Tucked into the heart of downtown Boston lay a sacred gem, a space for 22,000 audiophiles to exist for three days on the melodies and spirits of their favorite performers. Once the first note from the first act sounded into the air, City Hall Plaza transformed into a sprawling dance hall. The celebratory atmosphere was alluring and contagious, gathering onlookers and sneaky listeners on the outskirts of the plaza. Festivalgoers, once inside, were instantly transported to a cozy atmosphere full of great music, great local food, and great local beer. It was a riveting kickoff to what is sure to be an endless New England summer, uplifting the souls of all festivalgoers.
The third Boston Calling music festival kicked off Friday night, May 23rd with the first of three jam-packed lineups. A smaller day than the rest of the weekend, the Friday night addition was a lovely start to the weekend long festival. Fans milled about waiting for opener Cass McCombs to come on stage, most wondering who he was and what he would sound like. To resounding cheers McCombs and his backing band took the stage for a mellow, brooding performance to ease listeners into the festival. They played at a very mellow pace with a few minor, experimental breaks in an otherwise calm ambiance. McCombs, a songwriter based in Baltimore with California roots, offered a simple “Thanks!” to the crowd before launching back into a song titled “Angel Blood”. The band has a sort of garage band vibe with a touch of Lou Reed coming through, a very relaxed start to the summer festival.
Most interesting act of the night went to Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, with singer Alex Ebert looking like a prophetic, charming, pirate gone rogue, while the band’s music calls for jumping and hollering and foot stomping. This quick set proved just that, and Ebert appeared looking like singing wayward pirate. Opening with “Man on Fire”, the crowd bobbed their heads and sang along. Ebert has an incredible ability to naturally engage with the audience and turned the plaza into a cozy spot with a bonfire type feel, with everyone dancing and singing and enjoying the moment. He fed off the crowd, singing, it felt, to each individual. During one song, Ebert went into the crowd, took a fan’s phone and climbed back on stage to take a video, remarking, “Oh it looks good; you’ll never forget this shit!” Ended set with their hit that essentially put them on the map, “Home”, introduced by Ebert’s tuning his whistling muscles. Claiming they were about to do a never before done acoustic version of the high spirited song, Ebert coaxed the audience into singing the song verse by verse which fell apart for a few seconds but picked back up with glorious pace as the whole band chimed back in on all instruments and the audience roared the chorus and jumped and danced around.
In a true nod to summer, Jack Johnson came next, carrying on a similar unifying feeling that Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes had started. He transported the audience to a campfire on the beach replete with singsongs and smiles. The audience danced and swayed and was surprisingly energetic for Johnson’s notoriously mellow tunes. Coming on stage, Johnson remarked in a call out to his Hawaiian roots and carefree style, “You call this summer? I had to put some shoes on!” Johnson played classic and newer hits, and the crowd sang to each one in what felt like a celebration of the upcoming summer. In one of his last songs before his encore, he called a fan on stage that’d held a sign asking to sing the song “Banana Pancakes” with him. To the cheers and support of a joyous crowd, Johnson introduced Fernanda, set her up with a guitar and a microphone, and launched into the sweet love song.
Johnson came back out for an encore with Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes and they did a surprising rending of the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon” and Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”. All told the night was a delightful and charming introduction to the weekend long festivities, a four hour-long sing-a-long, a foretelling of the days to come.
Saturday, May 24th, kicked off with Newton MA locals Magic Man, a quick set to get the day rolling. With a poppy, electric feel, their lead singer led with a ridiculously high energy to set the tone for the day. An upbeat start to day two, they ended their set with their song “Pars”, a sweet little electric piece.
Next up was Maxïmo Park, playing upbeat tunes one might listen to on a long road trip with the sun shining and the windows down. They were energetic and their sound was very rock and roll with soaring vocals and anthem like feel to each song. A bit alt-rock with a ting of classic rock and a little ambient, the singer loved to that with the crowd at one point announcing they would, “Ease you into Boston Calling with softer, more electronic tunes.” Their set was chock full of anthems for your twenties, with a bit of late ‘80s British punk thrown in. Clearly smitten to be playing in Boston, the lead singer said, “In England we play on fields… Trying not to kiss your ass too much, but it’s really nice to be here!”
