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Festival Review:: Boston Calling Music Festival

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Written by Eric Riley.

Earlier this month, I spent yet another few days in the wonderful city of Boston.

And for the third time, I was lucky enough to be spending the my time working at the Boston Calling Music Festival.

May’s production, which was the first to include a Friday night performance, would prove to be a tough act to follow. Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, Tegan & Sara, Brand fucking New – May was certainly the biggest, boldest to-date.

To be expected, and continuing with the trend of creating magic, Crash Line Productions and company built yet another spectacular weekend this September. And, not allowing themselves to be outdone by their pasts, this round’s festivities not only boasted an all-star lineup, but showed that this young festival could join the ranks of the big names.

Opening on Friday night again, which will seemingly (and, according to crowd reactions, thankfully) continue for the foreseeable future, the show was able to add in a third batch of performers – Future Island, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The National (whose Aaron Dessner has helped curate the festival’s lineup). This addition run into a few bugs in May, in regards to photo-pit entrances, overcrowding, etc., but those were remedied by the time Saturday morning rolled around. This time around, the few kinks that were present in the spring (and more likely than not unnoticed by most in attendance) made no appearance in the fall.

Now, before I start on the details of the show, here’s how my weekend started: I worked a morning shift in New York on Friday morning, from 6am until 1pm. I then rushed home, grabbed my bags, and sped to the Albany bus station to hop onto a 1:50 bus that would take me into Boston. As I made my way east, my phone rang and my housing for the weekend was apparently no longer an option. So, the potential for an hour or two of the sleep that I didn’t get the night before was also not going to happen. Instead, there was now a frantic search of bus and train schedules throughout the greater Boston area. The bus pulled in at 6:00, and as I sprinted from South Station to Government Center, my brother texted me saying his couch would be open. In Providence. So when The National’s first three songs wrapped up (which I estimated would be around 9:55), I would again sprint

back

to South Station to catch the last commuter train at 10:10 to Rhode Island. And, since I’m a damn professional, everything worked out.

Anyway, you don’t need to know more about any of that. Boring stuff, not important. But what

is

important is how impressive practically everything about those three days was.

Friday night opener Future Islands began the weekend with a set that can be summarized as interesting, to say the least. A combination of clean vocals and brutal, borderline-violent throat singing made for a unique sound and left a lasting impression long after their brief set wrapped up. Neutral Milk Hotel followed, taking the stage devoid of pit photographers and video monitors, requesting fans to experience the show with their eyes and ears rather through screens and lenses. As The National closed out the first night, their performance not only pleased those in attendance, but also reminded us that there were still two full days left of music to enjoy.

As the sun rose on Saturday, it was obvious that the day would be a scorcher. By the time noon rolled around, the temperature was in the high 80’s and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Neither the heat nor the humidity slowed anyone, with an energetic, eager crowd progressively filling the plaza during each passing performance. Sky Ferreira proved to be an early highlight, filling the air with her strong, electric pop sound. When Bleachers entered onto the adjacent stage, fans rushed over to watch as Jack Antonoff (guitarist of debut Boston Calling headlining act fun.) brought his moody 80’s synth-pop to life. Closing with “I Wanna Get Better,” which is arguably the best song from this summer, he left the audience happily entertained.

Now, as great as things are, they can’t be perfect. And as much as we all hoped against it,

something

was about to happen. After The Hold Steady (aka the best bar-band in America) opened their set with a track from

Stay Positive,

the idea of keeping a good attitude became seriously important. As their set closed, dark clouds gathered and General Admission guests were asked to vacate. Within minutes, heavy rain and winds were tearing through the empty plaza as thunder and lightning roared overhead. And while this delay – which [understandably] paused the show for around two hours and [also understandably] cancelled performances by Volcano Choir and Girl Talk, may have bothered a few fans and took a few banners for a ride, the situation was handled brilliantly. The fact that a festival in only its fourth production was able to not only clear out thousands of guests calmly and swiftly, but then managed to restore the stages’ functionality, keep the fans updated to-the-minute on Twitter, readmit them, and

still

have the two headliners perform, I could not have been more impressed.

Twenty minutes or so after the gates reopened, Lorde walked on stage and looked out over a sea of reenergized (and moderately damp) fans. Her performance was exactly what we had expected it to be – strong, eerie, and absolutely captivating. As ambient distortion swirled in the background, she delayed the beginning of “Ribs” (my favorite of hers, I might add) to address the crowd. Timid, shaky, and both visually and audibly moved, she thanked the audience. Worried that the show would not resume, and then worried that people wouldn’t return once the announcement was made, she delivered a sincere, strong “thank you” in a cracking voice before wiping her eyes and regaining composure.

Where Lorde’s humility struck the crowd’s hearts, Childish Gambino’s confidence closed out Day Two in high fashion. As he took the stage, Donald Glover’s presence and power was instantly felt. There was no time for modesty or reserve, but rather relentless poise, composure, and dominance. His command over not only the stage, but the audience, was unreal, at times holding the microphone away from himself for full verses, knowing his crowd would fill in the blanks. There may have been a pause a few hours before, but a little rain wasn’t going to end the day. And Glover capped it off exactly how it should have been.

The heat and humidity of Day Two was nonexistent on Sunday. In its place, mid-70’s and clear skies. The weather was as ideal as possible, and the bands took full advantage. Boston natives Gentlemen Hall kicked off the final day and were welcomed with open arms. With trumpet, violin, and a whole lot of grit, Brooklyn’s San Fermin left their mark early on. Even as the day drew to a close, I still heard murmurs and rumbles of people talking about them.

Between the last two performances on the Red Stage – one of 2013’s biggest breakouts the 1975 at 6:00, and punk legends The Replacements at around 8:20, the median age within the crowd jumped twenty or thirty years. Where we heard teenagers and college kids cheering for Matty Healy at dinnertime, we heard their parents reminiscing about seeing The Replacements back before the House of Blues hit Lansdowne Street. Before their performance at this year’s Riot Fest, it had been more than two decades since The Replacements had played in-concert. Getting to watch a band that inspired so many of my favorite bands, but also hadn’t performed since I’ve been alive, was surreal and probably one of the coolest things I’ve experienced.

The Replacements’ performance was huge. That’s inarguable. But, it wasn’t the best thing to happen on Sunday – that honor goes to two guys from Ohio.

At 5:00, the crowd began chanting and screaming for twenty | one | pilots. And when the duo crept on stage donning their trademark ski masks, the cheers were deafening. To accurately put their performance into words is a difficult task – it’s part ukulele, part hip-hop, part piano rock, part pop. I don’t really know what to say about it, and I’m a diehard fan of theirs. Regardless of

what

it is, it is undeniably infectious. To detail the group’s stage presence is tricky, because that would limit it to the stage. Drummer Josh Dun found himself performing a drum solo while balanced on a wooden platform above the crowd, while vocalist Tyler Joseph spent as much time on his piano as he did playing it, eventually finding himself in the seating area near the back of the audience. The two finished their set on individual risers atop the crowd, banging water-soaked drums before bowing and announcing “we are twenty | one | pilots, and so are you.”

Like it seems to do each time around, September’s show proved to be even better than its predecessor. Brought to life by a group of dedicated music professionals, packed from start to finish with incredible performances, filled to the brim with passionate fans, and kept running smoothly by a tirelessly-working staff, volunteers, and vendors, Boston Calling doesn’t only impress, but reaches and exceeds every expectation. Sign me up for May. 

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