10 Things We Loved at Boston Calling: September 2013


boston calling september

I moved to Brooklyn a little over a month ago, and nothing has made me miss my Boston hometown as much as this weekend at Boston Calling. Especially after coming off the unmitigated clusterfuck that was Philly’s Made in America, it fills me with great pride to come from a town that can come together and make an event like this such a rousing success.

Credit is due most of all to the organizers. Beyond being kind, well-organized, and helpful, they’re smart as hell. I’m amazed at how often veteran festivals continue to make stupid infrastructure mistakes that damage the festival experience. Coming off the May edition, the folks behind Boston Calling learned, and adapted. They switched to an opposite-facing stage setup, alleviating the uncomfortable crowd corralling of May by allowing for easier flow of foot-traffic and more open space. The May entrance caused a massive backup in front of Government Center station, so they flipped it to the other side of the festival. They even made life easier on media folks, with a more convenient media area and spacious photo pits at both stages. “If there’s one thing Boston is,” my girlfriend wisely stated, “it’s smart.”

Boston Calling Crowd 9(If there were one thing the festival still needs, its some sort of free water refill station. Temperatures may have been cool, but recent events have taught us that if you’re going to have a day heavily focused on EDM and dance, you need to be prepared. To be fair, they offset some of the lack of refill stations by handing out bottles of water to the crowd, and EMS and security teams were a constant presence on site.)

They even tightened up their scheduling. May had a little bit of everything spread across the two days, but the fall edition separated the days into indie/rock (Saturday) and dance/pop/Kendrick Lamar (Sunday), making it easier for one-day ticket buyers to decide which day to attend. Regardless, the audience both days were the best kinds of festival crowds: those that recognizes everyone is there to have a good time, and being anything but considerate is just a hinderance. The new stage arrangement also led to near perfect set overlap, making it essentially impossible to miss a single performance.

Even the weather held nicely, far better than the unbearable cold and rain of May. With blue skies above, great music bouncing back and forth across the usually dreary City Hall Plaza, and friendly crowds, there was no better welcome back to The Hub for this returning emigrant than Boston Calling, and no better end to my festival season. Keep calling me back, Beantown; you know I’ll answer.

–Ben Kaye
Assistant News Editor

You might say You Won’t, but you definitely will

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Opening up the main stage was perhaps Boston’s most prominent duo, You Won’t. Devotees were scooping out territory before Viva Viva had even opened the day over on the other side of the festival, a clear sign of the following guitarist/singer Josh Arnoudse and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Raky Sastri have spurred in their hometown. Their blend of folk and indie pop came off somewhere between The Tallest Man on Earth and The Walkmen, complete with melodica, harmonium, and even wind chimes. While Sastri bounced between every instrument imaginable, Arnoudse’s pinched vocals carried songs like “Three Car Garage” and stomp-clap closer “Television”. As much as the crowd adored the band, the band showed their love to friends and fellow performers Lucius. “Pick one of the attractive people in Lucius and stalk them through the day,” Arnoudse advised. “And if you find me, I’ll help you go home with them.” –Ben Kaye

Okkervil River opens up The Silver Gymnasium

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Photo by Thomas Hardy

Stepping into the sunlight, Will Sheff and Okkervil River proudly debuted new tunes from their latest Top Star-earning The Silver Gymnasium. Opener “It Was My Season” fondly recollects a forgotten youth spent in the New Hampshire countryside, just a quick drive north into the mountains. Okkervil River used this precious festival time to show off the sunnier side of their catalog (exception being “For Real,” the lone representative from 2005’s grim masterpiece Black Sheep Boy). Dedicating half of their set to fleshing out new songs in a live setting, the other half stuck to greatest hits. No fan could argue with the concluding one-two punch of “Lost Coastlines” and “Unless It’s Kicks,” but the new songs held their weight. “Stay Young,” a custom-tailored tune for wide open spaces (festival grounds among them), connected cleanly with a crowd just beginning to fully wake up. –Thomas Hardy

Deer Tick sink their teeth into Negativity

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Much like they did at their final Newport Folk Festival after-show this year, Deer Tick devoted their entire set to their upcoming record, Negativity. “We’re gonna do our new album top to back,” frontman John McCauley told the crowd after opener “The Rock,” “and you have no say in the matter.” It was a gutsy move, to be sure, playing the new record for a festival crowd, but one that paid great dividends with the receptive audience.

“Trash” was an alluring, bluesy open-road song, and “Thyme” took a sexy stroll down a dark hallway with drummer Dennis Ryan at the lead, showing the group’s versatility. Vanessa Carlton even made an appearance for “In Our Time”, a duet McCauley clearly delighted in with his constant smile. After the show-stopping swagger of “Pot of Gold”, Deer Tick managed to squeeze in a cover of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)”, plus their own hits “Main Street” and “Ashamed”.

