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This weekend, for one last time, the Boston Calling festival descended upon City Hall Plaza, uniting dozens of acts, thousands of fans, and countless grooves in an upbeat celebration of music and community. Boston’s hometown concert series didn’t disappoint in its seventh go-around, as this spring’s lineup featured three days of acts from across all genres staging ambitious performances that connected with diehard fans while winning over new ones. The weekend saw global icons deliver on blockbuster favorites, rising stars acclimate themselves to increased exposure, veteran musicians display the chops essential to sustained success, and hometown kids make good.
[CHECK OUT OUR COVERAGE OF BOSTON CALLING 2015]
Next year, the festival will trade pavement footing for grassy fields and graduate from its adopted home base at City Hall to the compound at Harvard Stadium in Allston. The reshaped festival will also feature a film showcase, curated by Oscar winner and Harvard alum Natalie Portman, and will shift its schedule from twice a year to once, locking down the Memorial Day weekend and foregoing the fall show. It stands to be a big opportunity to grow the scope of the event, and address some fans’ simmering concerns about the acoustic limitations of the downtown setup. But its cityscape backdrop has been a signature of Boston Calling, and before the event was ready to move its cap tassel from one side to the other, there was one last downtown dance party to tend to.
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Friday night was among the most visually inspired installments of the show. Anyone expecting mellow guitar-rock from Sufjan Stevens quickly found themselves mistaken, as he broke from any sense of convention by adopting garb that answered the question, “How would the child of Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage and Donna Summer dress?” His technicolor, Day of the Dead-ish aesthetic suited the markedly modern sound he was experimenting with, which combined brassy horns with some subtle auto-tuning, along with the flush rock sensibilities.
Perhaps the most anticipated act of the weekend, Sia did not disappoint as Friday night’s closer. Fans could be seen throughout the crowd wearing face-covering wigs inspired by the elusive singer/songwriter, who has made the rejection of celebrity a core component to her superstardom. Her set was in line with this philosophy, as she performed in the corner of the stage, out of the spotlight, while dancers interpreted her songs in the fore. The dances could also be seen on the big screens with projections so cinematic it seemed impossible that they were being filmed on the scene — skepticism that was only furthered when one noted that there were some Hollywood heavy hitters among the dancing troupe seen in the video. Is Kristin Wiig really dancing up there, fans were left to wonder, or is that just the most tightly synced choreography in memory?
Reconciling that disconnect between perception, representation, image, and authenticity was no doubt Sia’s artistic intent, and it was a terrific tactic, but it only landed as well as it did because she has the voice (and hits) to back it up. Sia soared through tunes from her latest album, This is Acting, as well as her previous effort, 1000 Forms of Fear, while weaving in chart-toppers she penned for other pop stars, like Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” While “Chandelier” was an obvious crowd-pleaser, Sia might have been at the top of her game with “Big Girls Cry” and “Elastic Heart.” When her set finished, marking the end of Boston Calling’s first day, she addressed the crowd for the only time, merely to offer humble thanks. The love from the crowd, which was largely enraptured by the challenging presentation, was as authentic as it was self-evident.
Courtney Barnett (pictured, top) was a highlight of the sweltering Saturday, bringing a rambunctious energy that seemed to channel the alt-rock heyday of the 1990s and evoking hometown memories from when Boston’s biggest rivalry was between radio stalwarts WBCN and WAAF. The melodic synth-rock of Miike Snow made for a great dance vibe. Snow is a strong songwriter and a deft multi-instrumentalist who is unafraid to embrace the technotronic sounds only achievable through auto-tune, in the vein of Justin Vernon, James Blake, or Kanye West, as he did to great effect on songs from his latest album, iii, including “I Feel The Weight” and “Heart is Full.” Snow has a fantastic and versatile voice on his own, but when he reaches into the electronic bag of tricks he unearths new sounds, to great effect.
