Arts, Off Campus

Storm At City Hall: A Weekend Of Surprises At Boston Calling

Saturday, 8:13 p.m.: Downtown Boston is a scene of hopeful speculation. Thousands of concertgoers wait just outside the gates to Boston Calling, many still wet from the storm. Most are looking down at smartphones.

Lorde, the evening’s headliner, tweets:

A few odd cheers break out from the growing mass at the gate. Meanwhile, in Quincy Market, dispersed festival-goers begin to emerge from storefronts. They begin moving back to City Hall, with no official announcement on the concert’s status just yet. Lightning flashes sporadically in the background. It is distant—there is no sound of thunder.

8:26 p.m.: Boston Calling’s official Twitter account confirms the festival is back on.

9:11 p.m.: Lorde walks onto Boston Calling’s red stage, opening her set with “Glory and Gore.” It has been over three hours since the respite had first been announced, and a mass is burgeoning in Government Center. The crowd quickly out-sizes what it was earlier that day at first announcement of the storm delay.

Lorde’s Saturday evening performance became paramount to the success of this fall’s Boston Calling Music Festival—the moment signified a rallying of concertgoers and festival staff. She headlined the fourth installment of Boston Calling this weekend, alongside The National, Nas x The Roots. Earlier Saturday, a thunderstorm—with significant gusts of wind—brought chaos to Government Center, forcing officials to vacate the plaza as the storm passed and event staff made necessary repairs to a wind-damaged set.

Friday: The National, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Future Islands

At the end of The National’s 90-minute set Friday night at Boston Calling, the headliners decided to play an acoustic encore—even though it meant running several minutes past the city’s strict 11 p.m. noise curfew. The stripped-down performance was a culmination of what the entire evening was about—the music and the crowd.

All three Friday acts, including Future Islands, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The National, made a noticeable effort to connect with their audiences, not through flashy, overdone stage setups or gimmicks, but by playing fan-favorites with as much as energy as possible.

Synth-pop rockers Future Islands opened, setting the bar high for the rest of the show. The band’s frontman, Samuel Herring, growled and snarled as he sang, reaching a strange range of notes and delivering them with an even more disturbing set of dance moves. (If you saw the group on Letterman earlier this year, his odd but captivating body thrashing shouldn’t be hard to remember.) Playing upbeat songs including “Seasons (Waiting On You),” Future Islands pounded through its set—Herring even ripped his pants in the process. That hardly stopped him from running around and screaming through “Tin Man,” though. “Let’s rip them some more!” he shouted, shamelessly confessing to a clapping sea of people that he’d split his pants on stage more than once.

Throngs of festival-goers filtered into the venue as the sun set, Future Islands finished off, and Neutral Milk Hotel came on. After more than a decade-long hiatus, Neutral Milk Hotel looked fairly grizzly on stage, with more than one member sporting a long beard. The band had a no photo policy, which prevented the festival from broadcasting the live stream of the show on the jumbotrons for the people in the back to see. Fans, however, didn’t seem bothered, as they rocked to cult classic “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” and listened to the sounds of the guitar, a trumpet, and even a giant saw come together in beautifully chaotic harmony.

The National’s stage presence was markedly different than its down-to-earth predecessors, with the band standing before a flashing LCD background and lead singer Matt Berniger wearing a pristine grey suit. Berniger was dressed to impress—and it wasn’t long before he went to work wooing the crowd with songs like the transfixing ballad “I Need My Girl.” After headlining its inaugural run, the Ohio natives returned to Boston Calling as polished professionals, clearly able to engage an audience. When Berniger leapt into the front row near the end of the evening, there was no doubt that The National had Boston sold—yet again.

Saturday: Lorde, Childish Gambino, Bleachers, and The Hold Steady

Saturday’s lineup included Lorde, Childish Gambino, The Hold Steady, and Bleachers—performances from Girl Talk and Volcano Choir (which features Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon) were cancelled due to storm delays.

Lorde packed 10 songs into a shortened, 50-minute set. Much of the instrumental backing from the recorded versions of her songs was absent on Saturday night. Lorde’s sound crew saturated Government Center with crunchy synths and bass, serving as a psychedelic backdrop for the set. The performance was largely a testament to the 17-year-old New Zealander’s theatrical zeal. The 2013 hit “Royals” was a highlight of the trippy, strobe-lit performance, with Lord quickly changing into a tasteful red cape and crown during an interlude to the song.

