Boston has an underappreciated music scene. The city might not match the sprawling metropolis of New York City but few places can. Boston is home to my personal favorite venue, the 933-capacity Paradise Rock Club. The more corporate Bank of America Pavilion and House of Blues host larger bands and the smaller Brighton Music Hall, T.T. The Bear’s Place, Middle East, and others host emerging talent. Then there’s the whole hush-hush Allston DIY scene that I can’t even manage.
Last weekend, Boston finally had a music festival of its own. Boston Calling jumped onto the festival circuit with a formidable line-up that was co-curated by The National’s Aaron Dessner. Despite Saturday’s cold rain and Sunday’s unseasonably cool air, the inaugural festival was a unquestionable hit.
Everything went smoothly as bands traded off sets between the two stages. The organizers did almost everything right: re-entry allowed people to take a much needed break from the elements (I can attest that after hours in the rain, the warmth of a fast-food joint named Cheeseboy trumped seeing Marina & The Diamonds). Furthermore, festival-goers were allowed to bring food into the festival, allowing for prime time snackage when you were too afraid to give up your spot in the crowd.
The only complaints I had were that it was hard to see the acts on the smaller second stage and that shuffling back and forth between the two stages sometimes seemed impossible. Otherwise, organizers did a great job — some of the nicest staff and security guards I’ve encountered and free rain ponchos all around.
It’s easy for bands to blend together at a festival when you’re constantly bombarded with music for about eight hours. The review highlights the few bands that really brought it to Boston Calling and the few that were caught on a bad day.
The National – Sunday
It’s ironic: the band known best for their intricate, reflective, and self-conscious music is actually a kickass live band. Lead singer Matt Berninger was certainly feeling screamy on Sunday, belting lyrics to rockers such as “Squalor Victoria,” “Abel,” and the new show-stopper, “Graceless.”
And for a band known for brooding, end-of-the-night numbers, the set was filled with rockers. Of course, “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Apartment Story,” and “Sea of Love” were loud, but even the tamer “Fake Empire” and “Conversation 16” sounded heavier than normal with all of Boston crooning along.
On “Mr. November,” the liquor fueled Berninger found himself in the crowd, singing along with the masses. At the end of the song, the singer seemed trapped in the crowd before the audience and security teamed up and propelled him back to stage.
While the rockers were the highlight, the band’s many delicate numbers still sounded fantastic: “About Today” rose from haunting to cathartic perfection and the Trouble Will Fine Me opener “I Should Live In Salt” was a brilliant choice to kick off the encore.
One of the more badass moments came during the band’s quietest song of the night, “I Need My Girl.” Bryce Dessner holds a second guitar and bangs it on the ground to create a sense of foreboding that felt so right in the night sky. The Dessner brothers traded guitars and switched off on piano duties—they maintained a captivating stage presence throughout the night.
Portugal. The Man – Saturday
Just last year, I was worried that this band might be on the decline. They had been one of my favorites since the release of their brilliant 2008 album Censored Colors but they changed drummers and keyboardists and their live sets seemed to focus less on the jamming and song combinations that always enthralled me. I was wrong to worry.
After a year with the new line-up, the band sounds as good as they’ve ever been. New keyboardist Kyle O’Quin brings a fresh sound (and a half-dozen impressive keyboards) that adds life to new songs, such as “Modern Jesus” and “Purple Yellow Red and Blue.”
Playing the sprawling “Sleep Forever” into “Hey Jude” is genius. Getting thousands to share in the singing of one of McCartney’s most anthemic songs will certainly make people like you. Definitely one of the festival’s high points.
Despite my fondness for their earlier tracks, Portugal is killing it live these days with a setlist that favorites their new material. Yes, they’re a veteran act—a month away from their seventh album in eight years—but they’re still bound for a breakthrough. They have Danger Mouse, Atlantic Records, and a killer live set to ensure this.
fun. – Saturday
Honestly, I’m just not into fun. Sure, I can have a good time but “Some Nights” irks me in unexplainable ways. Seriously though, it’s that nauseating intro.
