In a male-dominated art form, even the females on stage are too often only dancing and singing. Not only did Friday and Saturday’s lineups feature seven female-fronted acts, but those acts included hip-hop artist Lizzo and rock guitarist Courtney Barnett, carving out more spaces for women on the musical stage.
The Most Esoteric Acoustic Instruments: Lisa Hannigan and Aaron Dressner
The quietest but best balanced show of day one, Hannigan’s voice rang out loud and clear over the backing from her bandmates. The nuances of her tone, slightly rugged phrase entrances and Irish brogue were front and center. The Boston Calling stage was an atypical venue for Hannigan’s ukulele and oud, but she stuck to her strengths and delivered an air-tight performance. Dressner’s solos matched her singing style — his acoustic picking was slightly electrified by his amp, evoking Hannigan’s voice.
The Most Eclectic Peoples’ Rock Star: Sufjan Stevens
Only Sufjan Stevens could execute such a highly choreographed yet down to earth performance. “I just finished touring around the world singing songs about death and loneliness,” Sufjan explained as way of introduction. “So if you don’t mind we’d like to have a little fun tonight.”
And Sufjan and his band did have fun, wearing matching neon track suits; dancing across the stage in a silver costume adorned with balloons of every shape and size; and performing kitschy hand-dances in unison, oddly reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite. Still, Sufjan and his crew – a horn section, drummer, multi-instrumentalists, and two backup singers/dancers – didn’t entirely forgo the gloom of Carrie & Lowell, though they added an Age of Adz era multimedia spin.
The visuals oscillated between archival family video and 80’s 2.0 animations, depending on the song. The dancing was choreographed, yet loose, fun above all else. And the music was nearly impeccable, especially “Impossible Soul,” which at nearly 25 minutes included Sufjan climbing an elaborate, silver set of stairs to stand high above and serenade the crowd with auto-tuned vocals. Even when Sufjan stammered (“Oh shit – I forgot the lyrics”), it was more than forgivable. It was a welcome reminder that Sufjan still is, as he always has been, the everyman’s indie rock star.
The Trip to the Ballet: Sia
Sia’s performance was too unique to be critiqued in comparison to any of the festival’s other acts. She stood motionless in the back corner of the stage in her signature display of anonymity, the subtle movement of her lips the one sign she wasn’t a statue. With her completely pre-recorded backing tracks, the main attraction on stage was Sia’s crew of dancers, including Maddie Ziegler, whose live acrobatics synced impeccably with the videos displayed on screens on either side of the stage. Sia’s vocals, while sometimes doubled with a pre-recorded track, soared beautifully, and the crowd accepted her unusual performance style without judgement, exuberantly waving their (Jet) blue glow sticks throughout.
Most Likely to Give Your Local Band a Shoutout: Palehound
Palehound, this year’s top-billed local act, has proven their spot on the festival circuit – local or not. Ellen Kempner – the creative spirit behind the Allston-based act – brought her subtly impressive guitar work and bashful vocals to the Boston Calling main stage. With a green guitar that matched her long, spring green skirt, Kempner didn’t seem out of place on the big red stage.
And while a 12:55 start time meant a small crowd, it wasn’t that small. Palehound kept the crowd engaged, particularly with the jangly “Cinnamon” and off-kilter humor of “Pet Carrot” (“I’ve got a pet Carrot/My best friend is a parrot”). Before finishing the short set, Kempner took a moment to reflect: “I moved here a little less than two years ago not really knowing anyone and the local scene here accepted me with very open arms,” she said. “If you don’t know anything about it you should check it out.” The scene has supported Palehound, but they have certainly given back.
The One That Preached Empowerment: Lizzo
Lizzo is a Minneapolis-based “feminist, humanist, fat girl,” and most importantly, entertainer. Flanked by two dancers – the “big grrrls” – and backed by Sophie Eris – her hypewoman, DJ, and talented MC in her own right – Lizzo gave an empowering and radical performance.
Wearing what appeared to be a photographer’s vest, Lizzo and the “big grrrls,” dressed in revealing, black netting, danced to every track. Occasionally they were joined by two accessory members of the squad – equipped with gold-painted squirt guns – to shower the heat-stroke prone crowd. On “En Love,” dedicated to fellow Minneapolitan Prince, the soulful repetition of “I think I’m in love,” got turned on its head when the trap beat dropped and the sentence got completed (“I think I’m in love…with myself!”). On “Humanize,” she returned to spirited singing, proving herself to be just as capable as an MC and songstress, sermonizing, “I try to try, to see the love through human eyes.”
On the more fierce trap tracks, like “Batches and Cookies” as well as Lizzo’s rap over TNGHT’s “Easy Easy,” she stood sternly center stage. Lizzo is a talented performer, but every time she appeared severe, she also seemed to be wiping a smile off of her face. Joy and exultation come easier to her. As she said herself, she’s a “feminist, humanist, fat girl,” – and that is pretty radical.
The Futurists: Battles
Battles had a tough act to follow in Lizzo, whose performance stole the afternoon. While their sound is similar in intensity to Lizzo’s, the fact that the guitarists spend a good chunk of time pouring over synths and pedals takes away from the energy of the performance.
