Live Review: So let’s talk about that Pussy Riot set at Boston Calling
 

As is the case in any situation where lots of different stuff happens, some of the musical occurances on Friday (May 25) at the Harvard Athletic Complex were pretty great, and others weren’t as great. But that’s just a given. It’s actually quite rare for an act booked on a festival with the scale and scope of Boston Calling to be truly bad.

One thing or another might not be yours or my personal cup of tea. But in general, there’s waaaaay too much money tied up in these things for a curator to roll the dice on anybody who lacks a track record for being objectively good at what they do. (Unless they’re so popular it doesn’t matter, or if they’re Rob Schneider’s kid.)

That’s why I’d like to shake the hand of whoever greenlit Pussy Riot at Boston Calling 2018.

Infamously jailed for singing songs that offended the delicate snowflake sensibilities of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Nadya Tolokonnikova stands as a genuine free speech crusader in an era when opportunists and hucksters seek to co-opt the very term “free speech” and grind it into a meaningless buzzword. Her story and message require further propagation during today’s bleak iteration of the United States. Is a near $300-per weekend pass festival positively dripping with corporate sponsorship an ideal platform upon which to protest predatory capitalism? Nah, but Anti-Flag squeezed the toothpaste out of that uncomfortable but necessary consumerist tube at The Vans Warped Tour almost 20 years ago. Did it always present a potential problem that Pussy Riot’s global fame resulted from a ludicrous civil rights violation, and not because they, y’know, wrote a hit song or did anything noteworthy relative to music?

Perhaps getting out in front of their own functional shortcomings, Pussy Riot specifically advertised their afternoon engagement on the Delta Blue Stage as a display of “audio-visuals x political performance art pieces.” After an approximately 10-minute presentation illustrating the ghastly state of global wealth distribution, Tolokonnikova and her cohort ran through a stylistically and thematically disjointed string of tunes, and it was not objectively good.

That they often sang and/or rapped in Russian, requiring most of us to read their lyrics off sub-professionally rendered animations on a video screen at the back of the stage, didn’t help. The collective’s most successful offerings recalled nightcore remixes oft-fashioned by anime nerds on YouTube, and those were kinda fun. Maybe kinda vapid? Arguably a low bar to step over? Sure, but definitely fun, and pretty weird. Also pretty weird: An ode to a Ukrainian political prisoner on a hunger strike played minutes before a cheerful song about pimples.

But Tolokonnikova already took on Putin, so she’s certainly not worried if a bunch of trust fund babies and jaded media ham ‘n eggers think she sucks. As for the festival itself, Boston Calling deserves kudos for taking a genuine risk on Pussy Riot. Rock and roll’s supposed to be dangerous, let us not forget, and there’s no danger without a potential for catastrophe.

The rest of the day went largely catastrophe-free, even when the performers didn’t realize it. Chicago rapper Noname kept apologizing for how much she drank before her 5 p.m. Green Stage performance. But I’m not sure if anybody would’ve noticed how messed up she was if she hadn’t mentioned it. S’like… maaaaaybe her delivery came off a little muffled here and there, but her style’s laid back enough to lend itself to improvisation anyway.

Nonane photo by Matthew Shelter.

I wish Charly Bliss played later in the day. On paper, the quartet’s irreverent-yet-merry melding of pop-punk and indie makes them an obvious jumping off point for the rest of the festival. But they deserved a bigger crowd than the few hundred super fans who made sure to arrive before 3 p.m., even if the mostly-empty sprawl of astroturf surrounding the Blue Stage made for a memorable visual.

Minutes later on the Green Stage, the expansive, understated wares of Big Thief seemed like a perfectly pleasant but unobtrusive sonic backdrop for new arrivials surveying the lay of the land, waiting in line for drinks, figuring out where the bathrooms are, planning out the day’s schedule, and all that sort of thing. Then singer Adrianne Lenker tied off their set with a gloriously illogical, acid flashback-inducing guitar solo that made me wonder if Big Thief, also, should’ve played under cover of night with a larger audience paying closer attention. And then on the Red Stage, Perfume Genius performed, pretty much, the Stranger Things soundtrack.

(Not literally the Stranger Things soundtrack, but pretty much that.)

The post-sunshine portion of the day kinda fucked anybody equally excited to see Paramore and The National, both slated for almost exactly 8 p.m. on opposite sides of the Harvard Athletic Complex. And I dunno if I stand by my decision to side with Paramore. Didn’t understand what I was signing up for with this one. Like, I thought they did a pop-punk/emo thing in the vein of My Chemical Romance or Fall Out Boy? Turns out that’s really only their first few records from, like, 12 years ago? And now they’re into calypso beats and synthesizers, which is fine, sure, except it means Paramore’s target age demo is dancing to essentially the same music their parents played in the background of their coke orgies in the 1980s?

Nonane photo by Matthew Shelter.

Now, if Paramore want to know how to win over a listener who’s only familiar with their Bush administration-era material, they should take a cue from The Killers. Swan-diving into their headlining session with “Mr. Brightside,” followed shortly by “Somebody Told Me,” both off 2004’s Hot Fuss, the Vegas vets knocked the neighborhood on its tush with their well-storied aptitude for stadium-swallowing rawk ‘n roll. Having long outgrown the awkwardness that characteristized his early on-stage persona, current-day Brandon Flowers manifested like a larger-than-life lounge singer, or like a young Leland Palmer during his hopeful years before all the bad shit went down, or like the bizarro dimension’s fun, non-evil version of Mitt Romney.

I have reason to suspect I left before a Tom Petty tribute, which would be a huge bummer, except my understanding is The Killers played a faithful iteration of “American Girl,” and I’ve already listened to too many faithful renditions of “American Girl.”

Follow Barry Thompson on Twitter @barelytomson. Click here for our Boston Calling coverage throughout the weekend.

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