Oh, September Boston Calling: cans of Sam Adams OctoberFest, unpredictably sudden drops in temperature, nearly-naked college students shivering on concrete plaza steps. We missed you.
With short-shorts and man buns aplenty, the Boston Calling crowd geared up for an acoustic music overload. Here’s our take on Friday and Saturday.
The Jeff Tweedy Look-alike: Gregory Alan Isakov
Up first was South African singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov, donning a fedora and Earth-green sweater, and his band. Bubbles floated through the cold air as the crowd stood and listened to acoustic ballads in waltz time. “We’re playing first so we get to do all the slow banjo ballads,” Isakov said.
With two microphones, one stumpy and old-timey enough to drop into the middle of a boxing ring, Isakov mirrored his violinist’s melody with oohs and aahs, his voice sometimes sounding like Coldplay’s Chris Martin. With a banjo, an electric guitar, and a double bass, playing melancholy songs meant for deeper into fall, Isakov and his troupe weren’t the spark a major festival needs for a leadoff hitter. Nevertheless, Boston Calling had begun, and festival favorites Of Monsters and Men were next.
The Band that was Made for Festivals: Of Monsters and Men
By now it’s been said a million times — Of Monsters and Men have anthemic folk/indie-pop songs with thumping drums and hum-along melodies. Say it a million more times and it will still be true. Mr. Drummer, do you have any other rhythms to play on your birch-tree patterned drums besides bum-ba-dum-dum-bum-dum-dum!?
On Friday night Of Monsters and Men brought a needed burst of energy to Boston Calling, firing up the flashing lights, smoke machine, droning guitar, and frenzied horns. A guy bopped strangers on the head with a beach ball as he drank his way into the middle of the crowd.
The band played many of their hits from their acclaimed 2011 debut album, My Head Is an Animal, including “King and Lionheart” and “Little Talks,” which featured a blistering trumpet solo.
The Headliner Whose Harmonies Couldn’t Have Been Better: The Avett Brothers
As they took the stage, beach balls popped into the air like kernels in a hot pan.
There are few bands with sharper harmonies than The Avett Brothers. On top of Scott Avett’s rocking piano and Seth Avett’s guitar, The Bros made for a solid Friday headliner. People swayed with locked arms and sang along to “Head Full Of Doubt / Road Full Of Promise.” On “Live and Die” Seth Avett ripped a solo, running across the stage and spinning with his banjo.
Near the end of their set, they shook their fans’ hands while coming off the stage. Folk makes friends.
Campfire Party: Grey Season
If there’s anything the Boston Calling organizers could learn from Saturday afternoon, it’s this: A half-hour slot was much too short for this rollicking five-piece from Allston. While many other sets that afternoon left us checking our watches, locally grown Grey Season electrified the festival stage with finger-picking folk-rock, sweet a cappella harmonizing, and a shrieking “yee-hoo” or three.
The band spun through favorites like “Satellites” and “Mama, You Been On My Mind” from their 2014 debut Time Will Tell You Well. Yes, there was a banjo, and yes, a mandolin made an appearance, courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Chris (Gooch) Bloniarz and his spectacular afro. But the set was equal part singing around the campfire and equal part sizzling rock ‘n’ roll. Foot-stomping fun, Grey Season’s set felt like a warm country night and an Allston basement all in one. And if you’re lucky, they might just invite you over for more:
“Anybody live in Allston? For security reasons, we will not be stating our home addresses… but we do have nice houses.”
The Guy Most Excited To Be at Boston Calling: Skylar Spence
Well, “excited” might be an understatement.
Ryan DeRobertis, formerly known as Saint Pepsi and now Skylar Spence, literally skipped onto stage to take his place behind his keyboard and laptop. “I’m fucking stoked to be here,” he said mid-set before launching into “Fall Harder,” a bouncy, dreamy pop song that, as he unabashedly explained, he wrote before dropping out of Boston College.
He had a few dancey hooks for the audience to work with — particularly in nostalgic closer “Fiona Coyne” — but the supporting guitar and drums were just too heavy, drowning out any chance at an earworm. DeRobertis’ giddy stage presence didn’t exactly help; maybe it was intentional, but the vibe could only be described as “high school dance.”
The Hip-Hop Collective That Halted Construction: Doomtree
“Let’s act like we go to rock shows every fucking day,” one of Doomtree’s MCs, P.O.S., said to the crowd. He raised his hand in the air as Doomtree’s two DJs dropped the beat, fingers tapping away on their beatpads.
