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Boston Calling Day 1 Recap: Pomp in Pop

Boston Calling 2019 came out hard. Now in its 10th iteration, the festival’s first day featured synth pop, hard rock, dozens of Top 40 hits, and some hilarious comedy sets, all against the backdrop of a beautiful May afternoon and night in Allston. Christine and the Queens got political and covered David Bowie; during breaks in their incredibly loud set, CHVRCHES lead singer Lauren Mayberry sipped tea; and Mura Masa, a recently anointed god of Spotify, switched effortlessly between guitar, keyboard, a drum machine, and vocals during his chill set.

Here are recaps of five other acts from Friday.

Twenty One Pilots

Twenty One Pilots’ show started aggressively, with a torch, a car parked in the middle of stage set on fire, a masked duo, and a hard-charging showcase from drummer Josh Dun. It was an impressive display, although considering Dun and partner Tyler Joseph’s music mostly stops at a PG-13 rating and generally deals with anti-capitalist rejections of the rat race of life, it seemed out of place. Indeed, the whole show suffered from a tonal inconsistency: It started out violent, and plodded along with numerous pseudo-costume changes (Dun removing and re-donning his shirt; Joseph wearing a yellow jacket one minute and a T-shirt and red beanie [a motif throughout] the next).

This inconsistency contributed to a general sense that Dun and Joseph aren’t sure exactly who their music is for: The almost entirely white audience ate up “Heathens,” “Stressed Out,” and “Ride,” which seemed to appeal equally to pre-teens and their parents and worked up millenials alike. While some in the crowd were certainly superfans, most just watched with morbid curiosity rather than genuine appreciation. The duo’s dull lyrical themes—combined with the fire, the masks, the violence of some of Dun’s drumming, and the boring and nasal whine of Joseph’s one-dimensional vocal style—made for a disjointed show that couldn’t quite figure out what it was doing.

Dun and Joseph clearly attempted commentary but it came off as muddled. Even Joseph seemed to think that perhaps his own chops weren’t quite up to snuff, at one point taking an interlude in the show to say: “I know what some of you are thinking: why are they headlining? We don’t necessarily deserve to headline your amazing festival in your amazing city, but…” You get the point.

Greta Van Fleet

Greta Van Fleet stole the day with an outrageously entertaining performance replete with literally minutes of screaming from lead vocalist Josh Kiszka and some extraordinary guitar playing by his twin brother, Jake. The band—whose cheeky onstage style evokes ’70s hard rock with a touch of 18th-century flair—is fresh off a Best Rock Album Grammy win for its first album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army. Aside from their costumes (and in contrast to Twenty One Pilots later in the day), Greta’s set was aggressively no frills: not much stage movement, no fires, no costume changes—just music.

An early highlight was “Black Smoke Rising,” played directly from an outro of “Safari Song.” Coming after “Highway Tune” as the first song, it made for a somewhat aggressive stage tactic, as the band played its three most popular songs to open the show. The show’s high point was “Flower Power,” which represented a slight departure from the raucous sounds of the start. Josh Kiszka and the band in general have (rightly) long been compared to Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin, respectively, so their sound can hardly be called unique. Some of it does feel borrowed, more of a throwback than an original—but, man, can they play.

Fred Armisen

Fred Armisen’s act was most interesting in terms of observing people in the audience who expected an onstage manifestation of his Saturday Night Live or Portlandia personas. Some fans seemed disappointed and trickled out after only a few minutes; others seemed surprised and delighted. Armisen started the show with a smart bit that nevertheless dragged on too long (a recurring issue throughout the set that may, indeed, have been on purpose): Sitting at a drum set, fiddling with the instrument, faking nervous, he played part of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” right up until its famous solo, at which point he confidently cut in and played the wrong solo. Other bits included an extended riff on people who don’t know what to do during upright bass solos at jazz concerts, and a part about songs that sound good in any key, drawn out—again, ad nauseum.

The most reliably entertaining part involved Armisen pointing at a map projected behind him and, starting in Florida and working West, doing dozens of accents from around the country. It’s an extraordinary talent, and represented perhaps the surest reminder of Armisen’s SNL days—although in that way it also felt somewhat tired, like Armisen didn’t really want to do it but figured he needed to, keeping up the engagement by repeatedly asking if everyone could “see the map” that was clearly projected onto the stage behind him.

Sam Jay

Armisen was preceded by Sam Jay, a Boston native and SNL writer whose series of positively scorching takes seemed to make her almost exclusively white audience (again) hilariously uncomfortable. Jay ended her set with a subversive twist, taking on white feminism, declaring her opposition to bake shops having to make “gay cakes,” citing the theoretical emergence of successful black serial killers as “progress” for the black community, stanning Jaden Smith (a dated take on the memeification of his weird tweets), and demanding that women start to pee standing up. Jay’s act is built around this subversion: She pokes fun throughout at her nonbinary presentation, mentioning, during her “pee standing up” bit, that women’s bathrooms are awkward: Nobody looks at each other. In contrast, men’s bathrooms (which she sometimes uses) are about freedom: Men just stand around and talk about prolonging the wage gap.

Pale Waves

The day started with Pale Waves, the British goth-punk-synth pop group—produced in part by Matty Healy, lead singer of The 1975—with songs like “Television Romance,” “There’s A Honey,” and “Eighteen,” all of which sound similarly spunky and somewhat desperate thematically. Lead singer Heather Baron-Gracie adopts a distinctive if formulaic stage persona: white foundation, dark eyeshadow and lipstick, jet-black hair (possibly dyed), and leather, evoking a kind of goth schoolgirl/avatar vibe. It’s somewhat predictable, and so is the music. Maybe this is a side-effect of The 1975’s influence (Pale Waves is signed with the label Dirty Hit, whose signature act is The 1975).

Having released their first studio album, My Mind Makes Noises, in the fall, Pale Waves right now sounds a lot like The 1975 did five years ago: Aggressive use of synth and sparkle, catchy if repetitive guitar riffs, and somewhat incoherent (and very British) vocals. Maybe their sophomore effort will be similarly redemptive as The 1975’s I like it when you sleep.

Heights senior staff Connor Murphy contributed to this report.

Featured Image by Steven Everett / Heights Editor

May 25, 2019