Co-written by Jenna Buckle

On Friday evening, Boston Calling Music Festival sputtered to a start with singer-songwriter Cass McCombs. The artist’s lack of involvement in the performance was apparent, and the show was, sadly, a bit underwhelming. The one sign that someone was enjoying the set was a lone fan who held up his fingers in “rock on” formation. Luckily for us, however, the rest of the night was packed with a surprising amount of band-audience interaction, from passing on the mic to crowd members to inviting them to share the stage.

Saturday, on the other hand, had a running start with the explosive energy of Boston’s own Magic Man. Although a few acts faltered, a solid finale with longtime-favorites Death Cab for Cutie left the crowd buzzing. It was no mistake that the festival’s third installment — featuring a stacked line-up of mostly indie rock and indie folk artists — drew in its largest attendance yet.

 

The band that blew us away: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

Though McCombs left behind an uninterested crowd, Edward Sharpe’s uplifting “40 Day Dream” awakened the snoozers and had the crowd clapping along. Lead singer Alex Ebert had to wait for the audience to echo his “ooh ah ahhs,” but his patience paid off — he successfully coaxed the crowd into sharing his enthusiasm.

Ebert was the closest thing to a Boston musician that came onstage Friday night. He explained his connection to the city (“Right around the time I lived in Boston, I started saying the word ‘asshole’ a lot. That was my nickname for everybody…”) before diving into “Up From Below,” explaining that the song’s third verse is “for all those who treat each other like dirt.”

From the band’s wild tribal dancing to Ebert high-fiving audience members and even jumping into the photo pit, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros managed to shake the Boston crowd out of a Cass McCombs-induced lull. At one point, Ebert gave the mic to a redheaded fan in a yellow raincoat, who sang some off-key verses as he sat on the stage, smiling like a proud father.

Among favorites like “Home” and “Man on Fire” was a performance of “Truth,” a recent solo release from Ebert. But if they’d meant to give us a carefully crafted set that Friday night, it didn’t seem like it. This was a performance that ended quicker than anyone expected — Ebert included. With two minutes to go, he mused, “How much time we got? That’s it? Shit.” We hate to use clichés, but time flies when you’re having fun.

 

The band that took audience interaction to the next level: Jack Johnson

When a guy like Jack Johnson saunters onto stage, you don’t really expect many surprises. His songs often follow the same recipe, transporting you to the salty breeze off the coast of some sandy beach. “So, this is what you guys call summer?” he asked the sweatshirt-clad Boston crowd. (You’re telling us, Jack?)

Despite the thick red scarf wrapped around the drummer’s neck, the band managed to shake off the cold with a steady journey that stopped at classic hits of the last decade, including “Bubble Toes,” “Taylor,” and “If I Had Eyes.” Still, Johnson threw a few surprises into the mix — like the guest rapping in “Staple It Together;” the chilled-out covers of Buddy Holly’s “Fade Away” and Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released;” and allowing a fan to join him onstage to play “Banana Pancakes.” Yep, that happened. The girl with the “Let me play Banana Pancakes” sign kept her calm as she strummed along with the band. As Johnson picked up his shoes (naturally, he was barefoot throughout the set), the good people of Boston cheered the band off stage.

 

 

The band from Boston that felt right at home: Magic Man

If rising local band Magic Man had any jitters as they kicked off Saturday in front of their largest crowd to date, it didn’t show. Between singer Alex Caplow trampolining across the stage and the band’s buoyant synth-rock, they made spirits soar as the sun blazed down on City Hall Plaza. “I can’t express how good it feels to be here right now in our hometown,” said Alex, dressed in his usual tucked in button-down. With the audience’s hands in the air clapping along, the Boston-based band had no trouble making the jump to a festival gig. They ripped through a bubbly, propulsive set, playing tunes like “Texas” and “Every Day” from their 2013 EP, You Are Here. Even though Alex’s lungs seemed to be losing steam as they closed with the popular “Paris,” the frontman’s relentless flailing, tinkling melodies from keyboardist Justine Bowe, and dazzling punches of synth managed to pump up the city more than most of the other artists on the bill that day. Good to be home, indeed.

 

The band that was the most overhyped: Warpaint

There’s been a lot of talk about Warpaint in the music world. This Californian act has been showered with compliments by NPR Music and in British zines lying around at Rough Trade. Having recently seen HAIM at House of Blues, it’s hard not to compare Warpaint to their fellow LA-based female rockers. And while both acts have constructed quite a distinct image for themselves, it seems that what Warpaint lacks in personality they try to make up for with aqua-green hair dye. Sorry, ladies, we know that not many can live up to Este-style banter, but at the very least clean up the act — plodding through a live set just won’t cut it.

 

 

The band that roused Mother Nature: The Head and the Heart

From Josiah Johnson’s emotive vocals to the warm, bittersweet ripples of violin, it was no wonder that there was a change of skies during The Head and the Heart’s indie-folk set. In between “Down in the Valley” and “Rivers and Roads,” the rain looming over the day’s forecast couldn’t hold off any longer. A light drizzle began to coat the crowd, as if Mother Nature’s very own reaction to the passion (and yes, the heart) that the band poured into the performance.

But the weather’s mood wasn’t the only thing that changed. Slight tempo swings — like on the faster “Homecoming Heroes” and the slowed-down “Coeur D’Alene” — provided an interesting touch for those familiar with the recorded versions of the songs. And perhaps the most heartwarming sight onstage was drummer Tyler Williams: his cosmic grin never let up as he pounded out rhythms, even swapping out drumsticks for a maraca and a tambourine quicker than you could pull the hood of your raincoat over your head.

 

The band that made teenage dreams come true: Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie have their live show down pat. After years on the road, the seasoned indie rockers can practically breeze through a set in their sleep. (And I’ll be damned if that set doesn’t include Ben Gibbard performing “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” to a barricade of cellphones.) This predictability made them a good choice for the Saturday headliner; even an average Death Cab show is a crowd pleaser.

Following an eruption of applause as they took the stage, the band launched into the instrumental intro of “I Will Possess Your Heart,” building suspense layer-by-layer over a looping bass riff. Dark red, blue, and white lights flashed as fog obscured their faces, until finally Gibbard’s vocals cut through. Old-school skater sweatband and all (which Gibbard later chucked into the audience to a lucky fan), the frontman crooned his way through the rest of the song. Forget Gibbard’s side-to-side sway, though: bassist Nick Harmer was the true rockstar of the night with his sharp, animated movements.

The set list that followed spanned the band’s discography. Aside from a minor stop-and-start during “Doors Unlocked and Open,” Death Cab kept the melodies flowing for an hour and a half comprised of mostly singles. Although hopes of hearing the band’s less-popular material went unfulfilled, this should have been expected at a festival for the masses. But who’s complaining? For the teens (and for those of us nostalgic teens-at-heart), it was exactly the dose of pop-rock heartache needed to close out Saturday.

 

A recap of Sunday’s events to come soon.

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