Review & Photos | Boston Calling Music Festival

By Andy Kahn May 25, 2015 10:05 am PDT

Words & Images by: Andrew Bruss

Boston Calling Music Festival :: 5.22.2015 -5.24.2015 :: City Hall Plaza, Boston, MA

Read Andrew’s review after the gallery.

Now entering its third year, the Boston Calling Music Festival boasted its most impressive lineup yet and put the rest of the East Coast festival circuit on notice. An eclectic mix of legacy acts, festival titans, “it”  artists and up-and-comers gave the greater Boston area a festival that was enjoyed by demographics ranging from Generation X’ers to teens still wearing braces. 

The event is held every May and September and over the past two years, each incarnation featured adjustments and improvements in the way the stages were laid out. This was the first time Boston Calling kept the same layout, suggesting organizers have gotten past some of the growing pains young festivals face and are figuring out how to utilize City Hall Plaza most effectively. Bottom line: it’s a strange space. With a steam-emitting Holocaust memorial in sight, a statue of Celtics-great Bill Russell on-site and the ugly slab of concrete that is City Hall, it’s a wonder Crash Line Productions makes the place feel hospitable. That said, the sound was mostly solid, the event was filled but not crowded, and they painted City Hall in a unique light show that made you forget the main stage looms under the shadow of the FBI headquarters that Whitey Bulger subverted into his de facto headquarters. 

While a full day of music on both Saturday and Sunday has always been part of the program, warming things up with a few acts on Friday evening is a more recent addition to the Boston Calling itinerary and this year’s intro set the bar absurdly high, giving every other act that followed a run for their money. 

Tame Impala has built a solid cult following off their past two albums, and as they’ve gradually released four singles off their forthcoming Currents, it seems more likely than ever that Australia’s Kevin Parker will see his project become one of the biggest stories to come from the Summer of 2015. He does all the studio work himself and brings a band on the road to flesh things out in the live setting, and while his ability to create lush, sonic landscapes that John Lennon’s own children have compared to The Beatles, it didn’t transfer live. Had they played in the dark, or after their audience had a chance to settle in, the performance likely would have been a lot more enthusiastic. But people were showing up straight from work, not yet in the festival mindset, and you got the impression Parker and Co. weren’t really digging it themselves.

Next up came Beck, the first headliner of the weekend and arguably the single best performance Boston Calling has ever hosted. With the wide range of material in Beck’s back catalog, he could have easily played an acoustic set, the entirety of Morning Phase (which just won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year), or a fan-pleasing run through of B-sides he hasn’t dusted off in years. However, while Beck is a songwriter first and foremost, he is a hell of a showman and he knew that those types of shows would work for a theater full of die-hards, but when you headline a festival, you break out the hits, and he did for almost two hours. Plenty of Odelay tunes made the cut, as did a handful of popular songs off 2005’s Guero, his breakout hit, “Loser” and a few teases of songs by acts ranging from Van Halen and New Order to Devo during band intros. This was the rare performance by an eccentric artist that pleased existing fans and newcomers alike.

An early highlight on Saturday was Run The Jewels who also played a sold out concert at The Sinclair in Harvard Square later that evening. Hip-hop’s hottest duo has been getting a lot of press for Killer Mike’s engagement in the #blacklivesmatter movement, but they weren’t above rapping about cannabis and cunnilingus while defending Tom Brady to their expectedly enthusiastic audience.

Marina & The Diamonds played at the very first Boston Calling and while the weather was warmer and the crowd was bigger this time, the on-stage antics of their charismatic front woman were overshadowed by St. Vincent’s set which came next. St. Vincent’s leader Annie Clark performs with a stage persona that brings to mind an outer worldly cyber queen whose choreography is more reminiscent of Star Trek’s Borg than Madonna. However, what really kicked the audiences’ ass was her guitar playing. Clark’s uniquely wobbly guitar tone can be recognized after a single note and her solo on, “Bring Me Your Loves,” is one of the most commanding in recent rock history.  

Next up was Ben Harper and his recently reformed Innocent Criminals. Harper earned a lot of points by bringing a local djembe player into the fold for tunes like “Burn One Down,” and closed his set on a high octane note with “Better Way (War Mix),” one the most aggressive, hard hitting songs in his repertoire.

Boston Calling has two stages with one act playing at a time and without the overlapping options expected from the modern music festival, Boston Calling has taken on a curated format. This structure shone brightly as Harper led directly into a nearly two hour barn burner from the Greatest American Rock Band of the 21st Century, My Morning Jacket.  Less than a month removed from the release of The Waterfall, their most cohesive studio product to date, there was an array of new songs for the gathered MMJ fans to digest live. They still infused material from throughout their prior six albums, best of which were “War Begun,” “Victory Dance,” and “Anytime,” but their new found sense of psychedelic doo-wop was an easy intro for newbs and a new beginning for fans of old. Saturday was the single best day of music Boston Calling has hosted over five different weekends. 

It seemed like the third day of the festival was undersold, but it became obvious that the majority of ticket holders decided to come later into the program than the day before. Unfortunately for them, they missed a scorcher by Jason Isbell who served up a selection of tunes off his country-leaning solo material, as well as songs he wrote and played while in Drive-By Truckers, the best of which was a sizzling set closer of “Never Gonna Change” that let him show he really, really knows his way around the neck of a Telecaster. 

TV On The Radio made two of the best albums of the early millennium before they seemed to lose step following the tragic loss of bassist Gerard Smith in 2011. The past few years were highlighted by a pair of weak album releases and uninspired performances. Although they failed to make any significant deviations from the set list they’ve been playing this tour, there was a tangible mojo in their set that gave longtime fans confidence that TV On The Radio are on the mend and making a Return to Cookie Mountain

Actor Jack Black’s comedy group, Tenacious D, drew the single largest crowd of the weekend as rabid fans chanted, “We want the D!” leading up to their set.  Black told his audience they were the “Stoniest Bostonians he’d ever come across,” to a roar of laughter. Their hour-long set of mostly acoustic goof-rock paid homage to old-timey jazz and 1980s hair metal, but make no mistake, these guys were more “Weird” Al than Megadeth. Following their performance, the less musically educated audience members headed for the exit, completely unaware of what they were about to miss.

The final set of the weekend came from Pixies, a Boston-born act without whom your favorite 1990s rock band literally wouldn’t have come to be. They opened things off with “Bone Machine,” the first track on their endlessly influential album, Surfer Rosa. At no point during their set did they acknowledge their audience. Unlike Aerosmith or the Dropkick Murphys, Pixies have never been “into being from Boston,” and nothing about their performance suggested this was any sort of homecoming for them. If anything, front man Black Francis, alongside two other founding members, and their third bassist in recent years, appeared to be going through the motions. But when you’ve written tunes like “Wave of Mutilation,” “Where Is My Mind?” and “Monkey Gone To Heaven,” you can phone it in and still knock people off their feet.

Prior to the Pixies festival closing performance, the promoters announced the lineup of the September incarnation of Boston Calling, this time headlined by The Avett Brothers, Alabama Shakes and alt-J. Anyone who tells you they were more excited about this announcement than when they heard about this weekend’s bill is lying to you. The big names like Beck and Pixies were nowhere to be found, but if this past weekend taught anyone anything, it’s not to underestimate Boston Calling.  They may be new, but they’ve officially earned the benefit of the doubt.

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