Boston Calling has been boasting some of the best lineups in the business since the biannual music festival began in May 2013, and everyone from Modest Mouse to Kendrick Lamar has headlined. This fourth edition of the festival, however, just may have been the best and most varied lineup yet. Where else would you find Nas, The Replacements, and The 1975 on the same schedule?
We weren’t able to see everything (sadly, Volcano Choir and Girl Talk got cancelled due to rain), but here are the acts we had the pleasure of catching live. Spoiler alert: they’re all great.
Bleachers, the side project of fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff, was without a doubt the biggest surprise of the festival. And “surprise” here doesn’t mean we presumed that Bleachers was going to disappoint. In fact, it means quite the opposite. I absolutely adore this band’s album. It’s a fantastic piece of pop that eclipses the guitarist’s work with fun.
Instead, “surprise” speaks to just how thrilling Bleachers’ set was: a shimmering, powerful 45 minutes. And in many ways, that’s due to the venue. Boston’s City Hall Plaza (or really any outdoor setting) is pretty much built for the towering productions that Bleachers perfected on Strange Desire. And maybe that’s because of just how strong the arrangements are; “Rollercoaster” and closer song “I Wanna Get Better” had the entire crowd on its feet. Or maybe it was Antonoff’s natural ability to keep a crowd engaged with his infectious energy.
But the cherry on top? A spectacular cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams” that rivaled the original in its reverb-heavy saccharinity. I screamed like a 10-year-old at a Justin Bieber concert. -DF
Childish Gambino, the rap nomdeplume of Donald Glover, gets way too much hate. Music blogs seem to dismiss him as a rapper. Their criticisms are certainly valid, even if I don’t agree with them. Some cite him as derivative, while others call him shallow. I don’t see that at all. His last album, Because the Internet, was one of the best—if not the best, period—hip-hop albums of the year.
What his Saturday night closing set proved, then, is that there is no doubt that Childish Gambino is a natural-born performer. Emerging in front of a massive, lush lightshow, Gambino charged into “Crawl,” performing a medley of highlights from Because The Internet, followed by a collection of older tracks from previous albums Camp and Culdesac. Every track, thanks perhaps in part to the live backing band, was injected with a burst of vitality. But Gambino’s manic energy made his performances of “Worldstar,” “Sweatpants,” and “Heartbeat” absolutely enthralling. From beginning to end, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand, and none of us wanted to leave. -DF
The Hold Steady
At its core, The Hold Steady is a bar band. Whether you want to look at frontman Craig Finn’s hoarse brand of yell-talk-singing or the rollicking, merciless guitar lines that punch out around the band’s lyrics, there’s an ethos of chaos and appetite in all of the group’s work. The band’s songs manage to be both heartbreaking and anthemic, with lyrics that simultaneously serve to blow their subjects’ lives up to mythic proportions and to reduce everything in them to something achingly, prosaically human.
This made The Hold Steady perfect for an early evening slot at Boston Calling this year; they drew a moderate but frothing crowd. With two guitar parts roaring out from either end of the stage, Finn was able to embrace his brand of smart-ass melodrama, strutting, flapping, and silently mouthing asides to the audience between lyrics. Songs like “Stuck Between Stations,” “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” and “Stay Positive” were able to expand along with the crowd’s growing excitement, and, more so than with most other acts, welded the audience into a messy, joyous unit. That’s not to say that we all looked into each other’s eyes and saw ourselves and were set free by the music, but that there’s something very special and dopey and religious to howling about a racehorse named Chips Ahoy while Craig Finn mimes paroxysms against a mic stand. -MD
Just going to put it out there: I’m pretty jealous of Lorde. It’s petty of me, I know, but I wish I had been that talented at 17. Her songs are simultaneously minimalist and grandiose. Her lyrics speak to both maturity and an acknowledgment of her age and time. So the question is: Is “Royals” just a flash in the pan? Is “Tennis Court” a comma or a period?
Boy, did she answer that question during her spectacular Saturday night set. From the post-rain-delay lethargy emerged the singer, giving the audience a much-needed gut punch with a charging rendition of “Glory and Gore.” To a certain extent, the set (featuring songs from her first and only album) provided a bit more emotional depth and range to the songs: “Still Sane” had a sparer vulnerability, “Tennis Court” had an entrancing jaggedness to it. And, of course, there was “Royals,” complete with a costume change into a flowing red dress and crown. Everything that Lorde brought onstage had an emotional engagement pretty much unseen in musicians of her age group. The set even featured the festival’s most interesting speech, complete with the Boston shout-out, “You guys put the whole lobster in the roll.” It was this eclectic, eccentric, beautifully bombastic intensity that made Lorde’s set such a delight. -DF
Nas x The Roots
To start off simply, the joint set performed by rapper Nas and hip-hop and neo-soul group The Roots was far and away the best set of the entire festival. Divided roughly in half, with Nas performing alongside The Roots before leaving the group to finish up on its own, this was the capstone: a Sunday night headliner that deftly and confidently surpassed all of the magnificent work that came before it.
