d’Água.
I grew up with her amazing pop tunes, first with Salada de Frutas, then with Banda Atlântida, and finally as a solo act; away from most public performances for about a decade now, Lena has recently been rediscovered by younger generations with her work being profusely re-released (New Zealand’s Strangelove Music put out a remastered version of her 1983 single ‘Jardim Zoológico’ last year). This was, however, a collab deal with Primeira Dama (aka Manel Lourenço) and a band constituted by members of Lisbon-based label Xita Records, which means she was sharing repertoire duties — though she did play classics such as ‘Perto de Ti’ and ‘Dou-te Um Doce’. I ugly-cried in nostalgia heaven; her voice is still pristine.
Another excellent surprise were Finnish collective Circle, one of those bands that are the musical equivalent to the classic “went out for a beer and ended up clubbing until 6am”: I went to check out a couple of songs and stayed until the very end, sitting down to socialise a bit during Warmduscher before the kick in the head that is Squarepusher. I’m a sucker for a good, powerful DJ as a festival headliner and desperately needed an excuse to get up and jump around in order to fight the increasingly chilly night — I tend to forget how cold it gets in Minho after sundown. Scúru Fitchádu were sadly the ones that got away, as I only managed to listen to them from afar, half dead from sleep and tiredness. I later heard a huge thunderstorm blessed the most resistant ones.
I began my Saturday fairly early as I wanted to catch Eduardo Morais’ DJ set at Taina. An amazing film director and documentarist — you can (and should) watch his documentaries Meio Metro de Pedra (about the Portuguese underground) and Tecla Tónica (a history of electronica in Portugal) on YouTube, both subtitled — I knew he would bring out his best 45s for the occasion. This was the perfect soundtrack for my lunchtime caldo verde, and I only left for the pool to soak my feet between Kink Gong and Gonçalo. By the end of the afternoon the Barroselas Metal Fest takeover was about to begin on Taina, and even though I’m not a huge fan of the genre I always manage to have loads of fun; I stayed for the full set of Greengo, a band whose drummer is an old friend of mine, before grabbing a wonderful rojões sandwich (look it up) and finding a nice spot to see WWWater from — one of the most wonderful voices I’ve heard lately.
Then shit got weird as Gazelle Twin — another act I would never listen to at home but wouldn’t miss live — took the Lovers stage, and she has that remarkable and strange gift of making everything seem more serious and real. I came down with the amazing jazz of Nubya Garcia back at the main stage, staying put for Electric Wizard — although I’ve already seen them live at Reverence Festival 2014, their show is always so intense that I dare you not to lose yourself in it even if it isn’t your thing. Undoubtedly one of the headliners — if one can truly speak of headliners in Milhões — they played a longer set and closed the main stage while the survivors headed towards the Lovers stage to see The Bug and DJ PayPal.
Sundays are always lazier, and with three days of the festival under your sleeve it’s only natural that you yearn for a slower start; after all, I had spent almost twelve hours nonstop seeing concerts the day before. After eating some excellent grilled cheese in a sunny terrace in the center of Barcelos I made my third and last pilgrimage to the lovely swimming pools to see Tajak — which I did half-body permanently underwater. After Pharaoh Overload (a rework of Circle) and the Suave Geração DJ set I allowed myself to take a longer break, as a happy coincidence made my best friend from university visit Barcelos (she’s currently Stockholm-based) during the weekend of Milhões and we had dinner for good ol’times sake, so I only arrived at the end of Heliocentrics; but what I really wanted to check out on this final evening were the legendary Tubarões, a ’70s group from Cape Verde whose ability to connect with the audience through the sounds of morna, coladeira, and funaná made everybody become an instant dance expert.
There was an indescribable happiness hanging in the air like northern light fog, and people danced carelessly with each other like the village’s seasonal fair. If Tubarões closed the main stage with a vengeance, a curious performance from UkAEA did the same to the Lovers stage, mixing the experimental and the theatrical to create a sort of collective trance, complete with that weird religious cult vibe. The very last notes of Milhões were nevertheless mute to most — much to the relief of the locals — as the festival closed with a silent disco on Taina stage.
Milhões de Festa was a huge homecoming for me, born and raised in Porto and with an enormous connection to the North of Portugal. It’s nearly impossible to properly explain how breathtaking the Minho landscape is, stretching before you like a lazy giant monster, and vigilantly serving as the perfect background for discovering music you never thought you’d like while falling in love with what you already knew all over again. The famous northern hospitality is enhanced by the festival’s size, allowing everybody to feel like part of an extended family — so it ends up being a homecoming for all in a certain way. With a relaxed and friendly environment emanating from every single corner, Milhões de Festa has that bright community feeling many festivals brag about offering but that usually feels either too forced or shallow; Milhões is like a big bowl of caldo verde — you are home, warm, happy, and cherished. You feel safe to enjoy the incredible experience that’s being offered to you and end up counting down the days until it’s time to return to paradise.
Originally published at https://www.thefourohfive.com.