Festival Review: Boston Calling 2023 — Pummeling Pleasure and Popular Sentiment on Sprawling Fields

By Paul Robicheau

Boston Calling reached some highs this year, sealed by perfect weather.

The Flaming Lips at Boston Calling. Photo: Paul Robicheau

There was a haunting sense of “Here we go again” when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs canceled their Friday set at Boston Calling on short notice for singer Karen O’s self-reported “gnarly bug,” recalling how last year’s pandemic-delayed edition reshuffled headliners on the fly due to Covid and — for the Foo Fighters — the death of drummer Taylor Hawkins. But after the Dropkick Murphys filled Friday’s slot to fire up the faithful with “Shipping Up to Boston” and the Foos roared with ringer Josh Freese plus a cameo from Hawkins’s son on drums, the idea of “Here we go again” flipped to highs of Boston Calling history, sealed by perfect weather.

Saturday and Sunday only got warmer on Harvard’s athletic fields and so did the music, even if the leading standouts were sub-headliners, led by the psychedelic extremes of the Flaming Lips and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, closing the Memorial Day Weekend festival’s third stage each night. Perhaps the schedule’s most glaring overlap was pitting the Lips against Alanis Morissette, who made it worse by starting 15 minutes late, including a montage video that reflected both her ’90s pop-culture impact in channeling female angst and her sense of humor. For youngsters, the video added advance teases of hits like “You Oughta Know.”

Alanis Morissette at Boston Calling. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Once she took the stage, the Canadian singer paced back and forth in billowing snakeskin, flashing a wide smile (this was her first Boston show in more than a decade) and a peace sign cued to the lyrics in “Hand in My Pocket.” Her vocals sounded spot on as Morissette navigated her playfully punctual phrasing and leaned into Dylan-esque harmonica as she stalked.

Much like Morissette focused on her 1995 breakthrough Jagged Little Pill, the Flaming Lips played their own groundbreaking 2002 album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in full (coincidentally, both albums were turned into musicals — not that they’d be confused). As usual, the Lips staged an over-the-top, props-heavy show of huge inflatable pink robots, a mirror ball, lasers, and tons of confetti, some exploding out of giant balloons set loose in the crowd. The music ranged from spacey electro-prog to the heartfelt paean to love and mortality “Do You Realize?” — aptly sung under a rainbow. And as a last exclamation point, front man Wayne Coyne hoisted a Mylar balloon spelling out an exuberant shout-out to Boston Calling.

Nonetheless, from a point of meeting sudden popularity, Watertown troubadour Noah Kahan served Saturday’s most triumphant set on the main stage with folky sentiment (therapy should be honest, he said, and everyone should do it) and U2-ish swells from his band, building to his viral “Stick Season.” The roaring response from fans made clear how he’s headlining the Xfinity Center on September 9. He later sang Jason Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires” with Saturday closers the Lumineers, whose indie-folk vignettes made them more unlikely to meet the moment, but they did to a degree with rousing sing-alongs from “Ho Hey” to “Ophelia.” While Mt. Joy also fit the folky mold, the band wisely augmented originals with winding guitars on the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” and sunshine-themed tunes from Bill Withers and Gorillaz bound to please everybody on the sprawling field.

Sunday, by contrast, spanned more diversity, from joyous all-girl teenage punk-rockers the Linda Lindas (introduced by Boston mayor Michelle Wu) and soulful blues-rocker Ali McGuirk (the last in a weekend of local acts on a fourth stage) to relaxed country-pop siren Maren Morris and dynamic rapper/singer Genesis Owusu, who worked out with hooded dancers (notably on “Get Inspired”) and was one of many performers who jumped into the crowd. For rock, there was also early-aughts New Yorkers the Walkmen (peaking with the sinewy edge of “The Rat”) and the return of Queens of the Stone Age, whose leader Josh Homme smiled at his post-pandemic fortune with a new album on the way, even debuting “Emotion Sickness” to a clap-along. QOTSA carried a lot of bass/keyboard weight into its catalog, but Sunday’s most ferocious set came from King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, whose maelstrom of psychedelia, metal, and jam-rock proved relentless. The prolific Aussies previewed a new album with a long apocalyptic moniker subtitled An Annihilation of Planet Earth and the Beginning of Merciless Damnation, and the mosh pit echoed that title.

Genesis Owusu at Boston Calling. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Pop-punk veterans Paramore aimed to shuffle genres in Sunday’s closing set, from the dance rock of “Caught in the Middle” to cellphone-galaxy ballad “The Only Exception.” But more than the music, the set depended on the personality of active now-blonde singer Hayley Williams, who wore a T-shirt with the block-lettered message “Abort the Supreme Court.” The high point came when audience member Sammy Jo, who coincidentally shared Williams’s hairdresser in Nashville, was randomly invited onstage and belted out “Misery Business” like a crowd-pleasing pro.

When it came to headliners, however, the Foo Fighters ruled. Sure, the Dropkick Murphys whipped fans up from “Rose Tattoo,” Niall Horan thrilled the kids at the third stage, and the National delivered possibly the best of their four Boston Calling appearances (Taylor Swift-collaborating guitarist Aaron Dessner co-curated the original festival at City Hall Plaza) on Friday. But while the Foos carried a more somber tone than their wily cover days with Hawkins (Dave Grohl noted songs change meaning, clearly the case with “Times Like These,” which he began solo), they crushed favorites from “This Is a Call” to “The Pretender.”

The Foo Fighters at Boston Calling. Photo: Paul Robicheau

On his second gig, Freese (Nine Inch Nails, Guns N’ Roses) sported a T-shirt that read “Fingers crossed for the new guy,” but it took less than 30 seconds for him to impress with his pummeling breadth. Grohl stressed how his band was a family and brought out two 17-year-old offspring, singing “Shame Shame” with his daughter Violet, then introducing “My favorite drummer in the world” for Shane Hawkins to take the kit. While he couldn’t match Freese, the younger Hawkins acquitted himself well in thrashing nugget “I’ll Stick Around,” with its screamed chorus tag “I don’t owe you anything!” It took a while to get there under tragic circumstances, but for the Foos, Boston Calling was better late than never.

Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.

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