The third year edition of the biannual Boston Calling Music Festival kicked off on a gorgeous Friday spring evening in the literal heart of the city, City Hall Plaza; a brick oasis surrounded on three sides by skyscrapers and Faneuil Hall and the Atlantic Ocean on the fourth. A true “city festival,” the organizers have used prior editions to continually improve on the experience. With two stages separated by only a few yards the rest of the venue is circled by vendors, promoters and a lounge area with two big screen TVs, a ping pong table and other entertainment. The staff is knowledgeable, laid back and helpful with enough security to feel safe but not like you are living in a police state. The audience mostly an equal mix of college age men and women are free to come and go from the venue so the “floor” is a constant sea of movement. Oh, and they have a bunch of cool bands that play some pretty great music. Thereby giving an overall party feeling to the event as opposed to a “concert.”
Friday night leaned towards different shades of imaginative rock as Sharon Van Etten, Tame Impala, and Beck too the main stage. Van Etten took the bare black stage playing a set of synth tinged, surreal sounding, harmonic laden music. Looking like a young Chrissy Hynde with her black locks covering her face most of the show, Van Etten’s tone, however is very smooth. The casual blues of “Tarifa” slowly built as harmonies and electronic keys were layered with each verse. The title track of her new EP, the jangly “I Don’t Want to Let You Down” was another highlight of her set.
Australia’s, six-piece, Tame Impala kicked the electronic vibe up another notch with a set of classic guitar riffs overdubbed with improvised electronica. Although playing an actual set list the show sounded like one long musical interlude. With the sun setting before a backdrop of multi-colored psychedelic images the band bounced through “Let It Happen”, pounded out “Elephant” and played the pop sounding new single, “Cause I’m A Man.”
While the two opening acts were well attended and received courteous applause; based on both the size and the sound of the crowd by showtime Beck was the real draw. Dressed in a black and white striped shirt, black leather jacket and black hat Beck opened with the thundering “Devil’s Haircut” featuring a searing guitar solo. He then moved into the soul boogie of “Black Tambourine”, followed by the jazz tinged “The New Pollution” and the rap of “Que Onda Guero.” The variety of musical styles which Beck moves through effortlessly sums up his ability as an artist. However he is at his best in numbers like “Hell Yes”, the Donna Summer cover Think I’m in Love/I Feel Love” and the acoustic beauty of “Lost Cause” which bend, meld and mold various musical styles into one tune. He satisfied even the casual fans by including “Loser” and “Where It’s At” late in the set. Despite the numerous musical influences and styles throughout the set the Beck’s songs nonetheless connect the dots making the concert experience one enjoyable picture.
Day two of Boston Calling saw larger crowds then opening night. With the plaza full to capacity by mid-afternoon, Tove Lo kicked the party off with a set of power pop. The knockout Swedish singer, Ebba Tove Nilsson who goes by the stage name Tove Lo wowed the adoring crowd with her energy and her music at the most recent stop of her first US tour. The set consisted mostly of upbeat numbers including her hits “Habits (Stay High)” and “Talking Body.” but the ballad “This Time Around” followed by the commercial radio friendly, new single “Timebomb” had even the casual observer moving to the beat. Oh and she did briefly “flash” the crowd which was a bit unexpected.
In what defines both the diversity and the efficiency of Boston Calling within minutes of Tove Lo ending, Gerard Way, former front man for My Chemical Romance, began a guitar assault from the second stage. Fronting band mates dressed in white shirts and black ties, Way in black with a red tie tore into “The Bureau.” Before a backdrop of a pink fur monkey face painted as a clown the early set was a tumultuous, three chord guitar onslaught. Even his aggressive singing style is a contrast to his softer-spoken demeanor. After a brief impromptu musical tribute to some Boston family cousins in the audience the set gradually became more musical with “Millions”, “Drugstore Perfume” and “Brother.” Wake’s set was one of the early highlights of the day.
St. Vincent fronted by the striking Anne Clark, looking as much a runway model in black leather dress and fishnet stockings as rock icon captured the crowd with here alternative bordering on avant-garde sound. Clark’s guitar playing is otherworldly, sliding, bending, and holding notes over the rhythm section in “Digital Witness” and “Cheerleader.” The music appears to channel through Clark as its vessel while she kneels, poses, and even crowd surfed toward the end of the set.