Walk Off the Earth was next, with a creepy announcement telling listeners to “Enter our world.” The band came through in a cloud of smoke, excited and bouncing all over the stage to greet their audience. Their songs gave the impression that they care a lot about social issues and have a lot to say. Clouds moved around in the distance but for their set it stayed sunny and the sky blue, and this band clearly loves to sing together in an epic way. They’re a band with passion and ferocity – here to please their audience and keep the party going. They came together for an acoustic rendition of Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know”. Flags waved on stage toward their end of their set and there was a bit of a drum-off between band members amidst flashing lights that contributed to the celebratory nature of the day.
Warpaint, an all-female group and one of very few female-centric acts of the festival (what gives, curators?), arrived on stage and they played their ambient, experimental rock tunes below clear skies. These are women full of talent and poetry, and they crooned and jammed their way through Saturday’s high afternoon heat. The crowd began to fro as more and more people made their way to the stage wondering who and what was happening. They closed their set with a cover of David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”, a fulfilling end to a beautiful performance. Mixing old and new techniques made Warpaint a definite attention grabber and may have been the odd group out for the weekend but they were highly enticing (Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie – see below – later remarked, “Today was a big day for me, I finally got to see Warpaint live – they were fucking incredible!”). Their set had a ghostly, rainy day feel that echoed off every corner of City Hall Plaza, full of emotion and harmony, giving off a sensation of being on an epic quest.
The Neighbourhood was up next with a true rock and roll show – an LA band of electronic indie-rock riffs that have a dash of hip-hop. One of the most engaging frontmen of the afternoon, clearly a fan favorite, the singer had the audience singing to every tune, hands clapping overhead. Their songs are fancy and elaborate pop tunes with a heavy drumbeat, poetic and soaring music made for sharing (with 22,000 of your best friends, no less). Lead singer Jesse Rutherford bobbed around stage, their music a clear product of passion. There was a sort of otherworldly feeling to their set, a transportative feeling that had the audience dancing and forgetting they were in the middle of a massive brick plaza.
Out came Jenny Lewis on the blue stage, with silver cat-eye sunglasses, red lips, and her signature bangs, wearing a blazer of the dreams of ‘80s kids – also worn on the cover of her new album to be released in July. It’s been years since Lewis has released a solo project (QRO album review) and years since a solo tour (QRO solo photos). The crowd yelled with joy as she walked on stage and dove right into the music with “Head Underwater”, a perfect summer ditty, and then to her hit “Pretty Bird” – a slow, creepy charmer that showcases Lewis’s gorgeous and haunting vocals. Working through a mix of Rilo Kiley (QRO album review) songs and ones from her numerous solo projects, Lewis played both the piano and the guitar and crooned clear across the plaza to a sea of fans hailing her perfection, to which she commented, “You guys are real good listeners. I’m impressed!” An excellent combination of dance tunes and weepy love songs, Lewis led festivalgoers into the sunset with a hop and a skip, ending with a beautiful rendition of “Acid Tongue”, with Lewis on guitar and her band harmonizing in a close group behind her.
Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls were another crowd pleaser, the guitar-rich band full of energy, excitement and passion, another band perfect for summer listening. During fan favorite “Dan’s Song”, Turner called a fan on stage to play harmonica through the entire song. Complete with an electric mandolin, the band rocked through the afternoon amidst the cheers of the audience. A folky, uplifting break in the rock heavy weekend, lots of festivalgoers left as fans.
There was lots of talk in the crowd of The Head and The Heart, known for their soulful rock music. They played a set full of the sweet love songs they’re notorious for, gorgeous harmonies drifting over a collective force of piano, guitars and drums that collide into poetic rock. It seemed almost too perfect as the rain started to fall slightly during “Down in the Valley”, and they finished their set just as the heavens opened up and drenched the entire plaza.
The Decemberists appeared in the downpour, playing their first full performance since 2011. Premiering two new yet to be released songs from a forthcoming album, the band played both hits and fan favorites including “Oh Valencia!”, “The Crane Wife 1 & 2”, and “Down By the Water”. Singer Colin Meloy remarked, “The weather makes you all look more attractive… Like you’ve just come in from a tropical water shower,” and launched into “Calamity Song”, one of their more upbeat tunes that had everyone dancing to forget the cold rain.
