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We went to Rock In Rio, the music festival where mega-gig meets Disneyland meets religious cult

It's the festival where big is beautiful

To sum up Rock In Rio in one word, it would have to be this: big. Or maybe even this: BIG. 

The gigantic festival, which took place over the last week of September and the first week of October in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, styles itself as the ultimate musical extravaganza – the biggest gig in the world. And with a little wonky maths, it’s kind of true: taking place over seven individual days with only day tickets available, that’s 100,000 people multiplied by seven days – 700,000 as opposed to the 200,000-odd on the Glastonbury site all weekend. 

But it’s not so much the capacity of the event that gives it its scale, it’s the experience, and the way the organisers approach it. About three times a day, there’s an epic fireworks display. Each day ends with its own theme song. The site isn’t your average collection of tents and scaffolding – everything there looks like it’s built to last, like a shiny new mega-mall. So Rock In Rio exists in a unique space somewhere between a festival, a theme park, a religious cult. It’s Disneyworld for its fanatical fans, with Freddie Mercury as its mascot. 

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Rock In Rio’s place in the heart of Brazilian music lovers is such that punters are known to kiss the asphalt on entering the arena. To understand all of the above is to understand the event’s unlikely origins as an audacious attempt to put on the biggest show in the world in a country where, at its inception, such a thing seemed not just unlikely, but impossible. Brazil was not on the touring circuit, and political and social conditions made it difficult to stage big events. Yet in 1985, Rock In Rio launched with an audience of 1.5 million people in total and a line-up including Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes, Rod Stewart and a career-defining concert by Queen, the latter seen by a global TV audience of 200 million. For a country in love with rock music but starved of chances to experience it live, Rock In Rio was a million Christmases, all at once. 

The 2019 edition took place in a new home – the site of the 2016 summer Olympics, meaning the facilities were unparalleled. It’s split into various themed zones (hence the theme parkj comparison) with a retro 1985 street, Route 85, in honour of the first ever Rock In Rio, a hi-tech dance area and an Asian-styled ‘Rock Street’ with a full programme of artists from the Asian continent. There was also a big wheel, a zip wire that whizzes past the main stage allowing people to soar above the crowd – even during the headliners – a Coca Cola karaoke stage where punters can become performers, a supermarket-sized merchandise shop and a rollercoaster. Yep, a rollercoaster. The ethos of the festival remains much the same as it did in 1985 – to put on a jaw-dropping show featuring the biggest acts in the world right now. This year’s headliners: Drake, Foo Fighters, Bon Jovi, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Iron Maiden, Pink, Muse. 

China meets Rio on Rock Street

Here are some of the greatest things about the big, brash and brilliant Rock In Rio, in its modern incarnation. 

It had a flavour of Brazil

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Though the Rock In Rio headliners all came from America, Canada or Great Britain, homegrown music was everywhere at the festival, and the artists ranged from national treasures to newcomers. 

Anitta at Rock In Rio

Ivete Sangalo, a veteran Brazilian popstar who cut her teeth in the group Banda Eva before embarking on a hugely successful solo career, brought a show that was about as OTT and Brazilian as you could imagine, an explosion of colour and samba, with dancers decked out in full Rio carnival costume and – at one point – a giant, bedazzled cat which Sangalo rode on stage. The singer herself wore a jewelled catsuit – and beaming smile – throughout. 

Representing brand new Brazilian pop on the same day was Iza, a 29-year-old Rio native who was discovered singing covers on YouTube and released her debut album of funk Brasilia-influenced pop in 2018. She shared part of her set with 71-year-old ‘sambista’ Alcione Nazareth, and the pairing of young and, well, less-young, was a stroke of genius. 

Iza at Rock In Rio

The next weekend featured Anitta, the Brazilian Beyonce, and the homegrown pop star most likely to find crossover success in Europe thanks to her eye-popping live show and progressive attitude and a clutch of proper pop bangers. 