As the suns energy waned the crowd’s was just peaking in anticipation of show closers Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals and My Morning jacket. Harper took the stage just after dark. Dressed in his trademark buttoned up flannel and fedora, the band began delivering on its soul tinged rock and roll from the drop. Alternating between sit down slide and guitar and electric, after delivering a re-worked “Steal My Kisses,” Harper and his band began extending the catalogue and the jamming with “Don’t Take That Attitude to Your Grave” and “Ground on Down.” Some songs like “Diamonds on the Inside” no matter how many times heard or played still sound great. while the spiritual set closer, “Better Way” elevated the bar.
Although well satiated music wise the plaza remained completely full for My Morning Jacket who serenaded the entire city. Sounding slightly louder then any other act, drawing heavily from the new album, “The Waterfall” from the opener, “Believe (Nobody Knows)” guitar layers and fills filled the air. The bearded, long haired, messiah looking, lead singer Jim James sound spot on and while new material may not always move a show forward such was not the case tonight, “In It’s Infancy” (The Waterfall) was another interesting tune that translated well live. Playing an abbreviated set-list due to festival time constraints the band closed with fan favorites, “Anytime” and “One Big Holiday.”
On Sunday the crowd early on was smaller and more reserved or maybe just a bit tired 36 hours and fifteen acts in since Friday night. Perhaps sensing the mood Lone Bellow laid right into the set with “If You Don’t Love Me.” It was just a couple year’s ago that as an unknown band they were doing an in-store a block away. “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home” was given the spiritual revival treatment while the gospel like harmonies of “Green Eyes and a “Heart of Gold” captured the band’s sound.
Sunday’s high point, if not for the whole festival was Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s set. Looking thin, fit and rested, Isbell drew mainly from his last release “Southeastern” after opening with “Stockholm” and “Flying Over Water” the band shredded “Decoration Day.” Isbell was in full throat on the New Orleans juke, “Codeine” and his dramatic delivery on the solo, acoustic “Cover Me Up” quieted the several thousand member audience before bringing down the house with a guitar bruising “Never Gonna Change” causing one audience member to sum up the set succinctly yelling, “That is one bad man!”
The latest Australian sensation, Vance Joy, having just signed a five album deal with Atlantic records opened softly with “From After”, “Red Eye” and “Winds of Change,” before taking his acoustic alt-country up a notch with his single, “Mess is Mine” and “Play With Fire,” and the Dylan-esque “Best That I Can.” Joy was a crowd favorite particularly with the younger female audience.
In yet another display of the festival’s diversity (both in age and sound this time) TV on the Radio followed with a symphonic cacophony starting with “Young Liars” and “Lazerray.”The band includes, guitar, bass, drums, trombone, keyboards, and bass; lead singer/master of chaos Tunde Adebimpe brought 60 minutes of non-stop funk, from “Happy Idiot” through “Winter” to “Wolf Like Me.”
Perhaps in an effort to provide both sonic and lyric relief between TV on the Radio and the Pixies, Tenacious D (Jack Black and Kyle Glass) fit the bill. Striding on stage with a satiric confidence from the opener “Tribute” its clear that although lyrically tongue in cheek and musically somewhat of a parody performance wise they are musically competent. Although if we are being honest if it were not for their day jobs not as many people would care (and not all in Boston did.) Both playing acoustic guitar backed by bass, electric guitar and drums the duo stuck to their standard playlist: “Rize of the Phoenix,” “Low Hanging Fruit,” and “Throwdown.”
Back in 1986 when the Pixies formed in Boston they would play small clubs and rooms like the Paradise and The Rat. Even at the previous height of their popularity before their first split in 1993 they were not playing large venues with any regularity. So in a musical coronation of sorts for the city, the festival and the band nearly twenty years later the Pixies closed out the event before 15,000 homegrown fans. A fact not lost on lead singer Black Francis aka Frank Black, the band cramming 32 songs into an hour and a half set which included fan favorites, “Monkey Gone to Heaven”“Debaser,” “Where is My Mind,” and “Hey,” along with a handful of newer tunes of their 2014 release Indie Cindy including “Bagboy” and “Magdalena 318.” Boston Calling like the Pixies before them, made another imprint in the history of rock with a proud showing of some of the scene’s most innovative artists.
Photos by Marc Lacatell – please visit here for a full gallery.