CONCERTS / Get down, get really gloomy: Phil Sweeney reports on the mournful success of the new Portuguese rock

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JUNE IN Lisbon. Pale mauve jacaranda blossom in the parks and squares complements the pastel bunting on hundreds of open-air arraias - street party precincts - as the city celebrates the trio of saints' days (Antony, John and Peter) that underpin four weeks of Festas da Lisboa, the city's fiesta month. The tang from thousands of sardine barbecues fills the night air and there is a lot of music, much of it subsidised by the government; with an election pending, it has an eye on vote-retention.

Down by the docks, amid the cavernous industrial-chic of the Cartejo nightclub, it's thrash metal. Metallica and The Cult are billed at the Alvalade Stadium as part of the festas. The newspaper Publico's rock page has printed a useful 'organigrama metalico' and an extremely convincing local trio is bashing out impeccably grungy covers. Stadium rock is a relatively new development in Portugal (until recently reliant on small local halls and fairgrounds for popular concerts). This June has seen the first two stadium concerts by Portuguese groups. GNR, which sold out Oporto's Antas stadium in the middle of the month, is solidly Anglo-based musically - echoes of The Police, Bryan Ferry, U2. The second event, which shifted over 40,000 tickets at Lisbon's Alvalade ground a week after the Metallica bill, included more original idiosyncratic and 'Portuguese' music.

The concert, Portugal Ao Vivo (Portugal Live) featured six top groups - Sitiados, Setima Legiao, Xutos e Pontapes, Madredeus, Resistencia and Delfin - of which the most interesting is Madredeus, a six-year-old ensemble consisting of female voice, keyboards, acoustic guitar, cello and accordion.

The group was founded by two leading experimenters in the fusion of Portuguese identity with rock sensibility, Rodrigo Leao of Setima Legiao and Pedro Ayres Magalhaes of the now-defunct Herois do Mar, a group controversial in the Eighties for its use of visual imagery associated with the old dictatorship. The intention with Madredeus, according to Ayres Magalhaes, was nothing less than to create a distillation of the essence of Portugal, its people, its landscapes, its emotions. Of the latter, of course, the most quintessentially Portuguese is saudade - a bittersweet feeling of longing or nostalgia, hope amid loss, whose musical manifestations are minor keys, plangent strings and fado.

Fado, the plaintive Lisbon song form promoted to national music under the 40-year rule of Salazar, is alive but not exactly kicking. Amalia Rodriguez, the grande dame of fado, sprightly in her 70s, still leaves her pink house behind the parliament building to tour the world. But young fado singers are not replacing past generations either in quantity or quality.

Though the music of Madredeus is not fado, it has certain fado-like attributes, notably a sort of hyper- saudade which suffuses the ebb and flow of sombre-chorded cello, tragic accordion and wistful plucked guitar behind singer Teresa Salgueiro's grave crystalline voice. Salgueiro herself is not precisely a fadista, although her musical career before Madredeus included impromptu performances in the few remaining non-tourist fado cafes of the Alfama district, and Amalia Rodriguez is on record as endorsing hers as the voice of the future.

Within the last two years, Madredeus has begun to demonstrate export potential with concert tours of France, the Benelux countries and Japan. It is also big in Greece - no small achievement - although this is due mainly to its song 'O Pastor' having been adopted as soundtrack for a whisky ad on Greek television.

Talking to Ayres Magalhaes at a bistro dinner to jolly up the Lisbon rock media prior to the Portugal Ao Vivo concert, the intensity of calculation in his creation of Madredeus is apparent. So is the classically trained guitarist's appetite for innovation. He has left Madredeus for a while, it transpires, and is playing instead with two of the other groups on the stadium bill.

In the profusion of June's musical activity, it is easy to overlook the fact that indigenous rock in Portugal has only existed for half the time since a Jose Afonso record on the radio signalled the 1974 officers' coup which ended the Salazar regime. If Madredeus is too gloomy, Sitiados, a jolly young outfit in the Pogues / Negresses Vertes knees-up mould, complete with pretty female accordionist, is also peddling 'national music' with much success.