Live Review: Three days of raised stakes, raised eyebrows, and raised expectations at Boston Calling
Editor’s Note: Below is a combined recap of Barry Thompson’s ons-site reviews at Boston Calling Music Festival. In case you missed any of his five field reports from City Hall Plaza, enjoy them all in one massive recap below. Sprinkled in are some incredible photos by Eddy Leiva, and a handful of artist interviews we conducted in the Vanyaland media area. Enjoy!
So I had this intro written about too many kids taking pictures of themselves and how much I sincerely love complimentary KIND snacks but none of that qualifies as worth mentioning anymore because jeez louise, did you guys get a load of Sia?!
Let’s dive right into recapping Friday night’s Boston Calling tunes and get ‘em out of the way so we can talk about Sia sooner.
Damn, this sure was a folksy performance. If you looked up “folksy” in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of Sarah Palin lecturing and berating Lisa Hannigan to quit smoking pot every day and go find a husband. Fortunately for Hannigan, she hails from Ireland, where everyone smokes pot constantly and weddings are thought of as a bizarre and principally American custom. Therefore, Lisa Hannigan remains immune to Palin’s shrill moralizing. This makes me glad, because she’s the only musician I can recall playing a ukulele without making want to end my own life. Aaron Dessner is a member of The National (and co-curater of this festival) which means he probably has way more money than you do.
I came to Boston Calling with some preconceived notions about Sufjan Stevens, and maybe I wasn’t exactly misinformed, but I only knew half the story. Maybe not even half.
As was my understanding based on the few songs I’d heard and no other information whatsoever, Sufjan Stevens is essentially a version of Elliott Smith who grew up in a loving, stable household and would never, ever try heroin. Or, he’s ersatz Bright Eyes for an audience who has never known bitterness. People who think like me feel the same way about Sufjan Stevens that people who thought like me in the ‘80s felt about Phil Collins, or so I thought.
However nobody who would steal his look from The Rockers — a legendary (and controversial) vintage pro wrestling tag team — ever deserves to be compared to Phil Collins. Clad in neon, multicolored shorts with silver streamers billowing from his arms, Stevens could’ve passed for the long lost third member of the classic tandem, which included future mega-champion “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels and eventual cautionary tale Marty Jannetty.
But the awesome bullshit didn’t end with probably-on-purpose callbacks to old school wrestling. At one point, Sufjan Stevens had angel wings. Because why wouldn’t he?! Also, he smashed what was probably a very expensive banjo! Because fuck that banjo! Fuck everything! Alongside a pair of backup dancers/singers, Stevens deployed a caliber of synchronized choreography not seen in this town since Babymetal played here a few weeks ago.
Later on, a disco ball jumpsuit mysteriously replaced the retro-HBK outfit. Then, a giant tinfoil cock appeared on the center of the stage. Stevens ascended the cock, struck a messianic pose, and morphed into a Sufjan Stevens-sized pan of Jiffy Pop. Before I knew it, Sufjan Stevens and his cohort has shifted once again — this time, into singing, dancing, balloon animal disasters. Not since an assignment to review KISS several years ago have I been so rigorously delighted by the performance of music for which I felt total ambivalence, if not disdain.
I no longer consider Sufjan Stevens a watered down Smith or Oberst. He’s more like a 40-year-old male version of Miley Cyrus, except with boring music, and he’s never been dry humped by Robin Thicke.
We were told by a fairly reliable source that Sia’s Boston Calling set was pretty much identical to the performance that eviscerated Coachella last month. If true, that means any celebrities we thought we recognized on the projector screens may well have been prerecorded, while mimikry courtesy of clearly talented but non-famous stand-ins transpired on stage. As far as any attempt on my part to correctly name dancers and actors, this fucks everything up.
Was that Paul Dano wallowing in office job anguish during “Bird Set Free” or Kristen Wiig making a sad face under an umbrella, or were those basically stunt doubles? Probably the latter, but maybe not? Did we see Maddie Ziegler reenacting her iconic turn in the “Chandelier” video, or was that Stephanie Mincone? Both were onhand for Coachella , so, um… uh…???? Was Tig Notaro there, as has been speculated-slash-tweeted? I don’t know! I don’t know what Tig Notaro looks like.
