The fourth edition of Boston Calling boasted the music festival’s strongest lineup to date and the performances did not disappoint.
By Adam Ellsworth
Years from now, the September 2014 edition of the Boston Calling Music Festival will no doubt be remembered as “The One With the Crazy Weather.” Understandably so. As anyone who was in eastern Massachusetts last weekend knows, Friday was hot and Saturday started out hotter with temperatures soaring into the 90s. Despite the laudable efforts of festival organizers to keep everyone safe by providing free water and reminding the crowd to stay hydrated (seriously, they went above and beyond and deserve praise), it was not at all uncommon to turn around during a set and see an audience member passed out on the City Hall Plaza bricks. When relief finally came Saturday night, it was in the form of severe thunderstorms that caused a temporary evacuation of the fest and cancelled scheduled performances by Volcano Choir and Girl Talk. On the bright side, thanks to the storm, temperatures were cool and comfortable on Sunday.
But there’s more to talk about than the weather. The fourth edition of Boston Calling boasted the festival’s strongest lineup to date and the performances did not disappoint.
The first highlight came Friday night with a performance by the recently reunited Neutral Milk Hotel. The setlist focused on the band’s seminal 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the recording’s title track garnering a huge reaction from the audience. Actually, every tune was met, right from the opening notes, with absolute delight by the partisan crowd. Neutral Milk Hotel are a unique group; the instruments played during the evening included acoustic guitar, drums, horns, banjo, accordion, and handsaw. The best moment came at the end, with heavily bearded singer/guitarist/band mastermind Jeff Mangum alone onstage singing a beautiful rendition of “Two-Headed Boy, Part Two.”
Neutral Milk Hotel’s strong performance notwithstanding, Friday night belonged to the National. The group headlined the first Boston Calling in May 2013, but no-one was complaining about having them back again so soon. They entered to massive fan enthusiasm and the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” playing over the P.A. system before kicking off with “Don’t Swallow the Cap” from their latest release, Trouble Will Find Me (number two on my list of the best albums of 2013). The bulk of the set came from that album, with “I Should Live in Salt,” a raucous “Sea of Love,” and the always beautiful “Hard to Find” coming in the first half. As a result of focusing so much on Trouble Will Find Me, there was no room for old warhorses like “Abel” or “Lit Up,” not to mention “Start a War” and “Runaway.” These songs were obviously missed, but it’s hard to fault the National for omitting them because instead they squeezed in renditions of new favorites “Pink Rabbits” and “This Is the Last Time.”
Of course, more songs were performed than just those from Trouble Will Find Me. Tried and true tunes “Ada” (featuring a nifty horn arrangement), “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” and “Squalor Victoria” were heard, as was a mashup of the far lesser known “Available” and “Cardinal Song” from the band’s 2003 second album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. The set climaxed in its final third with the horn and piano heavy “England,” followed by a hard rocking “Graceless,” and a crowd sing-along to “Fake Empire.” The band’s signature song “Mr. November” came next and then lead singer Matt Berninger jumped into the crowd to sing “Terrible Love” from 2010’s High Violet, causing a near (benevolent) riot.
With Berninger safely back onstage, the group closed with an acoustic version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” As twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner strummed their guitars, Berninger stepped away from the microphone and shouted the song’s closing chorus of “I’ll explain everything to the geeks!” The crowd shouted the lyrics right back at him. A mesmerizing show from one of the world’s greatest rock bands: they’re welcome to return to Boston whenever they want.
As was already mentioned, Saturday brought the heat. It also brought a fantastic set of electro pop/rock from Sky Ferreira, made up of songs from her 2013 album Night Time, My Time. Her time onstage wasn’t perfect, as screw-ups occurred during both “Lost in My Bedroom” and “You’re Not the One,” but in each case, Ferreira handled the mess with humor and poise. She’s still young (only 22), making it easy to compare her with the likes of Saturday headliner Lorde, but Ferreira’s music is far more complex, and ultimately more interesting, than that of the minimalist New Zealand teenager. “Ain’t Your Right,” for example, is a full-on rock song, while “Lost in My Bedroom” is more dancey.
