Right in the center of Boston, City Hall Plaza is where Boston Calling has been held since its inception in May 2013, and it’s a great open-air venue, with brick flooring & long uninterrupted sightlines that are then surrounded by some of Boston’s tallest buildings. Of course, this makes it totally different than the park settings of most urban festivals. You don’t quite know what to expect from something so new & different – the cranes & traffic cones moved in recently to overhaul a major subway station, but they’re also an immediate reminder that this is a music festival still defining its character to many people.
Yet once inside, it was noticeable how strongly Boston Calling has hit its stride in its fourth iteration. The festival is set apart by how accessible it all is: the large brick space accommodates a comfortable experience for a large turnout, and the lines for food & drink are far from the typical festival nightmare. Plus, in a nice twist from most events, the VIPs are moved to a scenic view from the City Hall balconies, while the up-close-and-personal approach is doable for anybody, with minimal “camp out” time needed. You don’t have to be a diehard here to see some fantastic bands & have a good time.
Undoubtedly, much of the credit for such a positive vibe rests with a killer Boston Calling lineup. The National’s Aaron Dessner has curated the performances for Boston Calling every year, and recruiting him has been a masterstroke – aside from the industry clout that he brings, Dessner is clearly an expert at cultivating a mood. It’s rare that a music festival can predict the many vibes you want to experience over a three-day event, but Boston Calling has done it beautifully.
Savvy to the workday, Day 1 kicked off on Friday at 6:45 PM, with Baltimore indie rock trio Future Islands. For the few who arrived early enough, you couldn’t have picked a better band to set a vibe right on impact. Running through their 11-year catalogue, frontman Samuel T. Herring offered a disarming energy, alternating from emotional pleading to the crowd, to the occasional deathmetal voice that has become his live signature, to a few Beyonce-like body rolls just for good measure. It’s unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else, and as he repeatedly reflected on the “beautiful” crowd & moon framed in the Boston skyline, you couldn’t help but be totally locked in.
Most festival-goers really started filling in for Neutral Milk Hotel, the recently reunited indie staple from Athens. Clearly, the band’s hiatus has done nothing to diminish the passion of its fanbase, as the crowd’s energy made it clear how many years they’d waited to see the band’s folky chaos in person. Lead singer Jeff Mangum urged the crowd to keep the cellphones away, and I doubt many people had to think twice about it.
With a full crowd onboard, The National rounded off the Friday set with a spellbinding nighttime set, their second Boston Calling appearance after headlining the inaugural May 2013 edition. While their music is sometimes criticized as somber, their live performance turns this criticism on its head, so emotionally stirring & visually brilliant that such sorrow becomes a beautiful thing to see. “Graceless” & “Bloodbuzz Ohio” were particular standouts, and after the previous two bands had the crowd bouncing, it’s a high compliment that The National had them completely transfixed.
Friday’s openers should have been a warning to anyone present: Saturday was designed to be high-energy, virtually start-to-finish. Despite gathering slowly, the crowd was vocal in supporting the first two acts, Boston’s own St. Nothing and CliffLight. Self-described as “nocturnal bedroom pop,” St. Nothing kicked off the day with a gentle blend of electronic beats and smooth cello, easing the crowd in to the afternoon. The hometown love continued as CliffLight took the stage, upping the energy with an enthusiastic set that had the entire audience dancing and clapping along.
Wisconsin’s S. Carey played the third set of the day, entrancing a now-full crowd with their piano-driven chords and indie-folk charm. Both the lead singer and the band’s namesake, Sean Carey’s vocals were both spirited and serene, encouraging a sea of heads nodding along to the soothing tunes as beach balls flew through the air.
Pop energy powered the crowd through the rest of the day once Sky Ferreira, the first leading lady of the festival, took the midday stage. Her fierce stage presence and vocal force exuded an aura of effortless cool, as the sunglasses-clad singer enchanted a growing audience of thousands of dancing fans.
From there, Bleachers continued the pop train with a refreshingly upbeat set. The audience ranged from Jack Antonoff devotees to casual listeners who mainly recognized their radio hit “I Wanna Get Better”, yet this mix plays perfectly to the strength of Bleachers’ music: its immediate & wide-ranging appeal. Antonoff is surely aware of this, and creates a very welcoming atmosphere for his sets, going to lengths to introduce the whole band in between rolling jams like “Rollercoaster”. Expect to hear these guys on the radio a lot more in the future.
The Hold Steady followed, and while their rock vibe shifted the musical tone from the day’s pop theme, their performance shared a relentless energy that rested well in the midday sun. In such an open environment, lead singer Craig Finn’s wry humor & jerky movement played perfectly to a festival crowd, as the band slipped seamlessly through their discography.
At this point however, festivalgoers were disappointed when a coming thunderstorm forced the organizers to suspend all concerts until further notice. Thankfully, the organizers were clearly well prepared, getting everyone evacuated to safety early & pushing regular updates via their Twitter feed. The 3-hour delay sadly cancelled the sets for Volcano Choir & Girl Talk, and shortened those of Lorde & Childish Gambino, but major credit to the organizers for proactively handling such tough circumstances.
Meanwhile, City Hall Plaza is conveniently located right near Faneuil Hall & the North End, two major hubs for bars & restaurants… so, no points for guessing how festivalgoers spent their three-hour delay. The crowd was noticeably rowdier after returning to City Hall Plaza around 9:00, especially near the main stage where Childish Gambino would close the night. In fact, about half of the earliest re-entrants went straight to that stage, choosing to watch Lorde’s performance from afar.