Maybe none of that’s important. The Aussie songsmith stood stationary, veiled beneath a half-blonde half-brunette wig, as is her custom, throughout the proceedings while interpretive modern dance routines and mini-dramas provided all the visual oomph. Most of the crowd possessed the imagination necessary to appreciate what they saw, but only “most of.” I overheard several inquires that could only come from realms of intense confusion. A few people sounded pissed.
It was glorious.
Between 1000 Forms of Fear and This Is Acting (not even including tracks like “Diamonds,” which Sia penned for Rihanna and borrowed back for herself on Friday), Sia wields more than enough material to fill a setlist with total jams and belt ‘em out while accompanied by a plain ol’ guitar player, piano player, drummer, whatever — that’s all she needs to do to keep her concertgoers pleased as punch. Instead, she delivered a very different animal to Government Center, opting to boggle a few minds in lieu of playing it samey and safe.
Four guys with guitars and the same haircut can be fine, even great, and so can rappers and DJs, and pop singers doing a standard pop singer thing, and ect. Ect. But Sia did not at all scan like another version of something we’ve seen a million billion times before.
So, yeah, the weekend’s off to a good start.
In the annals of history, Saturday’s portion of Boston Calling will in all likelihood wind up overshadowed by the 90 degree beating we all took at the hands of Mr. Sun, that miserable bastard. Unless you found somewhere shady to hang or have access to an unlimited supply of water, you’re kinda fucked over here. It’s a drag, because at a festival that’s occasionally been accused of adhering too close to the comfortable, inoffensive middle ground, this edition included some palpable variety. It’s not just a mostly indie rock festival this time. It’s not just a mostly electronic music festival, either. S’got a little sumpthin’ for the whole friggin’ bunch of us.
Before L.A.’s Børns carried out the weekend’s inevitable David Bowie cover with a B+ rendition of “Heroes” at around 4:30 p.m., the following occurred.
Sia shattered reality on Friday night, so perhaps we were all in need of some comparatively old fashioned, gritty, grimey, glossless rock ‘n roll. Enter local favs Palehound. Front-woman Ellen Kempner arrived with no knowledge that she’d be projected on a big honkin’ video wall, and said she found her own giant-sized image distracting. This tells us that she has never been to a Boston Calling festival before, otherwise she would’ve expected this. We all need to start giving Palehound more money so they can afford tickets to stuff like this, me thinks.
I was under the impression Lizzo was a rapper, which she is, but I did not realize she sang about half the time, and her decisively powerful vocals caught me off guard. Shows what I know. A handful of songs aimed to inspire a healthy sense of self-worth in its listeners, regardless of their body type. I’m a dude, so literally no one ever tries to make me feel bad about my appearance (or bad personal hygiene, or terrible attitude, oddly enough), but many of us who are not dudes may find better use for such Lizzo tunes than I am able to. As the great Homer Simpson once said about 18 to 45 year old white males, everybody listens to me, even if my hot take is nuts ‘n gum.
Like Sufjan Stevens the previous night, Lizzo came accompanied by backup dancers, who demonstrated not only more skill than Stevens’ flanks, but more wisdom. Apparently aware of how brutally uncomfortable the heat would make City Hall Plaza, Lizzo and Co. foresightfully opted against wearing pants. They also brought Super Soakers to spray the crowd — a thoughtful gesture, seeing as how the wait in line for free water looked precariously long by that point.
Let’s face it — festival crowds don’t really care about innovative soundscapes, slow-burning arrangements of samples melded with live instruments, or the slick decision on the part of drummer John Stanier to place his crash cymbal far, far too high up to ever whack it by accident. Dude is a verifiable rhythmic assassin, and racks up an additional nine points for the courage to play a bright yellow drumkit.
But back to the point, most of the audience for Battles was oblivious to all that sort of thing. They just wanted to hear something they could dance to. Fortuitously, the lyric-less NYC threesome demonstrated no shortage of bangerz, thereby servicing music dweebs and casual passersby alike. Battles wrapped their presentation with “The Yabba,” a seven-minute epic, and left us all to contemplate a future in which we are all immortal cyborgs and all music sounds like this.