READ MORE: NME interviews Anitta

Best of all was Elza Soares, whose politically-charged music pitches her somewhere between MIA and Patti Smith. A pioneering female samba artist whose life has been touched by tragedy and triumph, she performed from her wheelchair on a second level above the stage, while a revolving cast of thrilling young Brazilian talent joined her for individual tracks. In her startling set, which drew heavily from new album ‘Planeta Fome’ – her 34th! – she celebrated solidarity with Brazil’s transgender community and led the crowd in a chant of “Go fuck yourself Bolsonaro” in defiance of Brazil’s controversial president, the so-called ‘Trump of the tropics’. Soare’s lyrics are potent and direct, and her messages always on point. “We live in the country of dreams, but you need to wake up,” she told the audience at one point. 

Elza Soares at Rock In Rio

You could sample the sound of the streets

Rio De Janeiro is famous for many things – the Christ The Redeemer statue, Copacabana, Ipanema beach, Carnival and Sugarloaf Mountain among them – but it’s also known for its vast favelas, the slum dwellings that line its hillsides and sit in quite shocking contrast to the millionaires’ apartment blocks by the coast. At Rock In Rio, a favela stage recreated the look of a Rio favela, and possibly not in the most culturally sensitive way, but the intention behind it was admirable: it was to give rappers, dancers and singers from the city’s poorest neighbourhoods a stake in the festival – every performer there was from the favelas. The stage closed, each night, with a favela party in which the performers danced and freestyled to infectious funk Brasilia music, albeit without the threat of the police coming in to close them down. 

The Favela Stage

Drizzy got caught in the drizzle

You don’t travel to Rio expecting to get rained on, but the first weekend at Rock In Rio was on the soggy side. “We must be blessed because the rain stopped and I love that kind of shit,” said emo-rap king Drake, appearing on stage for his headline set on the festival’s opening day. And he should have known better, because the Drake curse struck back in a big way, and soon his emotional outpourings were accompanied by some precipitous downpourings too. It didn’t stop The 6 God playing a brilliant, crowd-thrilling set though, and one that – despite the enormous size of the event – managed to find some intimacy. “I think I’m the only rapper that comes out here every night and has to sing a slow dance to y’all,” he said after ‘Passionfruit’ and ‘Summer Games’. Following ‘Hold On We’re Going Home’, he told the crowd: “So it’s true what they say. Brazil sings every word. I got goosebumps, Brazil, that’s what you’re giving me tonight.” It was Drake’s first time playing in the country and he made it count with a set that included everything a fan might want to hear, from ‘One Dance’ to ‘Hotline Bling’ to deep cuts and covers. “This might be my first time but it’s definitely not my last time,” he concluded. 

Drake at Rock In Rio

There was a taste of the Hella Mega tour – thanks to Weezer

Next summer, Weezer take off on the Hella Mega tour alongside Green Day and Fall Out Boy, in what might be the ultimate day out for ’90s and ’00s kids who still like fart jokes. Giving a sneak preview of the kind of larks that await, Weezer played a snatch of Green Day’s ‘Longview’, one of numerous covers in a set that also saw them drop Toto’s ‘Africa’, A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’ and Nirvana’s ‘Lithium’, in honour of the day’s headliners, Foo Fighters. 

Weezer at Rock In Rio

Later, Dave Grohl shouted out the group for their tribute. “I was backstage and I heard Weezer play the Lithium song and I’ve got to be honest, I cried a little bit,” he told the audience before ‘Big Me’. “I miss playing [Lithium]. So this song goes out to Weezer.”

Forming the other part of the rock sandwich that day was Tenacious D, who took a pop at the US president before their track ‘The Metal’. “We defeated Donald trump, I mean – Satan – with our rock,” said frontman Jack Black. “And what is the most powerful form of rock? That’s right: the metal”. Which leads us on to…

Foo Fighters at Rock In Rio

The heaviest heavy metal day ever

It’s testament to the pulling power of Rock In Rio that, for one day only, several of the most influential metal bands of all time – and Helloween – were assembled on site and ready to riff. So we got thrash godheads Anthrax and Slayer, whose giant circle pits swirled like vortices into hell itself, and whose guitarist Gary Holt wore a T-shirt reading ‘fuck the Kardashians’, making him the single person on site not wearing a heavy metal T-shirt.

Anthrax, similarly, were taking no prisoners, with guitarist Scott Ian telling the crowd: “If you’re not in the pit, you can bang your heads, you can throw the horns, you can bounce up and down, you can ride the fucking Ferris wheel – but you all gotta move, OK?” 