Pop icon Robyn has a sprawling fanbase, and was one of the festival’s biggest gets for this year, but her set closing Saturday night left many feeling cool. Instead of performing her hits as they are best known, she opted to bring in a selection of DJs to re-work the songs in a live setting, creating more of a club-like feel. This house aesthetic was heightened by a stage setup that featured a pair of mirror-paned dance chambers for her and her array of backups to haunt throughout the set, which was punctuated by heavily stylized lighting and misting. It was a totally distinguished presentation, and her vocals were more than up to snuff, but by foregoing more conventional arrangements, and opting to leave out beloved hits like “Call Your Girlfriend” and “Show Me Love,” some fans were left wanting. Still, few songs are better to enjoy in a crowd than “With Every Heartbeat” and “Dancing On My Own,” and Robyn’s delivery on those standards was impeccable.
Sunday began with a rising local act arriving on the very stage he’d once enjoyed as a fan. 2015 Boston Music Award-winning rapper Michael Christmas reminiscenced about having seen Wiz Khalifa perform a free concert at City Hall and marveled at the journey that brought the 22 year-old to that same stage. The good-natured Christmas enjoyed an easy rapport with the crowd, who rode with him whether he was digging into his catalog full of slacker anthems with “Overweight Drake” and “Michael Cera” or unveiling new releases like “Paranoid” and “Bubbling.” Joined onstage by friends and family, Christmas’s set was an affirmation of the power and potential of the Boston Calling festival to match the passion of musical audiences with the creativity of locally-grown talent. Christmas swore his allegiance to the city, declaring himself “617 100%.”
Vince Staples, the personable and excitable Long Beach rapper, might have been the weekend’s greatest showman. Wearing a “Straight Edge” sweatshirt, he mockingly implored the audience to not indulge in the consumption of any illicit narcotics, during his set or the festival, but acknowledged that this would likely be a fruitless pursuit on his part. Staples’s set compared favorably to that of Fall 2013 performer Kendrick Lamar, riffling through his sublime “Summertime ‘06” Def Jam album like “Jump Off The Roof,” “Hang ‘N Bang,” “Norf Norf,” and “Lift Me Up,” as well as his previous mixtape releases like “Nate.” Staples makes highly intelligent bangers, and is unafraid to challenge his audiences. Before uncorking his Black Lives Matter-inflected police accountability anthem “Hands Up,” Staples inquired whether the crowd REALLY wanted to hear that song, or if the impression he’d gotten about Boston’s allegiances from crime films like The Departed and Black Mass was correct and that he would be singling himself out for persecution. It was not so much that it was an honest question on his part, as much as a show of charismatic force that he would not allow himself to avoid the discomfort it might present, for himself or for us. When he wound down with “Summertime,” crooning “This could be forever, baby. This could be forever, maybe,” Staples gave the audience a chorus they could repeat throughout the weekend and season.
Janelle Monae is right at home in Boston, as during a 2013 concert here she was awarded a holiday in her name by the Boston City Council for her work as an artist and social advocate, and her high-energy set befit the familiarity. She thrilled the crowd with hits from The Electric Lady, including her collaboration with Prince, “Give Em What They Love,” whom she also honored with a rousing cover of “Let’s Go Crazy.” The Prince tributes kept rolling later, when sisterly trio Haim covered “I Would Die 4 U.” Monae might’ve had the crowd in its most upbeat dance mood all weekend, interweaving Jackson 5 and James Brown hits with her own, and sending waves of good vibes with the chart-topping “Yoga.”
The Haim sisters and Disclosure brothers’ final two sets gave Boston Calling’s ending a nice balance of visceral pop-rock and atmospheric electro-pop. They were singalongs of the highest order, riding respective vibes into the holiday weekend’s ether. Like Disclosure’s final on-stage offering, the crowd was shackled in Boston Calling’s embrace, latched onto a scene that couldn’t last forever, but felt like it might.
Before Boston became a title town in sports, City Hall Plaza was the destination for championship celebrations. When Tom Brady and the Patriots won their first Super Bowl in 2002, hordes of fans crammed into the concrete bowl to gather in shared revelry. So many came, in fact, that it was the last rally held there, with the city opting for “rolling rally” parades ever since. The plaza is now overhauled, with a newly installed Government Center T station overlooking, and now it looks to be retired as a mainstream music venue. But the concerts, like the titles, will live on in fans’ memories, even as they anticipate the glories of the future.
all photos by Matt Lambert