Review & Photos | Boston Calling | Boston

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Images by: Scott Fleishman
Words by: Andrew Bruss

Boston Calling :: 9.5.14 – 9.6.14 :: City Hall Plaza :: Boston, MA

City Hall might be the seat of power for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, but for two weekends a year, City Hall is Boston Calling.

This is the second year in a row Boston City Hall Plaza has hosted the bi-annual Boston Calling Music Festival and its fourth incarnation may have been the best yet. Between an increasingly diverse lineup and consistent improvements to the site, Boston Calling has already laid the foundation for BC5 to raise the bar even higher.

A high powered storm caused the cancelation of both Girl Talk and Volcano Choir on Saturday evening but even this was an area where the event shined. After imposing an immediate evacuation of the site due to the fast moving storm, event organizers finally announced that people could return for a 9 p.m. set by Lorde. A sold-out event usually has ticket holders trickle in over a period of many hours, but city streets were clogged with over 15,000 bracelet-wearing attendees surging towards the venue. People were frustrated about the rain out, eager to get in, and in many cases, drunker than when they left the concert site. There are more than a few ways the post-storm plan could have gone very wrong and every one of them would have caused headlines that would mean the end of Boston Calling. That said, ticket holders played ball, security was professional, the police supervised but stayed hands off, and an awesome end to Saturday was had by all.

The location of any festival worth its salt plays a major part in the character of the event. Coachella has its polo fields, Lollapalooza has Chicago’s Grant Park, Governors Ball has Randall’s Island and Boston Calling has City Hall Plaza. The event isn’t a traditional festival, in that there are only two stages with one band performing at a time. The first three versions of the event each saw a change in the way the two stages were arranged, but BC4 was the first time they used the same stage locations, signifying they finally found their sweet spot. Of the three different arrangements, the current layout has the best acoustics and easiest accessibility. The ugly, open-air inner plaza of City Hall serves as a VIP lounge and the festivals promoters even have a lighting rig reserved exclusively for projecting onto the surrounding skyline.


BEST SET

Lorde: Nobody wakes up in the morning expecting to have their attention span utterly dominated by a 17-year-old girl from New Zealand, but if you were at Boston Calling on Saturday that’s exactly what happened. No performer on the bill boasted the charismatic magnetism like the girl born Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor. Her set was made up of tracks off her freshman release, True Heroine. Off the bat, Lorde kicked into “Glory and Gore,” accompanied by a drummer and keyboard/sampler as she danced around the stage in a way that brought to mind Thom Yorke’s famous freak-outs during performances of “Idioteque.”

The music she sings over has a heavy trip-hop influence but her pipes are hard to label. She has the voice of a 30-year-old and the world view of a teenage Westerner who grew up in a land that couldn’t be farther from the West. This gap between her cultural influences and literal geography are major themes in both of her radio hits, “Royals” and “Team.”

We’re used to seeing teen sensations like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus captivate large crowds with choreography, backup dancers and large scale productions but Lorde kept her audience wrapped around her finger by being interesting to watch. She made a late set wardrobe change into a wavy red outfit that made it seem like the simple-yet-sophisticated lighting design was playing off of her

At one point in the set, Lorde thanked us for coming back for her and the cheers of her audience literally brought her to tears as she told us we were her favorite audience of the tour. Former Dresden Dolls frontwoman Amanda Palmer was in the crowd, enjoying the show as both a spectator and peer rock star. When asked if she thought Lorde said that on every date, Palmer replied, “Yeah, but she definitely means it in this moment and that’s all that matters.”


RUNNER UP

Neutral Milk Hotel: Their last album was released in 1998 and it’s unlikely they’ll release another any time soon, but the emotional connection a generation of alt. minded listeners forged with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has sustained their legend. They built upon this legend during the first night of Boston Calling.

