Boston Calling 2018 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Boston Calling Music Festival

Boston Calling 2018,

Jun 01, 2018 Photography by Dóra Sári Web Exclusive
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Sometimes you have to take what you can get, and when it comes to music festivals, you can never get it all. With too many acts spread across too many stages, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

So, the chaotic magic of a Pussy Riot set might fall out the diary, languishing next to a missed opportunity to see a rapper long absent from New England or a rising hip-hop group effectively announcing on stage they’d kicked out a member accused of sexual misconduct. And as for the venue where Natalie Portman was holding court, there was no chance.

Don’t expect an account covering everything basically, because the laws of time and space make such an undertaking impossible. The best that can be managed is a selective journey through the ninth edition of Boston Calling, the three-day festival taking up residence on the sports fields next to Harvard Stadium for the second year in a row.

The 2018 lineup certainly comes with enough recognizable names, even if the headliners leave something to be desired. There’s nothing wrong with The Killers, Jack White, and Eminem as such; it’s more that the names closing out each night feel like they lost peak relevancy a decade and a half ago. This is music for the years immediately after we switched millenniums, not 2018. But you take what you can get right?

Before we get to the getting, a few reflections on the event itself. 2017, aside from almost being swept away by storms, was also awash with tales of poor organization. None of that was on display this year. Everything seemed to be running smoothly, too smoothly.

The audience was calm and collected, rarely turning reckless, rarely doing much of anything. An easy atmosphere ruled, trading energy for pleasantness. A tight run ship is nothing to be sniffed at of course. There were rarely lines for restrooms (if a plastic box truly counts as a room), drinks, food, or performances. Turning up only a short time before the start of an act was enough to get a spot near the front where only the smell of weed, an impressive collection of food oddities, and the occasional beach ball floating about punctured conversations.

What of the music though? When it comes to the headliners, there was sadly no time to watch the crowd react to a bona fide rap God (God in the Odin sense of once great influence and little current relevance), so The Killers and Jack White had to bear the load alone.

They did so with mixed success. No one can deny Brandon Flowers’ ‘80s flavored Las Vegas rock band can’t get a crowd going. Admittedly the best reactions followed Hot Fuss and Sam’s Town staples like “Mr. Brightside,” “When You Were Young,” and “Somebody Told Me.” All the teenagers who would have only been in single digits when those albums first surfaced went wild.

The songs are only part of the show. Flowers can sell anything, so infectious is his energy. Few performers look like they’re enjoying themselves as much. If he stood and read the terms and conditions on the festival tickets he’d have still received a cheer.

He’s not the only one on stage cranking the volume up to 11. Drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. appeared to be on the verge of a heart attack throughout. It’s probably why an audience member was invited to take over at the drum kit briefly. After a few more songs and Flowers disappearing to switch into a gold suit, they exited the stage leaving Vannucci chatting away, distributing drumsticks like confetti.

Jack White was always going to struggle the following night. It’s not that White isn’t a great musician, as he demonstrated repeatedly. It’s more that his crowd-pleasers come from White Stripes and Raconteurs records, not any of his solo work.

It turned into a patient waiting game as White played out the rest of the set to a subdued crowd mostly sticking around for “Seven Nation Army,” which came last. The famous opening chords sent everyone into the kind of frenzy sorely lacking from the rest of an otherwise competent set.

He wasn’t the only act to stand in front of a crowd with only one song anyone wanted to hear. Queens of the Stone Age at least had the decency to put “No One Knows” first, leaving everyone plenty of time to find something better to do. Portugal. The Man did a Jack White, keeping “Feel It Still” until the end, noodling about in experimental rock mode for over an hour before.

Not that noodling about on stage has to be a negative. Thundercat stood in front of a wet Sunday crowd and did just that, putting in a hell of a performance. His jazz-influenced tunes embrace indulgent solos while his crude and often very funny sense of humor stops it becoming a dry technical showcase.

The highlight came when he launched into a celebration of drunkenness, turning to last year’s Drunk to pay homage to inebriation. Everyone holding a drink was asked to raise it to heavens, which they all did before chugging away.

Thundercat has been rising rapidly of late. Annie Clark on the hand has firmly arrived. As St. Vincent, she’s been surfing a wave for several years now. MASSEDUCTION kept that going in 2017, and tracks from her fifth album went down as enthusiastically as the chilled cans of Sam Adams piling up on the floor.

Clark is a show-stopping performer with an eye for design. She went for a Crayola décor, emerging on stage in a bright orange outfit before cycling through several garish guitars and a few moments of freaky theater with masked figures creeping up behind her.

She’s also every bit as technically accomplished as anyone else at the festival with guitar in hand, and occasionally burst out of carefully managed constraints to show few can match her when she doesn’t want to be matched.

All of this is achieved without sacrificing the songs. Knowing how to work the crowd, the highlight was a repurposed “New York,” the opening verse updated to reference Boston landmarks, which begs the question, does she do this everywhere she plays, and can we have a mash-up version if the answer is yes?

As for the rest of the weekend, some respected names struggled, others shined, and the indie scene generally gave a fair account of itself. The National unfortunately fell into the former category.

Given songwriter Aaron Dessner co-curates the festival, it feels only right the band gets a slot, and they emerged Friday evening to an introduction from Natalie Portman. But The National isn’t a band made for sunny, wide open spaces. There’s nowhere for that dark, atmospheric and ever so insistent sound to reverberate off. It simply drifted into the weed filled night, carrying over to the starched proceedings across the river where Harvard alum were busy toasting past glories as part of their reunion weekend.

The songs remained good, even if it all felt a little flat out there on the repurposed sports fields. Much of the set covered last album Sleep Well Beast, and it didn’t inspire the crowd like the occasional forays into the past did. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Mr. November” got much warmer responses, although on the latter, singer Matt Berninger’s voice began to struggle, not quite rising to the rousing, profanity filled chorus.

Elsewhere, there was fun to be had watching Canadian quintet Alvvays roll through the hits from two records of tight pop/rock, and at the other end of the scale, Julien Baker pushed bravely forward alone on stage with a guitar despite an ill-thought through zone sponsored by IKEA threatening to drown her out with dance music.

Dave Longstreth appeared early on the final day as well, demonstrating the latest iteration of Dirty Projectors after it turned into a lonely-hearts break-up solo project last year. Now it’s a band again and he may have lost 20% of his set to technical difficulties but when they got going, the songs off the new record certainly augured well for the release of Lamp Lit Prose.

And then we come to The Decemberists. The Portland group don’t do much new (honorable exception being the New Order inspired direction a handful of songs off this year’s I’ll Be Your Girl go in) and they hardly count as a fresh new act.

That doesn’t stop Colin Meloy’s merry troupe from being a festival standout. The sheer enthusiasm distilled into upbeat/downbeat songs like “Everything Is Awful” and “We All Die Young” combines to brilliant effect with some of the best audience participation you’ll find at any show.

Where else do you get to play the part of a terrified sailor being eaten by a whale while a giant inflatable version of the great sea mammal floats back and forth in front of the stage? And as Meloy points out during another song about mining, you don’t get that kind of thematic material from Eminem. Throw in a song about Benjamin Franklin adapted from unused Hamilton lyrics and there’s no better way to close out a festival.

And that brings us to the end so it’s goodbye to Boston Calling. By most accounts, 2018 was a steadier ship than last year, and it got more right than wrong. If the festival can return to the same venue secure in the knowledge everything functions well, it might be time to push the lineup in more imaginative directions again. But that, as they say, is for another time.


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Faldas casuales
June 6th 2018

I want to go!!!