Lessons From Lisboa: Can Rock in Rio Translate From Portuguese?

Photo by Antonio Scorza / Shutterstock.com

Photo by Antonio Scorza / Shutterstock.com

Eu não falo português” was the only phrase I’d learned before heading to Lisbon. But that didn’t matter; almost everyone there spoke English. When I got to the City of Rock, the festival grounds for Rock in Rio, the language barrier dissipated, as it will when the festival comes to Las Vegas in May 2015. We’ll all be speaking the same language: music.

Almost 350,000 people showed up for Rock in Rio Lisbon (May 25, May 29-June 1), which is comparable to the numbers we see at Electric Daisy Carnival. But unlike EDC’s relatively out-of-the-way location at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Rock in Rio will be smack dab in the city, bringing an estimated 85,000 spectators per night to the festival grounds on the Strip near Sahara Avenue. (Pro tip: avoid road rage and plan on walking to and from our City of Rock when it finally arrives).

Built on the on the 21-acre Parque de Bela Vista, Lisbon’s Cidade do Rock is only erected during festival years. But Las Vegas’ future installation will stand year round and be available for other acts. Rock in Rio will rotate between cities—launching its inaugural festival here in 2015, heading back to Rio de Janeiro in September for its 30th anniversary, then traveling to Lisbon in 2016.

In Lisbon, festival organizers suggested watching the doors open at 4 p.m. on the first day—long before any acts took to the stage. But it was worth it just to see the first excited spectators run through the gates to claim their prime spots in front of the main stage, where they would likely remain until the main act performed that night. Early-bird mega-fans would travel in flocks so that one could claim their spot on the field, while others roamed the grounds.

There was plenty for spectators to do until the shows started at the well-organized festival, thanks to the large number of corporate sponsors. From picking up free inflatable seats from mobile sponsor Vodafone, to jumping out of a three-story tower onto a large, inflatable mattress to the attraction where you had to get yourself out of an overturned car (yes, that was weird), swag was everywhere you went, including lanyards, mini-flashlights and paper fans. Long queues formed for red curly wigs from the power company and glow sticks. Although large Heineken logos were prevalent at the Lisbon festival, it wasn’t in a completely offensive way. It will be interesting to see how Las Vegas handles this sponsorship aspect, as the festival has partnered with MGM Resorts International and Cirque du Soleil.

The first night, the 90,000-deep crowd skewed older—there for the Rolling Stones, who were aided by a surprise Bruce Springsteen performance.

The following night, 68,000 showed up for Linkin Park and a cake-throwing Steve Aoki, who apparently is mesmerizing to the Portuguese. As I walked through the festival grounds during his performance, everyone was glued to the giant screens, waiting for the next time he hurled baked goods or set his raft upon the crowd. No one moved or spoke as I weaved around them. I felt like I was taking crazy pills.

Lorde and Arcade Fire drew in a lighter crowd with only 45,000 people, but I admit it was a little sleepy for my tastes. The highlight for me, however, was Justin Timberlake the final night, as I and 80,000 of my fellow JT-lovers screamed with hopes that he would hear us.

While these acts have all played Las Vegas before, I’m astounded by the difference in audience energy from city to city. Sometimes we tend to be spoiled when we see acts such as Lorde at Boulevard Pool or the Stones at MGM Grand, so Vegas audiences can sometimes feel … well, bored for even the huge names. But Lisbon crowds are present, high energy and love their music.

There were a total of four stages in Lisbon, one of which was the electronic music stage, shaped like a giant spider. I appreciated the programming for each night, which included some underground Lisbon DJs, as well as imports such as John Digweed, Tiga and Claude von Stroke. Rock in Rio electronic music director Miguel Marangas doesn’t seem to be held by the Las Vegas notions of electronic music. I hope that if he books the stage here, he books acts that we don’t often see in town.

At the risk of sounding like a VIP snob (disclaimer: I am), the only qualm I had with the upper-crust treatment was that you couldn’t bring anything from VIP out among the proletariat. Not even bottles of water could be taken out. That may not fly when it comes to VIP in a city where visitors regularly walk around with booze, but maybe it’s just a Lisbon thing. Either way, that restriction is a small price to pay for air conditioning during the hot days, a prime perch for main stage viewing and a steady stream of exceptional, regional cuisine. Rock in Rio’s Brazilian roots will undoubtedly show when it comes to cocktails: Expect lots of caipirinhas.

If Lisbon is any indication, Rock in Rio will fit right in on the Strip.

Also, while I was there I learned one more useful phrase in Portuguese: “Sim, eu sou de Las Vegas.” Yes, I am from Las Vegas. We’ll keep the party going.