Finally the rain stopped and the wind picked up through the plaza and Death Cab for Cutie came onstage. Starting with “I Will Possess Your Heart”, they led with a teaser intro that had everyone wondering if singer Ben Gibbard would ever start singing. This was a powerful rock and roll set, unexpectedly so for some, and for fans, well, it felt more like hanging in a friends living room listening to your favorite songs. They played old classic favorites for fans and many of their radio hits that made for quality dancing as the stars peeked through the clouds. A few songs in, Gibbered gave a shout out to the interpreters at the front of the stage who were, as he said, amazing, completely devoted to each performance and indeed stole the show. Death Cab for Cutie played a three-song encore to end the day with a sweet, satisfying, buzz.
Day Three, May 25th, started off strong with The Box Tiger, a Toronto-based band that fit right in as their female lead singer belted out their tunes in the peak of the Sunday sun. A bright, energetic start to the day, their set was one of powerful rock with an intense female lead, a touch of pop rounding out their sound.
Tiger Man Woah! were up next, a local band from Lynn, MA. An unmatched presence at the festival they have the impression that maybe they should have played later in the day. The bearded, overall clad men played with a voice that resonated through the plaza as festivalgoers arrived, a voice rivaling Tom Waits, their sound is one for the working class of days gone by – sung as if need a ere in hand and a metal lunchbox in the other. A festival favorite they even went so far as to sing a Sam Cooke tune; a rockified, slightly gritty version of “Chain Gang”, an unexpected and delightful surprise.
Next were The Districts, a band from Pennsylvania, invigorating the afternoon with their sometimes tense, sometimes sweet indie rock tunes. They’d amassed a huge gathering of fans, with hands up clapping along to their Americana-like rock. Hey had the perfect amount of lovelorn attitude to keep the energy up and the good vibes going–great music to listen to in the summer sun. Their lead singer has the perfect combination of scratchy and wavering and strong vocals – his energy was high and passionate and he led the audience through their hits and fan favorites.
Kurt Vile & The Violators came out with a southern bluesy mentality, at times mellow and more suited to lying on the grass under the sun. Perhaps they were a bit out of place in this crowd or maybe it was the heat, but the energy of the crowd waned here and many went off in search of refreshment.
Tegan & Sara were another crowd favorite and took the stage amidst hoots and hollers – their fan base reaching to all stereotype extremes and everyone in between, including an eight-year-old dancing machine that didn’t stop through their entire set. Tegan & Sara were super energetic, containing an excitement that had been lacking throughout the afternoon – and they jumped right into their set that had everyone within sight moving and shaking with a fervor that had yet been unmatched on Sunday. Spunky and energetic, they led the crowd through many of their hits, a great example of what a festival is for – appreciating the music.
B∆stille was another highly anticipated set of the night and frontman Dan Smith bounced around the stage with fervor, his vocals backed by heavy guitar and drums of the tough indie rock style of the band. They played most of heir popular album Bad Blood and to round out their set they ended with a throwback of the song “Rhythm of the Night” and their hit “Pompeii”.
Eavesdropping on people making their wye across the plaza it was clear that Brand New was the ‘don’t miss’ act of the night. Their set was one of serious intensity unlike anything we’d seen throughout the weekend and included a smashed guitar, broken cymbal, and an amp pulled on top of guitarist Vincent Accord. One could not have ignored the intensity of the show if they tried; audience members jumped and shouted and it felt as if your heart would beat right out of your chest.
Modest Mouse played the final set for the weekend, another great rock piece played to a jam-packed plaza. They played a mix of fan favorites and radio hits, ending the festival with a lot of dance and a lot of rock and roll. Playing their hit “Float On”, it was a short shout out to the spirit of the festival. An impactful chaser to the intense Brand New that went before, festivalgoers took this as their chance to end the weekend on a high note. Breaking out a flugelhorn and banjo, Modest Mouse played a long set that surprised many with its energy and at times disco-like tunes.
An exhilarating lead into summer, the festival was a true celebration of music, unifying music fans across all genres – hands up and hearts beating in time with each sound reaching out across the plaza. An experience to be had by all music lovers a least once in a lifetime, Boston Calling was a collection of soulful, intense, pop and indie rock, a curation of sound reaching across a creative collective of varied sound. It was three days of celebrating what music is all about – fun, camaraderie, and passion.
-words: Megan Walleston
-photos: Mike Condon