The final Boston Calling in City Hall Plaza was a tale of two temperatures. You could have fried your Tasty Burgers on the pavement in the sizzling Saturday afternoon heat, but by Sunday evening we were chasing the Dunkin’ Donuts truck in hopes of scoring some hot chocolate.
The Surprise Hometown Hero: Michael Christmas
Who would have thought the Sunday opener would have the crowd shouting for an encore? Boston-born rapper Michael Christmas, at age 22, made the most of the opportunity to play for his city.
His short set was packed with whirlwind songs, many clocking in at less than three minutes, like “Cell Phone,” one of many festival odes to the cell phone. “Michael Cera,” the irreverent, silly song Christmas is best known for, closed the set. The day was certainly his, but he shared it with his friends. All of them: The seemingly endless stream of friends, hype men, and photographers that entered the stage reached the point of absurdity. It just wouldn’t subside, becoming a comical distraction. But ultimately, it was endearing; Boston Calling’s reverence for local acts is unique, and that leads to some touching moments. “We used to get kicked out of the Burger King over there.” he told the crowd. Now he was on stage in City Hall Plaza, and he was going to share that with anybody who helped him along the way.
The Band That Brought Their Dancing Shoes: Christine and the Queens
Maybe there’s something magical about the 1:30 slot, but Christine and the Queens slayed it early Sunday afternoon, like Lizzo had 24 hours prior. Sporting slick grey pinstripe slacks and classy white tee’s, Héloïse Letissier and her band delivered an electric performance in English, French, and in the universal language of electric dance moves. The weekend’s most athletic backup dancers performed everything from silky smooth moonwalking across the stage and liquid-like contortions of their limbs to back flips with huge air and breakdancing. One of the many artists to call for acceptance and equality throughout the weekend, Letissier called out “let’s get quirky” before joining her dancers for some Egyptian-esque neck bobbing.
The Psychedelic Soulsters: Unknown Mortal Orchestra
New Zealander Ruban Nielson wore his guitar like a Soviet Kalashnikov, nonchalantly draped over his right rather than left shoulder, like a soldier on patrol. One of the most talented guitarists in indie music today, Nielson nimbly plays with his claw-like fingers while soulfully singing. But on Sunday, his airy coolness seemed equal parts indifference.
He hit the last note of “So Good at Being in Trouble,” performed a singular spin, and ended on the floor, sipping Red Bull while the delay from his guitar decayed. His Fender guitar, modified by the work of a significant pedalboard, ended up sounding tinny and at times too drenched in reverb. And his vocals, never his forte, seemed strained and tired after weeks of touring.
“Multi-Love,” with baroque pop synth provided by Quincy McCrary and a spastic hip-hop drum fill from Riley Geare, delighted the crowd, as a single should. “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” the third song of the weekend all about phones, did the same. Still, UMO’s set had some people checking their phones.
The Overhyped Rapper: Vince Staples
Vince Staples is part human, part trope. He entered the stage bouncing like the Energizer bunny. His lanky, loping gait took him from one side of the stage to the other and riled up the crowd, as did his shouts of “Bounce! Bounce! Bounce!”
But as the set went on, the incitement to “bounce,” “jump,” and “put your hands up” seemed trite. When Staples said, “This is fun – I’m having fun,” it wasn’t quite convincing. He oscillated between going through the motions of hip-hop performance, and standing listlessly at the mic. He encouraged the crowd to chant “Fuck the police,” which, 28 years after NWA, is certainly a hip-hop trope (regardless of its validity). After the elaborate performance of Lizzo, Staples simple get-up – just him and his DJ/hype man – seemed disappointing.
Bouts of languidness aside, Staples provided a few bursts of intensity, like on “Birds and Bees,” from the acclaimed Summer ’06. The repetition of “Birds and bees, they’ll never fuck with me,” and “They found another dead body in the alleyway,” became impassioned cries, far more fervent than on the album. “Norf Norf,” with the repetition of “I ain’t never ran from nothing but the police,” provided similar fervor. Throughout it all, Staples never smiled. But who’s to say he should?
The Band That Brought The Hoe Down: These Wild Plains
If they hadn’t been at the local stage, you might have thought These Wild Plains had come straight from the rodeo. The all-male quintet had more hair and slide guitar than any of the other acts at the festival, and though they were lacking variety in the roles of their three guitars, their old-fashioned foot-stompers were infectiously energetic.
The Act With the Most Pelvic Thrusts: Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires
Charles Bradley and his band were nothing short of extraordinary, seizing the stage for 50 minutes of fiery soul. Bradley howled and growled while busting out a few sensual dance moves, including licking his finger and sliding it down his exposed chest while throwing in a few pelvic thrusts, doing his inspiration James Brown proud. The calisthenics he put his vocal chords through were impressive for a man of any age, let alone a senior citizen. Not to be forgotten was his mean rhythm section, highlighted by a smooth bass and an agile trumpet.
