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Rina Sawayama at NOS Alive review – The best touring festival set you’ll see this year

Rina sang, danced, and served with as much precision, vitality and commitment as she did at Glastonbury last month, writes Jamie Tabberer

5.0 rating

By Jamie Tabberer

Rina Sawayama on stage at NOS Alive festival in Lisbon, Portugal (Image: Kelly Powell)
Rina Sawayama on stage at NOS Alive festival in Lisbon, Portugal (Image: Kelly Powell)

Curating imaginary festival line-ups can be as enjoyable as fantasising about winning the lottery. (The Spice Girls should not play the Legends slot at Glastonbury 2024, by the way. They should headline on Sunday night instead.) 

It’s a pastime that brings with it a sense of arrogance. Of course you could do better than the so-say experts. As such, whoever decided to place Arctic Monkeys between Lizzo and Lil Nas X at NOS Alive fest in Lisbon, Portugal last Friday needs to have a serious word with themselves. The same goes for Sam Smith and Rina Sawayama overlapping in the early hours of Sunday morning. Their exquisite queering of thinking-person’s pop appeals to broadly similar fanbases, leading to a serious dilemma. Where to be, and at what time?

In the end, this reviewer caught the first few songs of Sam’s powerful and well-received set, before plumping to see Rina live for the second time in as many months. The star whipped the crowd into a frenzy in the Woodises tent at Glasto earlier this summer – it was one of the top 10 best gigs I’ve ever seen, genuinely – and I was fascinated to see the same production in a different country.

Granted, this is a punishing lens through which to critique a performance. But if anyone could pass with flying colours, it’s her. Anyone familiar with her work knows Rina is a well-schooled student of music and a consummate professional, so it was no surprise to discover her Lisbon set was as sizzling and high-octane as its predecessor. The only difference was the crowd, which was quieter and thinner than the cult favourite is perhaps used to, and compared to Woodsies, anyway. (And certainly smaller than the 100,000 she performed to with Elton John on the Pyramid Stage!)

A lesser star might’ve let this dent their confidence. But Rina sang, danced, and served with as much precision, vitality, and commitment as last time. Seriously, I have the videos to prove it. You can barely tell the two sets apart.

Her stunning, bird-like voice alone is worth coming out for. It knocks the audience for six on transcendent opener ‘Hold the Girl’. Rina serenades with mysterious urgency; hair and antiquated white gown billowing in the wind (machine). I’m reminded of Wuthering Heights’ haunted Cathy. “I wanna remember, she is me, and I am her: so, hold the girl, hold the girl,” Rina sings. If only Cathy had said that to herself!

Sam Smith also performed at NOS Alive festival in Lisbon (Image: Kelly Powell)

What follows is an array of absolutely fantastic, intelli-pop songs which sound awesome on record but spring to multi-dimensional life on stage. She belts out gritty power ballad ‘Dynasty’ with Beyonce-level poise and confidence. For slick dance-pop number ‘Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys)’, she and two wildly expressive dancers execute sharp choreography worthy of early-00s Britney. She becomes a different artist altogether on both the furious, guitar heavy ‘STFU!’ and her best song: the astonishing and unusual indie/R&B mash-up, ‘XS’. 

The only song performed I don’t care for is the gimmicky ‘Frankenstein’, which seems destined for an annoying Halloween advert. I would’ve switched it for the painfully vulnerable ‘Chosen Family’: an anthem for LGBTQ friendship. Albeit it’s probably too slow for a festival. Recent hit ‘This Hell’, another love letter to the community, closes the show. I found myself engaging with the lyrics, as hilarious as they are romantic and profound, more in person than through headphones. “Damned for eternity, but you’re coming with me into the afterlife,” she tells her same-sex lover. “The devil’s wearing Prada and loves a little drama – ooh-ooh, this hell is better with you.” Can I come?

She performs that while line-dancing in cowboy garb, having previously rocked red, skin-tight PVC and a whip. Before that, an oversized shirt and baggy trousers that looks agonisingly cool as she dances. The strobe lighting is epic, often turning Rina’s elegant form into a stylistic silhouette. And while I’m not entirely sold on this tour’s apocalyptic stagecraft, I appreciate the detail and effort.

The effect of all this is like watching five high-concept music videos back-to-back. It’s a level of commitment becoming of global superstars – or a global superstar in waiting.