Boston Calling is described on its website as “one big party,” and with an approximate attendance of 22,000 people each day, it is one of the city’s biggest summer music events. Since its initial run in May 2013, the music festival has become comparable to other established alternative, pop as well as indie festivals like Governor’s Ball in New York City or Coachella in California. The festival is hosted in central Boston, a stone’s throw from historic Faneuil Hall, and covers the entirety of City Hall Plaza. This year’s festival featured two stages with non-overlapping musical acts, so that fans had the opportunity to see every band that played. This year’s headliners included The National, Neutral Milk Hotel (NMH), NAS x The Roots and Childish Gambino, as well as local acts like Gentleman Hall and Lake Street Dive.
Friday, September 5
Music lovers braved 90-degree heat and intense humidity on the first day of Boston Calling. The evening acts, beginning with synthpop act Future Islands, drew an older crowd than the later days of the festival. NMH, an indie rock band formed in the late 1980s, was the first big act of the evening. It’s debatable whether the group is better known for their cult classic album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” or for their 12-year hiatus, which lasted from 1998 to 2011.
It was obvious during NMH’s set that the festival’s organizers hadn’t quite worked out all the kinks. The band wasn’t projected on the big screens that were used for every act during the later days of the festival, and there were minor but noticeable issues with the sound mixing. However, the issues of musical balance and the repeated feedback tones during NMH’s set were easily overlooked — in fact, longtime fans of the group were apt to wonder if the feedback was meant to be part of NMH’s few intentionally discordant moments.
NMH played songs almost exclusively off “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” including crowd favorites like “Holland, 1945,” “King of Carrot Flowers,” and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” The best energy of the set came when Jeff Mangum, the band’s lead singer, announced quietly, “…And now we’re going to play ‘Ghost,’” and the band headed off full speed into the upbeat, easy-to-like track. The set closed with an emotionally loaded and surprisingly vulnerable rendition of “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2,” with their closing words the lyrical plea “but don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.”
Boston Calling’s first day closed with The National, an indie rock band from Cincinnati, Ohio. The National pairs a melancholy sound with complex and poetic lyrics, written and sung by Matt Berninger. Aaron Dessner, guitarist and songwriter for The National, has also played a influential role in the creation of the Boston Calling festival. The band, formed in 1999, has found wide acclaim in recent years when their latest album, “Trouble Will Find Me” was nominated in the 2013 Grammy Awards for Best Alternative Album.
The captivating energy of their set took off even before their music started: the black stage backdrops, left plain for the previous acts, were suddenly illuminated with deeply colored abstract images, a perfect complement to their rich lyrical imagery. The National opened with “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” one of their more recent tracks (“when they ask / what do I see / I see bright, white, beautiful heaven hanging over me”) and the crowd raised their hands and heads to the tune.
Although most of the crowd already seemed familiar with The National, even those who were clearly new listeners were still drawn in by their contagious energy. There were surprises for old fans too: The band added a brass section to tracks like “Ada,” “I Need My Girl” and “Fake Empire.” The biggest surprise, however, was Berninger’s willingness to break into full screams at the most intense parts of tracks like “Sea of Love,” “Squalor Victoria” and “Mr. November.” Also amusing was Berninger’s nod to Boston: They gave a shout-out to “Boston’s favorite son, Atul Gawande [surgeon and author]” before launching into a powerful rendition of “Slow Show.” They closed with an acoustic version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” which has a simple, catchy chorus that everyone learned well enough to sing back by the end of the set until it sounded like a prayer: “there’s still no surprisin’ / the water’s a’risin’ / it’s all been forgiven / the swans are a’swimmin’.”
Saturday, September 6
By the second day, the heat and humidity had died down, but evening thunderstorms caused attendees to evacuate City Hall Plaza and delayed the Saturday headliners: Lorde and Childish Gambino. The artists set to perform during the storm, Volcano Choir and Girl Talk, were cancelled. Police officers herded irritated crowds away from the festival grounds, but about an hour later, with police clearance, attendees rushed back into the festival in high spirits.
Lorde, the stage name of New Zealand-born Ella Yelich-O’Connor, rose to fame almost overnight with her single “Royals.” At just 17 years old, she defies the image of the typical female popstar. Instead of using sex to sell her music and image, her smoky contralto and strikingly dark appearance set her apart, not to mention her well-known frantic dancing style that she has said makes her look like Gollum, a “Lord of the Rings” character.