At Boston Calling, the band seemed genuinely excited and touched to be there. Lead singer Nate Ruess claimed it was their largest show ever and that it was his favorite. He never dreamed of playing such a large crowd and it humbled him.
A seemingly-impromptu cover of “Me and Julio Down by The Schoolyard” was highly entertaining and the crowd ate up the cover of The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
More than the music, it was Ruess and the band’s excitement that made it hard to dislike them. Yes, I still can’t stand “Some Nights” and won’t likely reach for any of their LPs but, for a night, I realized just how catchy “We Are Young” is.
fun. was also the only band I saw that made any reference to the Marathon Bombings that devastated the city just over a month ago. Ruess applauded how quickly the hub recovered and could put on a festival as great as this. His support of the city’s recovery efforts obviously produced a loud cheer.
Of Monsters and Men – Sunday
Of Monsters and Men played an enjoyable and festival friendly set. Their perfectly placed “heys!” got the audience singing along and throwing beach balls around—the biggest of the beach balls made me feel as if I were in danger whenever it landed nearby.
The Icelandic band’s indie-pop drew the youngest audience of the night. Most festival-goers that rushed to the front of the crowd weren’t even in high school yet—and dashed before before The National took to the stage.
The Shins – Saturday
The Shins had the misfortune of taking the stage around the most miserable time of day: the temperature was dropping, the rain was restarting and fatigue was settling in. Even so, the eerie vibe of “New Slang” was perfect for the cold night. “Simple Song,” and “Caring Is Creepy” were also fantastic, as was the 60-year-old man rocking out for the entire set.
Dirty Projectors – Sunday
The closer I got to the stage, the more I dug the dissonant, off-kilter, james of this band. It took some time to warm up to but I was grooving to the piercing guitars and strange harmonies. “Gun Has No Trigger” was spooky and fantastic.
Youth Lagoon – Sunday
Trevor Powers’ keyboard and live instrumentation lead the way in this early-afternoon set. The only weak spot was Powers’ voice which sounded more nasal and grating than on the record where he sounds wonderfully nervous and juvenile. There were a few times when his voice became cringe-worthy, however, the other elements saved the set.
St. Lucia and MS MR are quality electronic pop acts. MS MR was the more memorable of the two bands thanks to charismatic lead singer Lizzy Plapinger whose powerful voice reminded me of Florence Welch. They pulled a fantastic move when they covered LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yourself Clean.” It didn’t hit as hard as the original (their version was more subdued) but it was still a quality dance groove that got audience digging their set.
Bad Rabbits and Caspian were the festival’s local openers, playing on Saturday and Sunday respectively. The former are a high-energy funk band while the latter are a quiet, instrumental, and guitar-heavy group. Both were solid but the audience ate up Bad Rabbits and energetic lead singer Fredua Boakye who kept saying how much he loved the city. On the other hand, Caspian might have been better received under the guise night.
Cults was off their game. I’ve seen them before at the intimate Paradise Rock Club and was pleasantly surprised but they couldn’t pull it off at much larger Boston Calling. Guitarist Brian Oblivion said it was their first show in six months so I’m willing to give them another chance. The band sounded better towards the end of the set and the more they distanced themselves from simply playing the music as it sounds on the LP, the stronger they sounded.
While the indie-rock veterans delivered a solid set, it was mostly unmemorable when compared to the other acts at Boston Calling. Yes, “The Rat” was great but nothing else really stuck with me.
Boston’s ailing mayor Thomas Menino took stage before The Shins set to largd cheers. He briefly talked of his initial skepticism about the festival and how pleases he was with how it turned out. The next day, The National’s Aaron Dessner revealed the second Boston Calling festival to raucous applause.
Boston Calling returns in September with Vampire Weekend, Passion Pit, Kendrick Lamar, and Local Natives headlining.