Boston Calling Spring 2015 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

Beck, My Morning Jacket, and St. Vincent keep the city's namesake festival strong.


It’s hard to believe we’re already on Boston Calling’s fifth edition. The last half decade has seen an exponential growth in the festival scene and, up until the festival’s premiere two years ago, it seemed silly that a big music and college town like Boston had yet to venture into that field. Despite plenty of competition in the northeast with big festivals like Governors Ball and Firefly coming into their own, Boston Calling has managed to carve out its own niche. While it may never book a big marquee headliner like Paul McCartney or Outkast, Boston Calling has consistently provided its own take on the current music landscape.

It is worth noting that Boston Calling is still trying to solidify its identity, both musically and physically. The awkward layout of Government Center still doesn’t provide enough shade or seating for a warmer day like yesterday. There was some astroturf set up, but it was always too crowded and situated in the area where you could feel the sun’s rays beating down on your brow. It was an odd situation: While the crowd never felt too big, everything did feel a bit too small, and that’s a problem because there really is no room for expansion.

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However, to Boston Calling’s credit, everything seemed to run smoothly. Acts that dropped out were quickly replaced and, during the festival proper, every band was on time and eager to play. As always, the crowd was friendly and very relaxed. That’s something that I love about Boston Calling: For the most part, it has a calm and positive atmosphere. There was no need to worry about schedule conflicts — thanks to the two stages set up, you could find a seat, grab a beer and see every act without moving the entire day. Considering this spring’s lineup, that wasn’t a bad idea.

For the most part, the ’90s ruled the headliner slots in the form of Beck and Pixies, but nostalgia seemed to be a secondary thought. Beck is still constantly reinventing himself and Morning Phase, his latest album, could be his most successful since Guero. While Pixies played a set that relied heavily on older material, their massive influence on rock ensures that their older stuff still sounds modern and relevant. My Morning Jacket rounded out the trio with a rousing set, solidifying themselves as future headliners of much bigger festivals.


While the festival was still dominated by indie rock and folk, it did branch out a bit this year. It should be noted that Jungle and Chet Faker, two great acts that would have broken the mold, unfortunately had to drop out. Their replacements were either simply not up to par (ILoveMakonnen) or too similar to the rest of the line-up to stand out (Lucius). However, we still got a dose of psych rock (Tame Impala), experimental indie (St. Vincent and TV on the Radio), local acts (Krill and Ballroom Thieves), powerful pop (MO and Marina and the Diamonds), hip-hop (Run the Jewels), country (Jason Isbell), and comedy (Tenacious D). While a good chunk of the overall lineup may have fallen under the broader category of indie (or the even broader category of “dude playing a guitar”), there was a good sense that the fest at least tried to provide some variety.

That said, I was a little disappointed when Boston Calling announced the lineup for the upcoming fall festival before Pixies hit the stage. For better or for worse, they seem to be sticking with what they know. It could end up being their most popular lineup yet. I suppose when you know your audience, there’s no need to impress a critic like me. Over the course of the weekend, I rarely saw anyone without a smile. There was at least one act for everyone, and most seemed appreciative of the immense amount of talent that was brought together over the past three days. Most of these acts proved themselves to be some of the very best of modern music.

–Edward Dunbar
Contributing Writer


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I’d like to quote my friend James: “Just because you can perform live, doesn’t mean you should”. “Tuesday” is an undeniably fun song, but the singer’s karaoke-esque take on his short catalog was anything but. –Edward Dunbar

Gerard Way

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On the other hand, enthusiasm can only go so far. For people of a certain age, there is still a degree of nostalgia for Gerard Way’s old band, My Chemical Romance. After all, it was only 10 years ago when they shot up the charts with Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge’s smart blend of melodic pop and emo theatricality. Considering the ungodly amount of My Chemical Romance shirts worn around Boston Calling, they are gone but far from forgotten.