If there could be one word to describe this set (and honestly, there’s not), I would have to settle on “acrobatic.” Each song not only transitioned smoothly into the next, but seemed to fuel and feed it. Even in the short breaks that Nas took to address the crowd, there was still a simmering energy, the ultimate proof of the law of conservation of energy. And when The Roots held the stage alone, they lost none of this. Hurling covers of Guns & Roses, Curtis Mayfield, and even George Thorogood at the crowd without warning or pretense, what is possibly the most eclectic musical outfit of all time reminded everyone what a tragedy it is that they don’t tour more often.
It’s always an incredible thing to watch two artists engage gleefully and passionately with each other’s work, mixing their styles and talents to create something that feels so wonderfully and aggressively new. Nowhere else at Boston Calling was there such a sense of joy, energy, and artistry. Honestly, I can’t imagine finding it anywhere else. -MD
In many ways, it was going to be nearly impossible for me to be disappointed in The National’s set. I saw them back in May 2013 at Boston Calling’s first festival and was absolutely floored. They’re without a doubt my favorite band, a group I can return to endlessly without coming anywhere near boredom or fatigue, and that first live set only solidified how I felt. With this in mind, I feel as though the highest compliment I can pay to The National is to say that they were able to surprise me this time around.
Perhaps it was their decision to mix up their setlist with deeper cuts such as “Hard To Find” and “Available” (a track off their sophomore album that rarely gets touched in concert). Maybe it was the bold hopscotch the set played between barreling big-boned misery and more intimate numbers. Regardless of what the formal cause was the fact remains that for the first time since I began listening to them in high school, The National kept me on my toes.
It’s a formidable challenge for a band as entrenched in mood as The National is to effectively translate their sound to a live setting (especially the sort of massive outdoor variety that Boston Calling provides), but Matt Berninger and company have proven breathtakingly adept in doing so. The Friday night set ranged from hushed and mournful to declarative and baroque, but on the whole, it was nothing if not enthralling. -MD
The Replacements are legends with a capital “L.” You may not have heard of them, but chances are you’ve heard them; their influence can be found in acts ranging from Weezer to Nirvana to Lorde (who occasionally performs a Replacements cover at some of her shows). But this was their reunion show. Reunions have mixed results.
Of course The Replacements are no ordinary band. After this show, I’m not even sure they’re human. I’m pretty sure they’re just the word “punk” come to life (and yes, I know, they aren’t technically considered punk.) It’s pretty rare that I lose my hearing being in both the front and the back of a concert, but that’s what happened. When I was standing directly in front of the speaker, my entire body was shaking due to vocalist Paul Westerberg’s howl on “Bastards Of Young” and Tommy Stinson’s bass on “Can’t Hardly Wait.” This was pure, unbridled energy packed into an hour-long set. Everything from “Waitress in the Sky” to “I Will Dare” rushed with an electricity most bands can’t even begin to fathom. Even the most tender moments had some vigor in them. By the time the band closed with “Alex Chilton,” I wasn’t sure whether to scream or cry. -DF
Possibly the easiest criticism one can throw at any musical act in concert is that their style or sound fails to hold up live. This pops up especially frequently with acts designated (rightly or not) as “pop.” Waiting for Sky Ferreira to take the stage, I was struck with this exact worry. Ferreira’s debut record, Night Time, My Time, is such a brilliantly produced collection filled with energy and ambience that it almost promises to remain tethered to the recording. Luckily, this is far from the case.
Though Ferreira’s set was unfortunately marred by a few false starts and volume issues, once any one song gathered momentum, it was simply breathtaking. Ferreira’s voice remained crisp and vibrant throughout, filling City Hall Plaza with the sort of defiant and fragile energy that makes tracks like “24 Hours” and “You’re Not the One” (the perfectly chosen opener and closer, respectively) so gripping on her album. From behind a pair of sunglasses that threatened to swallow up her face, Ferreira proved that she was not only wholly capable of recreating her debut record’s intense balladry, but also of charging with something expansive and dynamic that eludes most live performances, not to mention recordings. -MD
Ah, Spoon. What haven’t I said about Spoon? Their newest album, They Want My Soul, is essential listening and remains one of the best rock albums put out this year. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, their 2007 masterpiece, was the first album put out after 1990 that I truly loved. So anticipation was high. Someone told me before the concert that Spoon’s live sets were lackluster. I’ve come to the conclusion that that person is an idiot.
From the beginning, Spoon’s setlist was essentially a rundown of their greatest hits. There were the classics: “The Way We Get By,” “The Underdog,” “Do You,” and “I Summon You.” But there were deep cuts, too: “Small Stakes,” “Knock Knock Knock,” “Who Makes Your Money.” During multiple (if not all) songs, frontman Britt Daniel could have stopped singing and the audience could have joined in for every word. These were tracks entrenched in the hearts of the audience.
And each one sounded brilliant. I’ve said this about Spoon before, and I’ll say it again here. This is a band without a gimmick and without frills; they’re just a group of master craftsmen at the top of their game. Every beat from drummer Jim Eno and every howl from Daniel was perfectly mixed. Daniel, ever the dramatist, twirled across the stage, got on his knees, and, during the heart-wrenching “Inside Out,” dropped the mic and briefly turned away from the audience. Spoon’s was a concert bursting with “cool,” with energy, and with, well, rock ‘n’ roll. -DF