We also had national heroes Sepultura, who opened the main stage with a ferocious set, an adrenaline-fuelled ‘Ratamahatta’ and a touching tribute to the Brazilian heavy metal icon Andre Matos of Viper and Angra, who died in June. Appearing later were melodic German speed metal band Helloween and – with the day’s rock becoming increasingly more playful in flavour – British powerhouses Iron Maiden headlined. 

To say Iron Maiden are popular in Brazil is an understatement, and Rock In Rio itself is something of a second home to them, having performed at the very first instalment in 1985. Addressing the crowd, singer Bruce Dickinson described Rock In Rio as “The biggest show there will ever be, probably in the world… As long as we’re alive and you’re alive, we’re going to keep coming back to see you Brazil.”

Iron Maiden at Rock In Rio

Watching Iron Maiden at Rock In Rio, it’s easy to see why the mutual love affair exists – both are totally OTT and bonkers, in their own way. Iron Maiden’s set begins with a giant spitfire on stage, features a larger-than-life Eddie swordfighting with (and making wanker signs at) Dickinson, and a giant, inflatable eagle. Dickinson, for his part, treats the whole show like he’s auditioning for pantomime, sometimes as the swashbuckling hero, sometimes as the creepy villain, as in ‘Fear Of The Dark’, when he appears as a kind of melodramatic Phantom Of The Music Festival figure. The whole experience is helped by the staging of their brilliant touring show, which sees painted, theatrical curtain backdrops employed in favour of anything so modern as a screen. 

Before a rousing ‘Run To The Hills’, which seems to see Dickinson accompanied by all 100,000 voices in attendance, he says, “Every one is as good as the first one – We might be back, if you’re good.” Bet that they will. 

After Maiden, in a post-headliner slot, The Scorpions played a closing set, reprising their own appearance at the 1985 edition and proving that old rockers don’t die, they just return looking like a Marilyn Manson/Liza Minelli hybrid saturated in a saline solution.

Iron Maiden at Rock In Rio

Performers got on board with the Brazilian vibe

Playing Rock In Rio is clearly a special thing – thanks to the passion of the vociferous Brazilian crowds and the sheer size of the thing. So you’d find most performers getting into the spirit, whether that’s every single band draping themselves in a Brazilian flag, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea dedicating ‘The Power Of Equality’ to the Amazon rainforest, or H.E.R. playing ‘Mas Que Nada’ after declaring herself a Rio convert. “I love the people,” she told the crowd, “but mostly I love the food.”

There was a jaw-droppingly amazing circus

Fuerza Bruta at Rock In Rio

No, come back. This was circus of the Cirque Do Soleil variety, without the hefty pricetag. Rock In Rio commissioned Fuerza Bruta, an Argentine theatre company, to create a special, one-off experience for Rock In Rio, taking place in one of the three permanent arenas (actually former Olympic venues) on the site. And each 30 minute performance was like being in a nightclub at the end of the world, with people flying on highwires, a DJ attacking the audience with a wind machine and balls of tangled people dancing in indoor rain. Magical stuff. And the performance arty stuff continued: in another arena was Nav, a musical and physical art installation themed around the environment which immersed the audience in the grandeur of nature. 

There was a video games expo, too, just because

So if you got bored of watching massive artists you could play on retro arcade games and pinball machines, try brand new games and even partake in a game of live action Pac-Man (exactly as it sounds: you run round a maze wearing a silly helmet). Fun!

And it’s coming to Lisbon next year

Bear with us on this one. Rock In Rio was founded in 1985 with a simple aim: to put on the biggest show on earth. And with a little help from Queen, they just about managed it. Political and social instability in Brazil has, over the years, made it difficult to stage, so 34 years on, the 2019 edition was actually the eighth on home soil. To fill the gaps, Rock In Rio travels the world, and has had editions in Las Vegas, USA, Santiago, Chile, Madrid, Spain, and what has become its second home in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, where it takes place next year. So if you fancy checking out the maddest, most OTT festival out there, it won’t cost you the earth.

READ MORE: The Story Of Rock In Rio Lisboa 2018, in pictures

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