Live review

Heavyweight headliners, phenomenally ambitious visuals and inclusive programming make The Town 2023’s most impressive new festival

2nd - 10th September 2023

The São Paulo event kicked off its debut year with a smorgasbord of entertainment in all forms.

If you were creating a town from scratch, how would you want it to be? Visually appealing and with plenty of attractions to draw people to its midst. As inclusive and utopian as possible. A place that represents the culture it’s nestled within, but that also throws out some USPs to mark it out from the rest.

If you were creating a town, then, you might well create something with the overall ethos of The Town. But unlike most neighbourhoods, São Paulo’s newest pop-up paradise is one that also boasts an ear-blasting communion with Foo Fighters, an in-house Broadway-style musical and, over two nights, more than 200,000 people getting down to ‘Uptown Funk’. Margate, eat your heart out.

Concocted by the team behind legendary Brazilian festival Rock in Rio, The Town holds a warped fairground mirror up to the city it calls home. The towering main stage is built to reflect the São Paulo skyline, but also features a zipwire for punters to go freewheeling across the front; there’s a full-scale Town Square replete with shops built into its side that hosts brass bands like a 1940s timewarp; over on the festival’s far side, tradition is entirely forsaken for a dance stage that looks like a luminous alien invasion, and happens to be situated next to a full size, working rollercoaster. It’s like if all the most mental bits of Glastonbury united - just with some added Heineken sponsorship.

Spread over two weekends, the headliners vary from the polished pop-rock of Maroon 5 to a raw return from Dave Grohl and co, whose last South American tour was cut short following the death of Taylor Hawkins last year when they were due to play São Paulo the next day. But as well as pulling the sort of artists that can easily sell out 100,000 tickets per day, the emphasis here is on entertainment in all its forms. There’s a wedding chapel manned by a fairly convincing Freddie Mercury lookalike that, we’re told, is genuinely legally binding, while if you’re wary of committing for quite so long, then you can instead pledge allegiance to the festival itself via a specially-commissioned theme song, that blasts out twice daily to the backdrop of a site-wide fireworks display.

The Town, São Paulo, Brazil The Town, São Paulo, Brazil The Town, São Paulo, Brazil

Brazilian crowds are famously vibey, so the DJ mash-up of The Chainsmokers, who throw everything from Outkast to ‘Unholy’ into their set, gets a large thumbs up from the enormous crowd before Adam Levine and his cohorts serve up the megahits (‘Moves Like Jagger’, ‘This Love’) early to ensure maximum favour - as if it were needed. Come Saturday, and the sea of fashion-conscious youths are replaced with an army of denim and black: fitting for the mammoth riffs to come, but entirely upstaged by the technicolour one-two of Garbage and Yeah Yeah Yeahs who take to the main stage as the evening kicks into gear.

Shouting out Karen O as “one of the most spectacular frontpeople of her generation - of any generation” and saluting Foo Fighters as fellow "‘90s survivors", Shirley Manson is as positive a between-song raconteur as she is a complete warrior of a vocalist. Striding the stage with a red ball gown attached to the front of her black outfit, ‘I Think I’m Paranoid’ and ‘Stupid Girl’ still sound razor-sharp, while the riffs of ‘Wolves’ ring out at blistering, uncompromising volume. “Have an amazing life. Don’t be boring, don’t be scared, be courageous and be kind,” she instructs the crowd by way of an incendiary, inspiring parting gift.

Karen O, of course, has been living her whole life by those dictats, and whether she’s deep-throating her microphone during an uncontainable ‘Pin’ or introducing ‘Maps’ with a string of empathetic dedications (including one to Queens of the Stone Age, who had to pull out of the event on doctor’s orders), there’s a pure luminous freedom that emanates wherever the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer treads. A swelling ‘Soft Shock’, we’re told, was written whilst “dreaming of Brazil”, and even a short stop to check on a punter who’s become stuck on the zipwire only adds to the surreal majesty of their set.

Over on The One stage, Wet Leg round out their two-year debut album tour with one final scream - quite literally during ‘Ur Mum’, in which they get the small but dedicated crowd to bellow a customary yell. There are people sporting lobster claws and chants of “We love you”, as both Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers get visibly emotional at their whirlwind inauguration into indie royalty reaching its finale. “This is where it ends for now. Thanks for making us feel really held and not lost at all,” smiles the misty-eyed singer.

The Town, São Paulo, Brazil The Town, São Paulo, Brazil

Meanwhile, “Who’s never seen Foo Fighters before?” questions Dave Grohl as a significant portion of the jaw-droppingly massive crowd answer in the affirmative. “I’m gonna get you motherfuckers…” Grohl’s tried and tested tools for capture lay, of course, in a canon that now spans 30 years. And whilst the band have played essentially every city, on every stage that it’s possible to play, there’s a fighting energy in the air tonight that you suspect might come from the circumstances of this particular return. ‘Walk’’s howls of “I never wanna die” are as visceral as they come, while Grohl himself is on his sparkiest, most magnetic form. “This is a big fucking show but guess what?” he grins. “I like big fucking shows.”

It’s to The Town’s particular credit that Sunday’s line-up comes inbuilt with the kind of inclusive diversity that should show many far more established events how it’s done. Drag performer Gloria Groove draws a huge hometown crowd to their second stage slot, putting on an outrageously slick rap-pop show complete with Beyoncé-like costume changes and choreography. Earlier in the day boasts fellow drag pop sensation Pablo Vittar, while Kim Petras brings her uncompromisingly saucy sex-pop to the main stage - dedicating ‘Coconuts’ to “her tits” and combining X-rated romps such as ‘Throat Goat’ and ‘Slut Pop’ with Paris Hilton sweetness and inflatable hearts.

Local pop royalty Jão clearly understands the magnitude of the occasion and brings a whopping great dragon with him to fill the whole back portion of the stage, while H.E.R is boundary-defying in the truest sense of the term: a primarily R&B artist who thinks nothing of hopping between instruments, busting out electric guitar solos and drum breaks in between vocal turns. It is difficult, meanwhile, to overstate just how much Brazil loves Bruno Mars. When tickets for his first night at The Town sold out instantly, they added another - and a further 100,000 spots - which promptly did the same. Unsurprisingly then, this outing of his all-singing, all-dancing spectacular is greeted like the second coming of a different Big Man; complete with Boyz II Men-style backing band, Michael Jackson incarnate dancing, some delightfully campy skits and an undeniable back catalogue of world-beating hits, it feels like a fittingly massive way to end a festival where size and spectacle combine in truly jaw-dropping style.

Tags: Bruno Mars, Foo Fighters, Garbage, Kim Petras, Wet Leg, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Festivals, Reviews, Live Reviews

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