Performances from Bleachers and the Hold Steady rounded out Saturday’s pre-thunderstorm hours. Bleachers are something of a “band-of-the-moment,” with their song “I Wanna Get Better” seemingly everywhere. Overall they’re fine, but not nearly as epic as fun., the other, even bigger, band Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff is in. None of the songs in Bleachers’s set were as insanely brilliant as fun.’s “Some Nights,” or as catchy as that band’s “We Are Young,” though they did cover the Cranberrie’s “Dreams,” which was a nice touch.
The Hold Steady drew a strong crowd for a no-frills rock set that included “Constructive Summer,” “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” and “You Can Make Him Like You.” Frontman Craig Finn was in constant motion onstage,; he was like a kid who had neglected to take his Ritalin. The sun was still high in the sky as the band closed its show with well-received takes of “Southtown Girls” and “Stay Positive.” There was barely a cloud in sight. It seemed as if there might not be storms after all, despite the forecasts saying otherwise. Nonetheless, around 6 p.m. the festival crowd was informed by event staff that thunderstorms were on the way and everyone needed to seek cover, which meant exiting City Hall Plaza. For the next three hours, it was “wait and see” for the organizers and the audience, but around 9 p.m. the show finally started up again with sets by Lorde and Childish Gambino..
(Note: Due to other obligations, I missed the performances by Lorde and Childish Gambino. I am led to believe they were good. Sorry I can’t tell you more.)
Sunday saw one of the more over-the-top performances of the weekend with the arrival of Twenty One Pilots and their high-energy, confetti-filled, dance set. Musically there’s not much to recommend about them, but they’re very entertaining to watch. More significantly, the duo led the crowd in a sing-along to Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which is more than enough to earn them a mention in this review. The day also featured the 1975, a four-piece from Manchester, England, a musical mecca. Regrettably, the Smiths they are not, though lead singer Matt Healy did sport a paisley shirt that could be described as “Morrissey-ish.” Their sound is kind of rock, kind of ‘80s pop, but they don’t do either particularly well. Still, they deserve credit for allowing one of their fans to sit on stage with them during a song. Based on her reaction, this gesture made her year, if not her life: it was a classy move on the band’s part. After the 1975, the consistently excellent Spoon took to the “JetBlue Stage.” Unluckily for them, many of the people who would normally be interested in their brand of rock were congregated over by the “Capital One 360 Red Stage,” making sure they had a prime spot for Boston Calling’s true treat: the reunited Replacements.
Ignoring the fact that there’s something not-quite-right about the ‘Mats performing from a platform sponsored by a bank, the band’s set was remarkable, everything great rock and roll is supposed to be. It was tight enough to never fall apart, but it was sufficiently loose and lively to feel spontaneous. The performance was ragged and real, from the opening tune “Favorite Thing” to the closer, “Alex Chilton.”
Every song was a sing-along between the crowd and Replacements’ frontman Paul Westerberg. The audience took particular delight in “Waitress in the Sky,” “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” and the unexpected (and wonderful) rendition of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” When Westerberg got tripped up on the lyrics to “Androgynous,” he simply walked away from the mic, let the fans take over, and picked the song back up when he was ready.
Between songs, bassist Tommy Stinson would either joke with Westerberg or with the crowd, stating at one point that in the band’s ’80s heyday, individual members would take turns sucking so that at least three-quarters of the group were always on their game. Following a blistering “Take Me Down to the Hospital,” Westerberg got in on the act and teased, “I smell weed. Fucking hippies!” Before “Love You Till Friday,” he responded to requests that the show never end with, “We can’t play all night.” He then adopted a mock-serious voice and continued, “THAT WOULD BE AGAINST THE RULES.”
Unfortunately, the show did have to end. “Can’t Hardly Wait” turned into the biggest sing-along of the weekend and the soaring opening guitar riff to “Bastards of Young” set the crowd wild. Westerberg, realizing they were up against the clock, muttered “I don’t know what we’re doing,” before grabbing a harmonica and leading the group into “White and Lazy.” After that, the band left, only to be ushered quickly back on sage. Westerberg explained that “the next group” was giving them a chance to play one more song. That song was, of course, “Alex Chilton.” If that’s really how it went down, then there are a few thousand middle-aged white Bostonians forever in debt to Nas and the Roots, who closed the night (and Boston Calling) with a set that celebrated the 20th anniversary of the rapper’s Illmatic.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has a MS in Journalism from Boston University and a BA in Literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.