The Rhode Island rockers may be at the peak of their performance game, coming off as confident and tight as ever, even on the new jams. If there’s ever been a time to get bitten by the Deer Tick, um, tick, it’s right now. –Ben Kaye

Local Natives got introduced by Boston’s mayor…

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Photo by Ben Kaye

… and wouldn’t shut up about it. “You can’t ask for a better introduction than that!” Kelcey Ayer proclaimed. “This set is dedicated to Mayor Menino,” Taylor Rice declared. Menino came out with the aid of a cane to thank the crowd and celebrate the moment, but his introduction of Local Natives is something the band clearly won’t ever forget. “I still can’t get over the mayor introducing us,” Rice gushed amid a setlist that culled equally from Hummingbird and Gorilla Manner. “We’ve never had the mayor of the city we’re playing introduce us before. So you’re our first time!” Then, again, somewhere near “Heavy Feet” and “Colombia”, Ayer stepped to the mic to cry, “The mayor introduced us! Do you remember that?!” It was cute, really, watching the L.A. boys get so hyped over our fair city’s mayor welcoming them to the stage. With impassioned sing-alongs to “Airplanes” and their cover of “Warning Sign”, and of course their requisite “Sun Hands” closer, it’s safe to say the Beantown crowd would welcome them back anytime.  –Ben Kaye

Bat for Lashes unrivaled synth pop

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Photo by Thomas Hardy

Natasha Khan’s moody, atmospheric synth pop outfit Bat for Lashes proved why her music and on-stage persona are peerless. Bedecked in a rainbow gown, Khan twirled and gestured playfully, calling and howling at the yet-hidden moon. Subtle nuances in arrangement cleverly built up a stadium-sized din, including the usage of the always-underrated theremin. Range is absolutely Bat for Lashes’ strong suit. Just as Khan’s garb portrayed the full spectrum of light, each carefully selected track from the band’s three albums shed light on a different element of performance. Khan summoned tremors of sub-bass while attacking a drum sequencer, transitioning minutes later to a harpsichord-led journey to outer space. Depeche Mode chose Bat for Lashes as a touring partner for a reason – the emotional depth and sonic vastness Khan & co. navigate in knows no contemporary. –Thomas Hardy

Vampire Weekend enjoys the top of the bill

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Before Boston Calling, the last and only time I’d seen Vampire Weekend was at Bonnaroo in 2008, when they held down a Thursday night slot behind their debut album. Here they are, five years and two albums later, and they’re headliners. And my lord are they headliners, one of the best I’ve seen all season. It’s sort of easy to think of the Columbia crew’s sound and say, “Well, sub-headliners, sure, but they couldn’t hold down a closing set.” But you’d be wrong – so very wrong. What it comes down to is the enviable quantity of just solid songs they have in their repertoire, from opener “Diane Young” to “Giving Up the Gun” to closer “Walcott”. They all came off with crafted, joyous pop onstage, and the crowd was held rapt by every song, new and old.

“All right Boston,” Rostam Batmanglij called out. “The next song we’re gonna sing for you is called ‘Horchata’. There’s a part you can sing along with us,” he said as he demonstrated the chorus of ‘whoa’s. It was an unnecessary prompt, however, as the majority of the crowd was there on the first lyric out of Ezra Koenig’s mouth, following along throughout. The band was having just as much fun as the crowd; Koenig mugged for the fans and dodged a flying beach-ball with a laugh as he began “Everlasting Arms”, Chris Baio shook and kicked as he playfully strutted about for “California English”, and even stone-faced-focused Batmanglij brought his guitar as close as possible to the audience on every solo.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

More than just stage show, these boys have their performance down pat. First off, the speed of “California English” is just impressive as hell live. Secondly, their transitions are the most well-timed slides I’ve witnessed in a good while. “Campus” moved like butter into the cheer-rousing “Oxford Comma”, and the “Horchata” to “Everlasting Arms” drop was simply effortless. The beats switched in an instant, as if any two songs were really just tempo shifts in a grand concerto. Even “One (Blake’s Got A New Face)” had the surprisingly well-fit intro of “Let Me Clear My Throat”. Before closing out the set, Koenig talked about coming up from being an opener at the local Middle East Downstairs to being a closer in the dead center of the city; it’s a spot they’ve well earned. “What a beautiful night we have,” he had said earlier. “It’s still summer after all!” Here’s wishing summer could stretch a bit longer, if only so Vampy Weeks could have more festivals to headline.  –Ben Kaye