Drummer John Stanier was the most impressive of the three, pounding away with zeal for 40 minutes and seamlessly leading the band’s trademark abrupt rhythmic transitions.
The Violinist Who Played Hard Rock Solos: Nemes
Tucked around the corner of City Hall on the local stage, Nemes were hard to find — and hard to hear, as a lot of their sound was drowned out by The Vaccines across the plaza. But Nemes ignored the distractions and put on a passionate show that was impressively tight considering the interference from The Vaccines. Vocal harmonies were balanced nicely and their frontman was absolutely shredding on his violin, which acts as lead guitar for the otherwise traditional four piece rock band.
Most Likely to Be Heckled By Mark Kozelek: The Vaccines
It isn’t summer festival season without Mark Kozelek (aka Sun Kil Moon) heckling somebody. If he had been here this weekend, the recipient of his wrath would have been the Vaccines – the London-based purveyors of “beer commercial guitar rock.”
They took the stage looking the part – a major label recreation of post-punk revival in the sartorial tradition of Joy Division. After nearly every song lead guitarist Freddie Cowan, and occasionally lead vocalist and guitarist Justin Hayward-Young, changed guitars, directing a parade of expensive instruments that was, at times, more intriguing than the songs themselves.
Well-composed tracks like “Dream Lover” and “Post Breakup Sex” didn’t disappoint, and the crowd seemed to know the words. The music was polished and precise, the guitar tone impeccable. In other words, it was a bore. The Vaccines’ 50s-pop- and 80s post-punk-tinged fair is certainly non-offensive, but since when is rock music meant to be non-offensive?
Song of the Day: BØRNS
BØRNS took to the stage as we hit hour of five of near skin-melting temperatures on the plaza-turned-skillet. But BØRNS’ head-bobbing pop tunes were the perfect balance of energy to keep people alive and chill enough to make sure that not too many people got heatstroke. The crowd stayed out in the rays for their entire set, and “Electric Love” was one of the most well-received songs of the day.
The Cool Australian: Courtney Barnett
For an artist known for her lyricism, Courtney Barnett didn’t have a whole lot to say. Over the course of her band’s 50-minute set, she didn’t say more than a few impassioned “heys,” “yeahs,” “thanks,” and “wows.” Despite it, or maybe all the more for it, she seemed effortlessly cool. With a 70s revival haircut and Chelsea boots she thrashed at her left-handed Fender Jaguar with her multi-color fingernails, at one point ending up on her back, still flailing away at her guitar.
Barnett may not add a whole lot to the 90’s-rock revival du jour, but her Australian-accent and eclectic lyricism do just enough to put her apart from the rest. Over formulaic verses, typically consisting of two chords, Barnett let her sardonic tongue run wild. Unfortunately, witty lyricism doesn’t always make for good rock festival material. Backed by Bones Sloane on bass and Dave Mudie on drums, Barnett and her band occasionally drifted towards same-songy rock n’ roll normality.
Barnett was at her best on the more subdued songs on which her lyrics were more discernible. The quotidian minutiae of “Depreston,” including her discussion of making coffee, only added to her nonchalant coolness, as did her singing on “Pedestrian at Best” (“Give me all your money and I’ll make some origami honey”) as she kicked her boot back behind her.
Time To Hide In the Shade: Miike Snow
Maybe I was just too tired and had done too much sweating, but I found myself losing interest during the Miike Snow set. Each song was not much more than a heavy beat and some ephemeral chords in the background, and lead singer Andrew Wyatt’s admission of a case of bronchitis explained the lackluster vocal performances.
Those here for Miike Snow at the front of the stage definitely enjoyed the performance, but those towards the back seemed less engaged and started to migrate to grab spots for Odesza’s set as the end of Miike Snow’s drew nearer.
The Musical Bubble Bath: Odesza
Do I understand the appeal of live electronic music? No, I do not. But the rest of the audience did, as Odesza’s sensual sonic bubble bath inspired some of the day’s most exuberant dancing. The duo laid down their beats with precision. Wailing away on their kits, the duo made sure to not step on each others shoes, acting out a percussive tango. A trumpet, guitar and trombone provided some organic sounds as the sun began to fade behind the horizon.
The Overhyped Pop Star Headliner: Robyn
Just hours before Robyn took the stage – dressed in a red Adidas tracksuit, large enough that it served as a dress – a press release went out: Robyn’s set would include nine remixes of her songs, to be released later this month. But the hype may have backfired. The crowd only receded as the monotonous set dragged on (one deserter exclaiming as he left, “She’s having more fun than all of us”).
Robyn started the evening at the mic stand, which was inexplicably adorned with a wig, though she quickly moved down to dance between the funhouse-esque mirrors that flanked the platform. After the elaborate productions of Sufjan and Sia, Robyn’s mirrors and few, dilapidated heart- and star-shaped balloons were underwhelming. The deep house-tinged set was track after track of four-to-the-floor club beats. An occasional arpeggiated synth added variety, but generally, the slowly unfurling house remixes didn’t pack the necessary instant gratification a festival headliner requires.
As Robyn exited the stage, with time remaining in her set, it was truly unclear whether she would take an unorthodox festival encore. The lights stayed on, went off, only to go on again – teasing the crowd until they ultimately revealed the rodent-like men in black unplugging equipment. It was a fittingly disappointing finale.