Childish Gambino relied heavily on material from 2013’s Because the Internet—closing out the night in a mesmerizing, albeit somewhat disjointed, barrage of sound. Because his performance was also shortened due to the respite, Gambino’s setlist had snippets and samples, but not many full-length songs. Saturday’s selections spanned Gambino’s career, condensing his work into a wild fit of fast verses and appeals to the crowd—with “Heartbeat” and “3005” drawing a visceral response from his enormous gathering of fans at Boston Calling.

Bleachers’ appearance Saturday afternoon was something of a breakthrough, showcasing lead singer Jack Antonoff (also from Fun. and Steel Train) as a likable, dynamic frontman. While the performance clearly was designed to build up to “I Wanna Get Better,” Bleachers’ only hit to date, the rest of the set hardly felt sluggish. The Hold Steady followed Bleachers, offering a deafeningly loud and predominately solid set that rattled the early evening attendees. The Brooklyn band had plenty of power to show off, but ultimately fell just short of Bleachers’ charm.

This season’s lineup was telling, marking a partial, if not complete, departure from the festival’s more local, alternative rock roots. Large, national acts like Childish Gambino and Lorde brought Boston Calling into the ranks of already well-established music festivals like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, which regularly pull in a mix of both big and local names. The scope of this fall’s lineup was unusually ambitious—and fortunately, Boston was there to listen.

Sunday: Nas, The Roots, The Replacements and Spoon

After the storming theatrics of Boston weather on Saturday, Sunday’s crowd at Boston Calling was rewarded with a whole lot of sun and a whole lot of rock—as the audience slowly, but surely, ballooned to fill the square. Sunday’s lineup featured stand out performances from Lake Street Dive, the mad dash of twenty one pilots, and the always pleasant Spoon. And then, there also was a legendary rapper in complete control of form and content. Nas empowered the crowd throughout his action-packed 30-minute set before handing the reign to The Roots.

Boston’s own Gentlemen Hall kicked off the last day of festivities, and they did so with an exuberant piece of jazz flute. Brooklyn ensemble San Fermin followed with a smooth mix of synths, drums, guitar, trumpet and bass. The Texas rock quartet was more subtle than the band’s name suggests. The band played some dizzying rock for an hour, said “thank you,” and left the stage. And that’s White Denim in a nutshell. Who needs to quip at the stage and tell them you love them when there are guitars to be played?

No band filled the square with a clear, echoing sound quite like War on Drugs. If any band was worthy of an arena stadium, oddly enough it was The War On Drugs. After the echoing The War On Drugs and the intensity of twenty one pilots to come, Lake Street Dive had the most well placed set. The self-professed nerds let the audience sway and breathe to their gentle harmonies. The set seemed to drift on forever, and none in the audience especially minded.

Twenty one pilots may have the musical attention span of a 15-year-old boy, but that sure makes for a fun live show. Surely the festival’s most endearing proponent of outfits, loud drums, and head-banging, the duo surged through a chaotic opening to a middle section of rapid fire covers (including one of “Summertime Sadness”) accompanied by a ukulele—and obviously drums. Behind all the smoke and stunts (like standing those glorious drums on the sea of the crowd) are some pretty good songs.

As the sun went down over the skyline, The 1975 stepped onto stage. They provided one of the funniest moment of the day when they brought up a devoted fan to stage. At the beginning of their set, The 1975 seem like an annoying semi-gothic British punk band—but to their credit, by the end they became your annoying semi-gothic British punk band.

Both Spoon and The Replacements followed with respectable, entertaining rock acts. Spoon’s Britt Daniel is one of rock’s great live storytellers. Despite The Replacements’ vigorous stage energy, parts of their performance fell flat, which ultimately isn’t the fault of The Replacements. Unfortunately, the majority of the audience simply didn’t know their music. Some did and made their presence widely known. The rest wondered how they hadn’t heard of them until tonight.

Finally, there was Nas x The Roots. First there was Nas. Then, for a quick stretch, there was Nas x The Roots. And for the final stretch, there were simply The Roots. In his 30 minute set, Nas delivered. One of R&B’s most powerful live performers, Nas was in full command and full of conviction in each and every syllable through “New York State of Mind” to “I Can.” He played heavily from Illmatic, the album reaching its 20th anniversary this year but also sampled from later hits. The Roots came on late in Nas’s set, and the promised pair performed “The World Is Yours.” The Roots, just as they do on late night television, took the crowd into the night in a soulful final set.

Featured Image by John Wiley / Heights Editor

This story was a collaboration between John Wiley, Arts & Review Editor, Ariana Igneri, Associate Arts & Review Editor, and Ryan Dowd, Heights Staff.

September 7, 2014