At the risk of reducing The Vaccines — a spunky garage rock act likely deserving of more in-depth analysis — to a dated TV reference, I spent most of their set reminding myself that I was not watching a spirited performance by Driveshaft. As has been well documented, bassist and lyricist Charlie Pace survived the crash of Oceanic Flight 815, but did not live through its aftermath. It was Not Penny’s Boat, let’s remember. Also, Lost was a TV show that took place in fairytale imaginary land, and therefore, Driveshaft cannot play music festival here in the real world.
Unaccustomed to a trio — not a pair — of Boston Calling stages to keep track of, I read the schedule wrong and missed Nemes. Like I said, the heat was starting to get to me. Luckily I get a few more chances to catch cool shit on the Verizon Stage, and I won’t make the same mistake twice. But you can listen to our interview with them here.
Whilst recapping the Friday segment of Boston Calling ‘16, we heaped accolades upon Sia for her unorthodox, polarizing methods, and the sheer force of will it takes to turn the conventions of a headlining pop set upside down and inside out. If you had asked us then if we wanted to see more acts flout the expectations placed on big name musical performances this weekend, we likely would’ve said, “Fuck yeah, man. Let’s get crazy and weird with this mofo.”
Tragically, if you had asked us the same question on the way home from what transpired Saturday night at Government Center, we would have said something like, “No. Normal and straightforward is the best way to go. Getting crazy and weird is the wrong thing to do with this mofo.”
But before we get into Robyn’s unfortunate decisions, here’s some other stuff that happened Saturday afternoon.
I took a tiny swipe at Aussie rawk sensation and friend of Vanyaland Courtney Barnett a few days ago in a Boston Calling preview roundup, and now I’m feeling like I should clarify that remark. There’s a next-big-thing-of-the-week aura surrounding the “Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go To The Party” songsmith. She’s attracted the tiresome “buzz” that compels listeners who confuse excitement with the fear of missing out. This buzz is irksome.
However — it’s not Barnett’s fault too many people think she’s great, and nobody stays trendy for more than, what, eight months nowadays? Basically, I’ve just got to wait until the album cycle for Sometimes I Just Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit runs its course and the bandwagon hoppers forget she exists before I can become a full-blown Courtney Barnett fan.
When it arrives, that will be a happy day, and I will joyfully proclaim something like, “Word, I saw Courtney Barnett at Boston Calling back when she still had Bones Sloane and Dave Mudie in her band and it was fuckin’ sick. A bunch of dumb mother fuckers were ignoring the music to wait in line for souvenir pennants, and I was like, ‘What are you dumb mother fuckers doing?! You’re missing the second coolest thing you’ll see all weekend for a stupid dorm room decoration to slap on the wall next to your, what, Dark Side of the Moon and glow-in-the-dark pot leaf posters?! You are the ones who suck!’
Also, I realized “Pedestrian at Best” and “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party” are two totally different songs, which is helpful for me to know.
After running around in the monstrous high-80 degree heat all morning, we all needed to recharge our batteries. Usually no band ever wants to be remembered for putting listeners to sleep, thus, we should appreciate, not condemn, City and Colour for providing Boston Calling with a dose of sorely needed aural ambien.
I stumbled across Lady Pills half by accident while foraging for free KIND granola bars, so now I can thank the KIND company for all the delicious snacks they provided on purpose, and a reprieve from the main stage bombast they led me to via incidental accident.
At this point in their young careers, Lady Pills are basically Waxahatchee with way, way less money. I wanted the understated Boston trio to keep the distortion pedals flipped on all the time, during every song, instead of just once or twice per tune, but I don’t know if that’s really a complaint so much as a personal preference. Singer/guitarist Ella Boissonnault thanked her mom for coming out and watching their show, solidifying Lady Pills alongside Palehound in the illustrious cadre of Bands I Saw Thank Their Moms This Weekend.
Meanwhile back on the main stages, Miike Snow’s singer looked like the coke dealer stereotype character from every bad movie that has a coke dealer in it.
Eeeeh, y’know, let’s give Seattle’s Odesza credit for a markedly more playful, not-as-mechanical take on electronica than at least one Boston Calling techno guru of yore. Remember Wolfgang Gartner? That guy sucked a big, fat infected one. Odesza were much better than Wolfgang Gartner.