Doomtree is a seven-piece hip-hop group that represents increasingly rare elements of rap that were commonplace in the 90s and 2000s: multiple rappers, live production, singing interspersed with rapping, and the smoothness and unity you can only find in a group. On Saturday afternoon, they put all of those elements in motion.
Performing on the stage next to Government Center’s walled-off construction zone, a construction worker stopped to snap some pictures on his phone. “Fuck it — this is one of the perks today,” P.O.S. said, smiling and pointing to the new fan on the other side of the wall.
Perhaps their most impressive asset is female rapper Margret Wander, aka Dessa, who wowed the crowd with strong vocals and on-pitch singing (another rarity in hip-hop). For the one hip-hop act of the festival, Doomtree caught the crowd’s attention and held it for the entire set.
A Good Afternoon Nap: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Let’s put it this way: I’ve never seen so many people sitting down during a set at Boston Calling. With the band’s unaffected facial expressions and half-hearted strumming, you couldn’t blame ‘em. Where did Pavement go?
The Weirdo Who Abused His Equipment: Father John Misty
By now, everyone knows Father John Misty is a weird dude. And if you don’t know he’s a weird dude, you know he’s a weird dude after thirty seconds of watching him perform.
During the first song, “I Love You, Honeybear,” he:
- Jumped on his drummer’s kick drum
- Walked into the crowd and sang among outstretched hands
- Fell to his knees on stage
- Swung his mic stand around his shoulders and wrapped the cord around his neck
Much of a FJM set’s allure comes from the what’s he going to do next factor. At one point, he took a crowd member’s phone and took a selfie, staring into the camera of a festival videographer for what must have been ten or fifteen seconds, the strange scene projected on the big screen next to the stage. He sang the final line and said, “Okay, I think we got it.”
After he broke a string on his acoustic guitar, he tossed it off the stage to a stagehand, who nervously caught it.
“Having a bacchanalian festival?” Father asked the crowd. “Breaking all hitherto conventional norms? Gorging yourselves on pleasures? Yeah.”
Spaceship Funk: Chromeo
It’s hard to tell if Chromeo’s aesthetic is a joke or not. Then again, it doesn’t matter when you accidentally find yourself chanting along to the “Chrom-e-o” intro track and fist-pumping with Dave 1 as he prances around stage in ripped skinny jeans and a black leather jacket.
Also present? Glowing women’s legs under the keyboards, P-Thugg’s tiger-print Zubaz pants, flashing white lights, and (oh yeah) some pretty seductive and danceable beats, especially during “Jealous” and “Come Alive.” The duo’s attempts to get the already-animated crowd to bring it up from a “7.5” to a “10” were almost tongue in cheek, but they worked — girls climbed onto guys’ shoulders at Dave 1’s request, and P-Thugg got just what he asked for with his autotune pleas of “can I hear you scream?”
Much-needed Lady Power: CHVRCHES
Given that electro-pop group CHVRCHES’ new record, Every Open Eye, was hot off the press when they hit the stage Saturday night (it had just come out the day before), the show could have been a messy test-run of new material. It wasn’t.
Possibly the most powerful presence to grace the stage that day, frontwoman Lauren Mayberry belted out hits from The Bones of What You Believe — plus a few new tracks — as she strode and jumped across nearly every inch of the floor, punched the air, and swung the mic cord like a lasso. The highlight of the set came at the close with “The Mother We Share” and “Leave a Trace,” two of the catchiest vocal hooks the group has ever written.
Mayberry also wins the award for best stage banter of the weekend. “Do you guys want to know a secret? I’m sick and I have a little snot happening,” she said, promptly following up with an announcement that she was going to go blow her nose. Her self-deprecating humor continued when, later, she admitted that she had sung the demo lyrics of one of their new songs. Whoops. Don’t worry, nobody noticed.
The Headliners Who Hypnotized: alt-J
The most exciting thing happening on stage during alt-J’s headlining set was a colorful lightshow coming from a backdrop of suspended, rectangular panels. (That is, if you could even see the stage from the packed crowd.) The band was sparse with movement, instead deferring to the kaleidoscopic screens for “oomph.” Meanwhile, they engulfed Boston in their pensive, gentle rock.
Unlike Friday and Sunday’s lively headliners, alt-J gave a leisurely performance characterized by low tribal chants and ominous collisions of sound. High points included a brooding rendition of “Tessellate” and the rousing crescendo in “Fitzpleasure.” It might have just been me, but their live show felt like trekking through a jungle and eating bugs with your bare hands… in a good way.