Co-written by Zoe Atlas

Boston Calling’s September 2014 show was a mix of pleasant surprises and scattered disappointments. On Saturday at 6pm, Boston Calling was put on hiatus and City Hall Plaza was evacuated as a thunderstorm rolled through. Everyone was told to leave and to monitor Facebook and Twitter for status updates about when—and if—the festival would go on. The show did go on, with Volcano Choir and Girl Talk falling as the only casualties. Here’s our take on the first two days:

FRIDAY

The man who was mad at his imaginary son: Future Islands’ Samuel Herring

It’s easy to forget there are two other guys on stage behind Samuel Herring, lead singer for synthpop three-piece Future Islands. Sometimes screamo, other times crooner, Herring is an entertainer extraordinaire. Herring and Co. kicked off Boston Calling on Friday with a multitude of dramatic gestures, dance moves, and growls over steady electro-pop.

As if he were a stern yet well-intentioned father upset with his son, while he sang, Herring wagged a finger in the air, wrote in the sky, pulled back, and slapped himself in the face.

Then, as he belted out fan-favorite “Seasons,” he extended his hand, imploring the pink plastic flamingo bobbing in the crowd in front of him to see his point.

Then, to everyone’s delight, he split his jeans. Boston Calling was off to a ripping start.

– JS

The unsettling classic: Neutral Milk Hotel

When Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel took the stage at Boston Calling on Friday night, he was alone. As he started to play, it was hard to hear him over the screams of the audience. Soon, however, his trademark odd, slightly nasally, and ultimately bewitching voice won the battle of sound over the crowd. Mangum stood and strummed his guitar without much movement and stoically belted out songs from the cult album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” looking very much like the statue of an icon demanding tribute. Luckily for those less familiar with the group’s songs, the set was livened up with the antics of the band, which included drums, guitars, trumpets, and a musical saw. Neutral Milk Hotel played song after song with minimal transitions, making their set itself feel like a concept album.

This performance was a gift for Neutral Milk Hotel’s fans. The band wasn’t asking anything from the audience or looking to convert the non-believers. Their lyrics (When you were young you were the king of carrot flowers / And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees / In holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet) were unapologetically strange. Whether you understood them or not, Neutral Milk Hotel had the power to make you feel a little bit like Alice in Wonderland, and when the set was over, City Hall Plaza felt a little less familiar.

– ZA

The band led by a poor man’s Bono: The National

Friday’s finale featured indie-rock band The National, who played sad songs on a hot summer night: dreary anthems suited better for the time of year when winter melts into mud-season. Whiny guitars and layered feedback coupled with strange, pixelated, and garbled images on the projection screens resulted in a mostly motionless crowd.

Band front man Matt Berninger came out wearing a suit, glasses, and what seemed to be the beginnings of a slicked-back mullet reminiscent of 80’s Bono. As Bono would, Berninger even mentioned a local charitable organization that the band partners with.

The highlight of the set was when Berninger made his way into the crowd, at least momentarily awakening the audience amidst the otherwise tiring show.

Kids fell asleep on the City Hall bricks. A golf clap rustled across the plaza. Attendees trickled out of the gates early.

– JS

SATURDAY

The hypnotic hometown kids: St. Nothing

Boston’s own electropop group St. Nothing kicked off Boston Calling on Saturday, and they drew a respectable crowd for the early afternoon start. Their dark pop beats and flashing lights didn’t quite mesh with the bright heat of the summer day, but they did their best to create a darker, more intimate ambiance, and they charmed the crowd with their happiness to be there.

“Some of these songs were written in a bedroom two years ago, and I never thought that I’d be playing them on this stage once in a million years,” said lead singer Marco Lawrence, pushing his floppy black hair out of his face to reveal a huge grin.

St. Nothing differentiated itself with surprises like well-placed viola solos, which added a sweetness to the music when it threatened to become too electronic. The looping choruses of songs such as “Keep” were hypnotic. St. Nothing’s ambient sound really begged for a more intimate venue and closed walls, but the exposure that Boston Calling gave them will hopefully expand their network of listeners, because this local band is one to watch.

-ZA

The band that brought the beach party: Clifflight

With beach balls volleying and the sun scorching, Boston electronic dance band Clifflight got the party started on Saturday by taking a shot of the crowd with a disposable camera and then tossing it to the fans.