But after a day that might as well have been spent inside a soggy oven, high energy simply wasn’t enough to keep us interested. Like, remember when Flosstradamus played that same weekend in 2013 and everybody went “Whoa dude! This is bonkers!” That was the threshold Odesza needed to breach to keep us awake.
As we’ve reported, Robyn’s touring out a remix album at a smattering of festival appearances — namely Boston Calling, Governor’s Ball, and Field Trip — this summer. Should we commend her for trying something fresh, as opposed to grinding out a by-the-numbers recitation of the same songs, played the same way, some of which she’s been going through the motions of since, what, 2010? Maybe even 1997, in some instances?
Sure! Especially if the remix album is worth a damn. But if it isn’t, then, well…
“I thought Robyn did, like, sorta grandiose ‘80s synth-pop. And this is, like, some sorta techno mamba shit? It’s kind of ‘meh’ I guess?” These were my verbatim thoughts during the Swedish pop legend’s day-closing demonstration.
But here’s my thing — let’s say, hypothetically, you’re a big honkin’ Robyn fanperson. You drive in from a state or two away to see her at Boston Calling. You drop $85 on a ticket. You stand on the sweltering concrete and wait through about a dozen-or-so acts you could care less about, just to hear Robyn do a few of your all-time-fav Robyn songs.
And then Robyn doesn’t really do any Robyn songs. Instead, she does kinda “blah” remixes of Robyn songs. How pissed are you now? Is it super duper pissed?
I’m sure I’m recounting the plight of somebody who came to the show yesterday, although nobody specific I can point out. The majority of the gathering looked to be more-or-less enjoying themselves. In fairness, Robyn must be taking it for granted that festival crowds will dance to whatever, and like me, aren’t necessary all that invested or interested in Robyn’s music for its own sake. Therefore, we’re not going to get huffy if she doesn’t do “Call Your Girlfriend.” But somebody probably got huffy about that!
Also, right around this point in time, a pretty much naked guy with a light saber ran past me. Evidently he had migrated over from something even less expected and far more Star Wars-oriented taking place on the Common. It has not been a normal weekend, you betcha.
Okay, so yesterday the heat made me delusional and I got vertigo every time I stood up too fast and today I’m wearing a scarf — not as any sort of quasi-ironic fashion statement, but to keep my neck warm ‘cause it’s fucking chilly out here at Boston Calling, man.
New England weather is a capricious bastard. Someday, after President Trump nukes the sun into space rubble, we will live under a bio-dome where it shall remain 64 degrees at all times, and everything will be just the best ever.
Some pretty neat-o music stuff already happened on Sunday, tho. Sadly I didn’t make it down in time for Michael Christmas (editor’s note: thankfully our photographer did, so that’s him up top, and we tweeted a few pics/video of him earlier), but I saw these bits here…
Relentlessly jubilant whilst bounding about the JetBlue stage in slacks and white shirts, Heloise Letissier and her entourage collectively resembled a late ‘90s Old Navy commercial. But as the French government quietly outlawed Old Navy in 2002, Letissier likely has no idea that her wardrobe selection has traumatic associations for American audiences. More importantly, her band/dance trope supplied more than sufficient whipsmart pop tracks and high-risk showmanship for us to forget they were dressed the same way annoying people on television used to dress. One transition recalled the dance club wham-pow of C+C Music Factory, and isn’t it sort of incredible “This sounds like C+C Music Factory” is an earnest compliment in 2016?
Shortly before her final number of the afternoon, Letissier picked up the remnants of a discarded batch of flowers, and summoned the essences of Beyoncé and Rihanna for the purposes of a brief but trenchant impromptu puppet show. It was then I realized what Boston Calling’s been missing all these years — puppets. Next year at the Harvard Athletic Complex, there better be a fucking puppet show.
Automatic plus-12 points for the weekend’s first proper drum solo, as well as the rare deployment of a cowbell that didn’t feel like a dubious excuse to shoehorn a cowbell in somewhere for the sake of itself. Drummer Riley Geare was totally the shit in high school jazz band, I’ll bet. UMO’s expansive, lightly-psychedelic tuneage tied Battles’ Saturday set for the most sonically adventurous of the festival thus far, creeping as closely as possible to the border between practical wizardry and Dave Matthews-esque indulgence without stumbling over to the dark side.