Before then however, Lorde had a 40-minute set to show why she’s one of the most intriguing young talents in pop today. The 17-year-old Kiwi showed a more controlled energy than many of the other Saturday performers – in contrast to Bleachers and other bands who worked the whole stage, Lorde remained mostly fixed at the mic. Yet, she danced & thrashed in one place enough to be completely arresting, framed by minimal set design and a high-hung chandelier. The vocal performance wasn’t very different than her album, but when you’ve got “Ribs” & “Royals”, you don’t need to add much.
While Lorde may have the larger pop clout, just a few minutes at Childish Gambino’s show made it immediately clear why he got the headliner slot – quite simply, he shut the place down. The production around him was itself a huge spectacle, with an extensive group of backing musicians, bone-rattling amounts of bass, and a stage-wide screen with a dizzying array of images & patterns. But top billing goes to Gambino himself, who is manic & committed onstage in a way that’s matched by few others in hip-hop. Primarily covering his 2013 album “Because the Internet”, he showed the versatility that is his calling card, both ripping through blazing fast lyrics on “Sweatpants” & slowing down for more melodic songs like “3005”, all while entertaining the crowd with his sharp humor & moves (including an expert Shmoney Dance). On a day where every act seemed handpicked for their never-ending energy, Childish Gambino blew them all away.
Mr. Dessner must have predicted that Saturday’s intensity couldn’t be topped, and for the most part, the festival’s final day made for an easygoing summer Sunday. The beautiful weather made the setting perfect for a more mellow set of bands, and the morning slate of Gentlemen Hall, San Fermin, White Denim, and The War on Drugs did not disappoint in soundtracking the warm Boston afternoon. The War on Drugs drew a particularly great crowd, as their jam-oriented set engaged listeners throughout.
As Sunday rolled into late afternoon, Lake Street Dive played an incredibly soulful set that was perfect for the relaxed atmosphere. Founded in Boston when the band members attended the New England Conservatory of Music together, the band clearly still feels strong ties to the area – lead singer Rachael Price made frequent mention of their time in the area, and even announced late in their set that they’d return to the city for three New Year’s shows. The band needed no hometown advantage though, as they showcased their range of great musical talent, from Price’s amazing voice to a very impressive standing bass solo from bassist & vocalist Bridget Kearney.
The next act, Twenty One Pilots, was certainly a jolt to the system in this lineup, as their set would’ve challenged anyone from Saturday’s slate on pure energy. Lead man Tyler Joseph explicitly worked the crowd from the starting gun, and their unique mix of Queen-like anthems & pop-rapping played well to a festival audience. Josephs played this up routinely, even exclaiming towards the end, “This is why you come to festivals!” He’s right, too – massive moshpits & steam cannons were present right from the opener, and delightful cover choices (“Summertime Sadness” & “All I Do Is Win”) kept the outdoor party rolling. By the finale, where Josephs stood on the crowd’s hands & banged a drum they held up for him, he’d completely won them over.
In contrast, Manchester, U.K. outfit The 1975 prefer a leisurely & emotional set that returned to the overall Sunday vibe. This lowkey nature makes it tough to call them a “boy band” – they’ve certainly got the effortless brooding and screaming groups of girls, but (refreshingly) expend far less of the bouncy energy than the stereotype might have you believe. But, if you had any doubt how the teenager-heavy crowd felt about them, it was dispelled when brazen lead singer Matty Healy brought a swooning teenage fan up from the front row & crooned “Robbers” to her onstage. Anybody could see The 1975’s demographic as the girl spent her time onstage texting & taking selfies, but the band’s style still challenges you to think twice.
As the dusk settled in, Sunday steered into a party atmosphere to close out the festival. Spoon ushered in this vibe quite well, hitting their mid-set stride almost immediately & mining their extensive discography from there. Many younger fans seemed to only know the band from their appearance on “The O.C.” soundtrack (via their single “The Way We Get By”, which received a great reception), but it’s a credit to the band that they could set the tone for the night regardless.
From the start, fans of The Replacements were unlikely to forget this Boston Calling show, given that the band last toured in 1991. (The opener for the tour before that one? Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in 1989. Not a bad warmup act.) Of course, you would never know that it was any sort of occasion – you have to admire the band’s commitment to spontaneity, playing a largely improvised set despite their guest guitarist playing his first appearance with the band. True to their college-band roots, the whole band even reveled in the chaos when forgetting the lyrics to “Androgynous”, only for the audience to fill the vocals in flawlessly. It’s hard to believe after 23 years, but for the many diehard fans in attendance, the performance matched the wait.
Nas & The Roots closed out the festival in style with back-to-back sets on the same stage. Nas came out first, backed only by a DJ yet firing through a quick half-hour set of his best work. However, the highest praise must be reserved for The Roots, who are simply unmatched in their abilities as musical party starters. It’s not exactly complete to describe The Roots’ live set as a “concert” – they covered very little of their extensive back catalogue, instead filling an uninterrupted hour-long jam session with Black Thought’s freestyles, choreographed dance moves from the backing instrumentalists, solos from virtually every band member, and the genius cover choices of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” & “Bad to the Bone”. While many bands enjoy performing live, rarely is that enthusiasm matched by the sheer mastery that The Roots displayed with this freeform performance. When they ended the set by hyping Questlove’s DJ-set afterparty (his eighth gig in 72 hours), it was the perfect reminder that the party would go on and on and on, since these guys do what they love, and they’ll be doing it for however long they want.
Not many people outside of Boston know much about Boston Calling, and strangely enough, this worked perfectly to its advantage this fall. Thanks to smart curating & a host city that bands love to play, the festival has pulled the amazing trick of attracting a stellar lineup before the crowd becomes too massive. As a result, Boston Calling offers some of the best access to remarkable performers that you could ever ask for. This is a festival that’s not to be missed.