“We make good music and tend not to give a fuck,” announced lead singer Cliff Kuhn-Lloyd as the band started playing their instantly catchy song “Do What You Want to Me.”

Though slightly flat and occasionally off-tempo, the energy these guys brought more than made up for their less-than-perfect performance. The drummer banged so hard on his set that a cymbal came loose and fell off. In between songs they threw coconut waters into the crowd, as well as the first Clifflight t-shirt ever made. We’re guessing that’s one to hold on to.

– JS

The guy who forgot about us: S. Carey

S. Carey drew hipsters like moths to a flame. Boys in plaid shirts and girls in horn-rimmed glasses braved the heat (which, at ninety degrees and with suffocating humidity, wasn’t easy) and pressed up against each other to get closer to the stage. However, S. Carey lacked the presence that preceded him. He sat down at the keyboard holding a Sierra Nevada IPA, which he sheepishly took swigs of in between songs. His voice was best suited to falsetto, which he matched well with the slow notes that he coaxed out of his keyboard. However, the atmosphere that his music might have created was sabotaged by his timidness—he almost seemed to wish that the spotlight would move to someone else.

“So uh, you guys excited for Volcano Choir later?” he asked, referencing his Bon Iver  bandmate Justin Vernon’s group, which was set to take the stage that evening. The crowd had started to talk amongst themselves, and only a few responded with cheers. The end of the set was livened up a bit by some floor tom drumming, but the fact that S. Carey’s back was to us as he beat his drum left us feeling a little lonely.

– ZA

The band that woke us up: Bleachers

Bleachers was like a big hug for the audience of Boston Calling. The band took the stage with little mirrors on all of their gear, reflecting back a sea of faces eager to not be disappointed. Lead singer Jack Antonoff (also the lead guitarist of the band Fun.) was more like a band conductor than a singer, waving his hands enthusiastically to direct a crowd that seemed happy to be fed his music. Antonoff may have been a little cocky with his stage banter, but he was just what a sleepy Boston Calling needed to wake up after a few slow sets.

– ZA

Lorde: All hail the entertainer

The crowd that gathered to see 17-year-old New Zealand singer Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor (a.k.a. Lorde) was probably the biggest that had assembled for any act yet. This was saying something, given that she was the first to perform after the chaos of the storm.

“There’s a humming in the restless summer air / and we’re slipping off the course that we prepared” she sang, starting off with “Glory and Gore” and mirroring the general feeling of the night. She whipped her mane of hair and clawed her way through the air as she moved through her set, looking as if she was possessed by some inner demon.

Lorde had some extra help—in addition to a drummer and keyboard player, her own double-tracked voice backed her up. However, her focus was only partly on the music itself—Lorde is an entertainer. She drove this point home when she changed into a sheer red belly dancer-esque outfit to perform her hit “Royals,” complete with a red cape and golden crown. Lorde is a character. We got to see a little bit of the real girl behind the dark purple lipstick and wild hair in between songs when she thanked the crowd repeatedly for sticking around after the storm. Although her theatrics elicited some scoffing from the audience (“Flatter me more, Lorde…”), they only moved closer to the stage as the night went on. Lorde has received nine awards and 58 nominations, and, based on this performance, she deserves the hype.

– ZA

The writer turned comedian, turned actor, turned rapper who conjured the crowd surfers: Childish Gambino

If you can get past lyrics like, “Fly girl on her knees, she don’t wanna come near me / My dick is too big, there’s a big bang theory,” then Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, is an extraordinarily engaging performer. Skipping from one end of the stage to the other, Saturday’s headliner had hands in the air and people crowd surfing. Gambino wore an unbuttoned shirt that eventually came off during “Heartbeat.”

“He’s hot,” said one girl.

“Wow,” said another.

As any good rapper should, Gambino has his trademark intro-filler grunt noise down. (Jay-Z has “uh-huh,” Kanye has his ubiquitous and often annoying “hah” noise.) In his case, it’s is more of a high-pitched squawk, but, nevertheless, the crowd ate it up.

Though he could have counted off and squawked a dozen times fewer, Gambino closed out Saturday on a high note. The crowd surfers descended from raised hands, and fans left invigorated.

– JS

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