Big Black Delta’s big brash electronica-hardcore-pop

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Photo by Ben Kaye

 Jonathan Bates may be the center of Big Black Delta, but the live production is much more than one man. Dueling drummers (one of whom I hereby dub the sexiest working female drummer in the game) bookended Bates’ laptop, vocal effects, and mad dance moves to produce one body-moving percussive highlight early Sunday afternoon. Cuts like “Huggin & Kissin” and “Money Rain Down” combined elements of electronica, disco, indie pop, EDM, and something more hardcore into a pummeling onslaught of danceable energy. Bates added to the fun by sampling Enya’s “Sail Away” underneath a cover of “Bittersweet Sympothy”, outroing on a bit of Rihanna’s “Diamonds”. With that combo, even the signer had to smile.  –Ben Kaye

The most enthusiastic singers ever

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Occasionally, if you look off to the side in front of a festival stage, you’ll see an individual standing up above the photo pit, waving their hands around like an interpretive dancer. These sign language interpreters are there to help the hearing impaired enjoy the show along with the rest of us. Now, I’ve seen these honorable folks at a few festivals over the years, but never have I been so enraptured as I was with the three ladies at Boston Calling. Holly Maniatty, Jenn Abbott, and MJ Grant didn’t just translate the words to motions, they translated the emotions to motions.

They put their everything into every verse, from Kendrick’s “P & P” to Gaslight Anthem’s “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”. Every fade out, chant, and cheer was delivered through these three vessels in ways that (I can only assume) did everything to present a comparable experience for any hearing impaired festival-goer. “Are you signing the lyrics to the songs?” Gaslight’s Brian Fallon asked. “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Well, she’s sure not going to Hell.” No, there’s a special spot in Heaven reserved for the type of awesome those ladies carry.  –Ben Kaye

A unified Boston under one Major Lazer

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Photo by Ben Kaye

On paper, the differing lineups between Saturday and Sunday at Boston Calling were vast. In reality, the two may have been held on different planets. Diplo, international DJ superstar and Mad Decent kingpin, summoned the twerkers from their hiding places. On record, Diplo returned to his dancehall-rooted Major Lazer project earlier this year with Free the Universe, a bouncing ball of dub. Much was hyped going in. Diplo and crew played things safe but consistent, as his crew steamrolled through the choicest Lazer cuts like “Bubble Butt” sandwiched between reliable club bangers.

A regrettable mildness in volume was forgiven by repeated party favors shot out of cannons amidst air raid sirens. Glittered girls bounced on shoulders and mandatory removal of clothing all seemed like normal behavior. Taking a page from Wayne Coyne, Diplo inserted himself into an inflatable ball, reducing the walls between performer and the unwashed masses to a thin layer of plastic. Ezra Koenig failed to show on Free the Universe cut “Jessica”, but all was forgiven. The entirety of City Hall Plaza was unified for a solid hour as one glorious, sweaty, messy throng of humanity. –Thomas Hardy

Passion Pit arrive home as headliners

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Every time I hear or see Passion Pit, I find it incredibly hard to separate the band/show/song from Pitchfork’s exposé Larry Fitzmaurice wrote last year (a credit to the writer, I suppose). I know Michael Angelakos is in a different emotional place now, and I know I should be able to just take an synthpop show for what it is, but I just can’t get that piece out of my head. So when Angelakos came out in a thick of smoke and knocked a waiting guitar off its stand, causing a loud thump and likely knocking the instrument out of tune, I tensed up. Angelakos turned in that sort of “Are you kidding me? Really?” disbelief at his own stupidity, and the guitarist laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder to assure him it was okay to go on. He lifted his arm to the cheers of the crowd, but then he went into “Make Light” and the sound was so screwed you couldn’t make out a word.

It was a more than shaky start for a notoriously shaky artist, and so I found myself a bit nervous for the frontman. But then Angelakos stepped up to the front of the stage and yelled, “Hello! We’re Passion Pit from Boston, Massachusetts!” and the crowd’s roar shook the Plaza. It didn’t really matter how unsteady the set was, because this was a Boston festival, with Boston’s own son headlining the final night – there was only room for triumph. Angelakos delivered by quickly going into a three-shot powerhouse of “The Reeling”, “Carried Away”, and “Moth’s Wings”, each receiving their fair share of audience participation.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Still, just as I can’t separate the band from the cover story, it’s hard not to also have weird feelings about a crowd of fans exuberantly dancing and singing to songs like “I’ll Be Alright” and “Take A Walk”. The genius of these tunes (the latter having some of the best bridges of modern pop) are the dark themes masked in bright, soaring synths. But then Angelakos said something that helped me forget all the idiosyncrasies of a Passion Pit show. “This set is dedicated to WFNX, and The Phoenix, and The Dig; they’re pretty much the reason we’re here, so thank you for being one of the most supportive cities on Earth.” Yeah, none of that other stuff really mattered; Passion Pit was home, and they were heroes. –Ben Kaye


Photographer(s): Thomas Hardy, Ben Kaye