Singer dude Ryan Bambery dedicated a song to his “folks” in attendance. By “folks” did he mean “parents?” If so, These Wild Plains, Lady Pills, and Palehound all gave their sires onstage props this weekend. Is this all part of some subversive new fad in which rock and rollers shall advocate being nice and appreciative to parents instead of telling them to go fuck themselves?
Irregardless, I now believe all country music should be presented in the same context as These Wild Plains were on the Verizon Stage — shuffled off into a cramped corner, while a much more widely-known artist of a more popular genre plays to four times as many people within three minutes walking distance.
It’s impossible to take Garth Brooks or whoever the current version of Garth Brooks is seriously when he sings about making it through the rough times. He’s filthy rich and wildly successful. Meanwhile, three-fifths of These Wild Plains could easily pass for homeless. So when they sing about being obscure and miserable, I know they’re coming from a place of experience.
Aware that much of his audience haven’t yet lived long enough to buy cigarettes or vote, Vince Staples takes his position as a role model seriously. As such, he took moments between songs to condemn drug use, encourage the audience to stay in school because rap careers don’t pan out for most people, and wondered aloud where Mark Wahlberg went to college. He also inspired the most underwhelming response to a call to “Fuck The Police” we’ve ever experienced.
Unfortunately, 15 percent of the attendants at this Boston Calling are working festival security in some capacity, while another 26 percent are white girls from wealthy north shore towns whose dads are cops, and yet another 30 percent do hate cops but don’t like hip-hop and were over watching These Wild Plains on the other side of the fest.
City Hall viiiiiiibrating to Viiiiiiiiiiince pic.twitter.com/EicAlRDBp6
— Vanyaland (@Vanyaland617) May 29, 2016
Okay, looking back, Saturday had bigger problems than the heat.
On its second day of 2016, Boston Calling fed us a big sack of immediately forgettable placeholder/time killer acts and left it up to Courtney Barnett to singled-handedly salvage the entire program. Graciously, she was up to the task. But I’d rather be sweaty and dizzy than feel nothing at all, so perhaps we should thank The Sun for giving us something to remember Saturday by, and not detonate nuclear missiles at its core as previously suggested.
But if this was to be the final Boston Calling at City Hall Plaza, Sunday’s lineup sent the three-year-old institution off with …well, not quite a “bang.” But definitely a very loud “clap” or “pop” of some sort.
Let’s glance back at what unfolded…
According to trusted sources, the nearly 70-year-old r&b dynamo Bradley brought forth one of the, if not the, greatest performance Boston Calling has ever seen. Meanwhile, I was wrapped up with the business of typing things at the media table and missed the whole thing.
I admit projecting unfair and unreasonable expectations on this New Jersey quartet who may or may not qualify as emo (we seriously can’t decide). My preparatory “research” into hitherto unfamiliar Boston Calling bands devolved into repeat listens of Back on Top, The Front Bottoms’ excellent 2015 long-player.
And yet as I gazed down at the JetBlue stage while TFBs endeared themselves to festivalgoers with “Cough It Out” — a track destined to inspire a whole new genre called “snugglepunk,” which TFBs will loathe and futilely struggle to distance themselves from whenever asked about the connection in ensuing years — something felt wrong. The Front Bottoms weren’t as cool as I hoped they would be, yet I couldn’t identify any specific reason for feeling let down.
Then I realized I was only ever excited to see The Front Bottoms because their records remind me of Andrew Jackson Jihad, and like most things, The Front Bottoms make a damn poor substitute for Andrew Jackson Jihad.
“Elle King” is the somewhat unimaginative stage name of Tanner Elle Schneider. If an eerily familiar nausea set in the second you read her last name, that’s probably because you were forced to watch Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, The Animal, or maybe even The Hot Chick at some point.
I wrote something yesterday about the inverse correlation between the authenticity and bank accounts of country bands, and while the same paradigm applies to blues musicians, King is a special case. Of course, it’s all too easy to roll your eyes when someone who grew up in the iron bubble of privilege known only to movie star offspring picks up a guitar and strums out “Folsom Prison Blues.” If you yelled something like, “Go join the cast of Girls!” at King during her Sunday afternoon showing, you were being totally rude and mean. But maybe you were also on to something.