Yelich-O’Connor’s performance, which consisted of songs from her first full-length album, “Pure Heroine,” was dynamic and personal. Despite her numerous tours, she treated this show as if it was her first, still awestruck and outwardly grateful toward the audience’s cheers and patience through the thunderstorm and delay. Her glitchy dancing and constant movement around the stage helped sustain the energy level despite her music not being as beat-heavy as many pop artists. Highlights were the familiar “Royals,” yearning “Ribs” and danceable “Team.” From her signature wavy hair to the hems of her custom Vera Wang slacks, Yelich-O’Connor radiated self-assurance and an almost childish joy for her craft. Her idiosyncrasies and deviation from the mainstream such as her dancing and defiance of typical beauty standards may be the subject of some ridicule, but at the end of her last mellow song, “A World Alone,” her words rang true: “let ‘em talk.”
The two-stages format of Boston Calling made it possible for Childish Gambino, actor Donald Glover, to start performing almost immediately after Lorde. It was a definite change of pace; what was tender and soulful became rowdy, sexual and aggressive. The star of the NBC sitcom “Community” started off his third song, “I. The Worst Guys,” by saying “This song is about sex. I hope you like sex.” He wore an open shirt, liberally exposing his defined abdominal muscle and rapped against his backdrop as it changed between the interiors of different ornate buildings, often featuring sexual silhouettes of men and women. Though a stark contrast from the previous artist, Glover kept the energy of the second day of Boston Calling high through the end.
Sunday, September 7
The final day of the festival ran smoothly and reflected the lessons learned in the first two days: the sound balance was better without feedback errors. The big screens were on throughout the day on Sunday so that festival attendees at either stage could see the band playing across the plaza. In addition, event staff handed out water bottles to those closest to the stage, knowing that those up close were unlikely to surrender their spot for mere hydration. The festival also ran almost perfectly on time: acts were set to appear at, say, five minutes past the hour—and surprisingly—they did.
First to perform on Sunday was Gentlemen Hall, an indie rock group from Boston. Their upbeat, just-quirky-enough energy got them a quietly positive reaction from the crowd, especially during their cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “B*tch don’t Kill My Vibe.” Also impressive on Sunday was the Brooklyn-based baroque-pop group San Fermin. The band was started by Yale-educated Ellis Ludwig-Leone, whose extensive background writing film scores and operas comes through in San Fermin’s complex and conscientious music.
White Denim, a blues-rock group from Austin, Texas, received generally positive feedback for a generally unremarkable performance. White Denim is clearly still trying to balance being a very traditional “southern rock” band with the fact that they need to bring some individuality to the table if they want to make it Black-Keys-big. And, unfortunately, that individuality can’t just come from guitarist Austin Jenkins’ fashion choices. Jenkins took the stage dressed in what seems to be his typical style: someone’s Bible-thumping country uncle, down to the boots and big belt buckle. The only deviation from the fifties flashback was the jeans that were so tight the audience wondered if perhaps the band’s name was actually Tight Denim.
Lake Street Dive, a jazz and soul band originally from Boston, was one of the unexpected highlights of the day. Lead singer Rachael Price, won over the crowd, finishing one of their first songs by noting, “This is a song about mistakes so we like to pepper it with mistakes throughout. So if you heard anything, it’s like a little musical joke.”
Twenty One Pilots, a two-man alternative rock group, was one of the big draws of the Sunday lineup and did not disappoint. Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun brought their trademark almost-angry energy that got the crowd going the second they took off with the speedy, electronic “Guns for Hands.” Between performing part of the set in ski masks, spitting emotional lyrics about alienation and loneliness (“Car Radio”), playing their own jokey music (“Ode to Sleep”) or covering Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness,” Twenty One Pilots was a fun and intense act that drew a crowd of concert veterans.
The 1975 was Sunday’s biggest disappointment. The Red Stage was flooded as soon as the doors opened with the Manchester, UK indie group’s young teenage fans. Flower-crowned and shrieking, they waited impatiently, even breaking out into such a riot when The 1975 frontman Matt Healy walked behind the stage that they interrupted Lake Street Dive’s set. Healy eventually strolled onstage, arms waving, already drunk and holding what must have been a second, if not third, bottle of red wine.
Any of The 1975’s efforts to play into their boy-band caché (like pulling a love-struck teen up onto stage with them to sing “Robbers”) were completely negated by Healy yelling, “Where my ladies at?” to the crowd and—when they shrieked back—telling them to “Scream, b*tches.” The notoriously stony-faced event staff couldn’t even hide their grimaces. Unsurprisingly, The 1975 sounded wonderful in person and are obviously incredibly talented, but their terrible attitude means that their fans will outgrow them—fast.