The term front man in no way shape or form applies to vocalist/guitarist/lyricist Jeff Mangum. The band did not allow professional photography. The video screens were turned off. The audience was asked to refrain from taking cell phone pics and Mangum has grown a long, thick beard, which in addition to a baggy cap, kept his face hidden from the audience. To put it mildly, Mangum doesn’t want to be seen. It’s easy to complain about not being able to see him well, or being asked not to use your phone. Who does he think he is!? Right?

Wrong. While the reclusive nature of his stage presence may relate to his own anxieties and fears, it improved the show immensely. Without the glow of the video screens, the light radiating from the stage felt a lot more intimate. Mangum barely moved his shoulders for his entire performance but through the power of his material, which sounded just as good in City Hall as it did on the album, he kept his audience captivated for the entirety of his performance.


WORST SET

The 1975: What felt like the longest set of the weekend was performed by the ugly bastard child of U2 and Duran Duran whose Sunday afternoon performance was wildly popular with the suburban teens in the crowd but is only worthy of a single sentence (this is that sentence).


RUNNER UP

Bleachers: This band is the side project of Jack Antonoff, the guitarist for Fun., a group originally founded as a side project between Antonoff and Fun. singer Nate Ruess, who were front men of Steel Train and The Format. Steel Train had a modest-yet-loyal following on the jamband circuit as a result of nonstop touring and Antonoff’s virtuosic abilities on the guitar and Bleacher’s set would have been the perfect time for Antonoff to get back in touch with his roots and shred on his Gibson until his fingers had splinters. Unfortunately his set proved he is more Fun. than he ever was Steel Train. Mediocre pseudo-synth pop is boring yet forgivable, but what made the set skin-crawlingly bad was Antonoff’s OCD-like obsession with showboating. No skilled instrumentalist spent more time over the course of the weekend encouraging his audience to clap their hands or use his instrument as a prop to pose with while not playing it. Prior to the set Antonoff huddled with his bandmates backstage for a big group hug, just as he used to do with his Steel Train bandmates. This tradition may connect the dots between Steel Train and Bleachers, but that’s where the connection ends.


DRAW

Nas x The Roots: No part of the performances by either Nas or The Roots was bad, but they were booked as “Nas x The Roots,” and the glaring lack of collaboration between the two was arguably the biggest disappointment of the weekend (unless you showed up for Girl Talk or Volcano Choir).

In honor of its 20th anniversary, Nasty Nas has been touring the country, performing the entirety of Illmatic, a classic that belongs on any Mount. Rushmore of greatest hip hop records ever. The Roots’ days of touring extensively ended when they got the call from Jimmy Fallon and in light of this one-off collaboration, hopes were high.

What transpired was essentially two equal sets in length, first by Nas, then The Roots, with a single song shared between the transitions, and again during the encore. This was the last set of the weekend and with a new work week on the horizon, folks who stayed out until 11 p.m. on Sunday were expecting to see something to brag about the next morning.

Nas toured with a live band last year but while supporting Illmatic, he’s been on the road with a DJ/hype man whose “When I say ‘hip,’ you say ‘hop” shtick was stale before it started. The Roots brought their showmanship and Nas showed off his flow, but knowing Nas could have performed “Hip Hop Is Dead” with ?uestlove and Co. but didn’t is why this set was so disappointing: It was a missed opportunity of historical proportions.


VERDICT

BC can only sell so many tickets due to the limited space, which means you’re never going to see Boston Calling book a Kanye West or Paul McCartney. That said, BC knows what it is, what it can do and within the context of a second tier music festival, they’re one of the best. While the lineup boasts enough shallow pop acts to sell tickets to suburban teens, they also host enough high-quality, genre-defying performers to accommodate die-hard concert goers as well as Boston’s sizable college crowd. BC is walking a tightrope with their booking philosophy but they’re keeping their balance in an impressive way.

Between its appetizing lineup, ease of inner-site mobility, affordability and triumph over logistical adversity, Boston Calling has proved yet again that it is here to stay. They’re getting press, showing people an incredible time, and most important for their future, making money. The folks behind Boston Calling have a winning formula that Bostonians can count on to provide them with an elite, live music experience two weekends a year.

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