But let’s take a moment to consider what it must be like to wake up every morning, every day, knowing that 50 percent of your DNA came from Rob Schneider. Imagine having to carry that festering pile of shame and self-loathing on your shoulders throughout your life, with no reprieve, and the certainty that the pain and constant reminders will never go away unless Adam Sandler finally stops giving your dad bit parts in his shitty movies.
So yeah, maybe Elle King never has to worry about money, but maybe her childhood was super duper mega miserable. Probably way, way worse than the guys from These Wild Plains, and if they get to be an authentic country band, shouldn’t we grant King the same validation?
At any rate, it was probably a bad idea to schedule anything remotely blues-ish so soon after Charles Bradley.
It’s nice when a bunch people are like, “Hey man, you should see this. It’s pretty great!” And then it turns out they were right and it is, indeed, pretty great. The scruffy Massachusetts power trio’s Verizon Stage presentation provided a welcome jolt of fury — injected directly into our eye sockets, straight into our brains — amid a weekend otherwise devoid of truly noisy guitar bands.
Walls of sound were built around the insane-sauce guitar work of Steven Instasi, then recklessly knocked down, thus allowing bassist Ben Semeta and drummer Ryan Nicholson to gleefully stomp on the debris. Black Beach were also the first band to call attention to sound from the main stage bleeding through the Verizon Stage’s sonic borders — an annoyance we’re glad somebody finally called attention to.
I went straight from an aural pummeling to Janelle Monáe’s effervescent renditions of James Brown’s “I Got You” and The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” which might’ve been jarring if I wasn’t used to such sensations from two days of wandering around in a stranger’s Spotify playlist.
Remember a few weeks ago when Britney Spears performed at somesuch awards show, and a few blogs said she was brilliant, but all she did was lipsync a medley while correctly reciting her choreography, more or less? We’ve been conditioned to expect and embrace lipsyncing — even though it preempts the possibility of any raw emotion leaking into a live performance — because we can’t expect anyone to devote equal attention to singing and dancing simultaneously, right?
Well, wait a minute, as we all saw, Monáe can sing and dance at the same time, and demonstrate utter mastery of both crafts without appearing the slightest bit winded. Likewise, Heloise Letissier cut innumerable rugs and belted out her songs sans noticeable backing track, no problem at all, earlier that very same day.
If I learned anything at Boston Calling this year, it’s that Britney Spears is very, very lazy.
When Monáe dedicated her last song to her “hero,” “mentor”, and, in her opinion, “the greatest rock star of all time” right around the same time the stage lights turned purple, most of us probably had a good idea what the immediate horizon had in store. I suppose covering “Let’s Go Crazy” — one of maybe two or three Prince songs absolutely everybody recognizes and gets hyped up to hear immediately — wasn’t the riskiest way to go about honoring The Purple One. But in this instance, the direct approach was the best way to cause ample bouncing around and make me to admit to myself a near-bottomless apathy toward Disclosure and, temporarily, HAIM.
By this point the desire to crawl back to my apartment, watch Game of Thrones and pass out felt all consuming, so I prepared myself to give zero fucks about HAIM. But the sibling trio — who have kept a relatively low profile after their run as a flavor of one of 2013’s months — weren’t having it. Unless you can afford season tickets to Blue Man Group, you get maybe one or two lifetime opportunities to hear a rock set end with a triumphant four-person drum solo. Tyrion, Arya, the White Walkers, and the rest of the gang would all still be there when I got home. (Well, Tyrion wasn’t in last night’s episode, but the point stands).
Other standout moments included HAIM’s unveiling of a new track entitled “Nothing’s Wrong” — featuring a moody, spacious bridge section somehow seamlessly dropped in the middle of an otherwise peppy composition. Plus, the band requested us to unleash any hitherto withheld aggression for “My Song 5.”
“Cripes, HAIM, are you sure?” I thought. “I mean, I’m down to wall of death to this song, couple other folks here look t’be in the same boat, but wouldn’t that be really dangerous? Like, I can see a bunch of little kids and a baby, like, five feet away from me.”
We got to hear Lorde when Disclosure piped in her vocals for “Magnets” but as bitterly anticipated, no actual real life Lorde appeared. Instead, we just got two DJs and a pretty neat-o light show, which is all fine and well if you’re into that sort of thing.