The Band With the Rabid Fans: The Front Bottoms
The Front Bottoms might not have had the biggest crowd of the day, but they might have had the most enthusiastic, receiving frenetic jumping and finger-pointing for the entire set. Lead singer and rhythm guitarist Brian Sella soaked it all in with an aloof playfulness.
The Token Country-Crossover Act: Elle King
Boston Calling prides itself on versatility and it’s something-for-everyone approach to the summer festival. As a result, Elle King was the token country act. The singer of crossover hits like “Ex’s and Oh’s,” she was the perfect alternative act for the spot.
By the end of her set, her endearing public drunkenness and witty banter, as well her strong (if cartoonishly-timbred) vocals had accrued some converts. “I don’t really know what it is about this town,” King wondered openly. “I can’t really lie – I’m always drunk here.” Before nearly every song she gave an introduction as way of explanation. Usually, she shared what inspired her to write the song – “Nobody writes a mean song about Elle King so I wrote this song,” to respond to an ex-lover’s song; “I only have been broken up with once and it will never fucking happen again, but I wrote this song”; or “Any of you ever have your feelings hurt by a woman?” before “Good For Nothin Woman.”
As she sipped what appeared to be whisky she said matter-of-factly, “Yes I’m a hillbilly – It’s nice to be the only white trash person here.” She knew just what to say to a New England audience.
The Everytown Rock Band: Black Beach
The third stage may have been a blunder. For 2017, Boston Calling will relocate to Harvard’s Athletics Complex in Allston, but in an effort to make 2016 novel too, they added the third stage. But there just wasn’t enough space. During Saturday’s third stage set from Lady Pills, the noise of Miike Snow created overwhelming sonic clutter.
That wasn’t the case for Black Beach, though. Their form of loud, punk-tinged rock had no problem competing with the coinciding main stage. A basic trio – vocals/guitar, bass, drums – Black Beach is the Boston incarnation of an Everytown, USA band: basic rock music in the era after punk. They won a smattering of applause from the minority of viewers, particularly for the driving and chugging of “Rats,” a decent punk track. Otherwise, they provided mostly noise, noise, noise.
“So we prepared a set, but we finished it super fast so now we have like 13 minutes to kill,” reported bassist Ben Semeta. It wasn’t a big deal – they discussed for a few moments before launching into another song – but Black Beaches were a little short of ready for primetime.
The Singer We Want Back Next Year: Janelle Monáe
Temperatures had been falling all afternoon, but Janelle Monáe warmed everyone back up with a rousing Motown-inspired set. She promised a performance to remember after being wheeled onto the stage strapped to a dolly — and she didn’t disappoint. The band was as tight as could be and Monáe’s vocals were both heartfelt and technically flawless. Perhaps no song displayed her vocal prowess better than a blistering cover of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” With an earnestness and confidence some of our nation’s leaders are currently lacking, Monáe called on the crowd to “choose freedom over fear,” and the audience seemed ready to follow her to the ends of the earth.
The Chart-Topping Rockers: Haim
Wearing black and white under leather jackets, the three sisters of Haim joined their two backing musicians on stage, looking the part of rock stars. The audience buzzed, equal parts excitement and murmurings of “How do you pronounce Haim?”
Haim’s palatable pop rock ranged from the R&B-influenced hook and 80s pop of “If I Could Change Your Mind,” to the programmed percussion of “My Song 5,” to the pop riot grrrl gang vocals of “Honey and I.” Sprinkled in was an obligatory Prince tribute – an arena rock rendition of “I Would Die 4 U” with the assistance of Christine and the Queens dancing behind them – and two new songs. The saccharine, sock hop hook of “Give Me Just a Little of Your Love” flopped, but the multi-layered vocals and powerfully repetitive lyrics of “Nothing’s Wrong” made for a success.
But what the crowd really wanted was Haim’s biggest hit – “The Wire.” And they got it, with the addition of a strange mid-song breakdown that included a timpani performance from the three sisters, reminiscent of my own idea of what a dreaded Blue Man Group performance would entail (sans paint). Ultimately, they gave a performance fitting of a mainstream rock band – polished pop with a rock n’ roll sheen.
The USS Enterprise Houseband: Disclosure
The weekend ended with a bang, as the British duo got more dancing and screaming out of the crowd than any other of the weekend’s acts. When not grooving in front of their half-drum-sets-half-spaceship-consoles, the musicians were using Charles Bradley’s strategy of occasionally yelling “Boston” into their microphones, drawing an exuberant response from the glowstick-waving horde.