Unfortunately, Way seems to have forgotten his way around an interesting tune. While his music still retains a sense of melodicism, he has turned towards faceless ’80s new wave and ’90s alt-rock. He’s still a good singer and an incredibly nice fellow (he pledged his support for transgender rights), but while a My Chemical Romance reunion seems inevitable, here’s hoping he puts a little more effort into his next solo release. Or at least drop “Helena” in the setlist. –Edward Dunbar


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“Hi, we’re Krill. We’re from … here, I guess,” Jonah Furman said in a blasé tone when introducing his band on Saturday morning. When an up-and-coming local act making national headlines gets to take the stage at a major hometown festival, you expect a little pop in their act. The Krill boys, however, kept things largely scaled down. Ian Becker was largely straight-faced behind his kit, and while guitarist Aaron Ratoff seemed to be enjoying himself the most, he stood facing his bandmates with his shoulder to the crowd the whole time. Furman’s vocals were hidden behind an unusual reverb, even when he addressed the crowd, which sort of ruined the Andy Hull-esque vocals that are highlights of the band’s songs. Maybe it was nerves at being on the big stage, or maybe the boys were having a lark about big stages in general when they’d be happier in a DIY club. Either way, the post-punk sounded solid (minus the echo), but the show lacked some luster. –Ben Kaye


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I did not expect a second-rate Britpop band to play Boston Calling, but here we are. Judging by the way they dress (Adidas track suits) and their lead singer’s stage presence, they’re shooting for somewhere in the Stone Roses and Oasis level, but falling just around Ocean Colour Scene on a bad day. That isn’t to say that they’re bad, just that their songs are lightweight and derivative. Not the worst way to start the day, but unless they have a “Wonderwall” hidden inside of them, I can’t see them making it past the early afternoon. –Edward Dunbar

Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals

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With a talented yet somewhat nondescript jam band, Ben Harper played a set that was more interesting than entertaining. His backing band, The Innocent Criminals, seemed intent on finding the time to solo circles around every song. I didn’t get much out of it, but the bongo solo was pretty cool. –Edward Dunbar

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While MØ’s music may not be the most original, it certainly is fun. The Danish singer’s set was just as much an aerobics workout as it was a concert. Adamant on getting Boston Calling up and moving, MØ grooved around the stage and displayed a near endless amount of energy. She even threw in a Spice Girls cover, though it seemed to go over the heads of the younger audience members. The energy and enthusiasm she brought was enough to shake everyone awake and get them ready for Boston Calling’s real queen of pop. –Edward Dunbar

The Lone Bellow

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While their music seems like it would be a pleasant fit for an early afternoon slot, it might have been a bit too hot for some of The Lone Bellow’s softer material. Despite that, they still delivered a decent set that was severely hampered by bad sound. Their songs have an anthemic quality, but that doesn’t mean they need to be played at near deafening levels. But the band still managed to carry on and present a rousing set that the majority of the crowd ate up. –Edward Dunbar


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It’s no fault of Lucius, but Chet Faker dropping out meant that the sole electronic act on the bill was gone. For better or for worse, Lucius comfortably fit in with the rest of the line-up and Boston Calling in general. In fact, this is their second appearance at Boston Calling, a festival that has yet to fall into a cycle of repeated acts. Lucius have earned another appearance as they are heads and shoulders above most of their contemporaries here. The harmonies alone, shared between Jess Wolfe and Holly Laesig (who met each other while attending Berklee), are enough to make head turns. And they certainly have a way with a tune. “Turn It Around” is always fun with its great ’60s pop stomp, and the new songs they premiered sounded very promising. However, the real treat was celebrating Holly’s birthday, complete with a beautiful cake. They may have been a late draft, but Lucius turned out to deliver a rewarding set. –Edward Dunbar

Sharon Van Etten

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While Sharon Van Etten has perfected her own brand of emotionally charged indie, her music might not have been quite upbeat enough for a large festival setting. “Serpents” kicked things off in a big way, but throughout her set the crowd seemed quiet and polite, never truly enthused. Perhaps they were hypnotized by the beautiful harmonies shared between Sharon and keyboardist Heather Woods Broderick, or maybe they were simply huddling together to keep warm due to the quickly declining temperature. Either way, nature was on Van Etten’s side. As she launched into “Don’t Do It”, her most moving and powerful song, the winds picked up and created a suitably theatrical atmosphere. –Edward Dunbar

TV on the Radio

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Bringing in a dose of well-needed energy right before sunset, TV on the Radio blasted through a tight set of some of their heavier numbers before dipping into the funky stuff. With Chet Faker and Jungle both dropping out, it was up to TV on the Radio to provide the day’s dance set and they delivered in spades. More importantly, they brought in some much needed inventiveness. While most of the day’s acts hearkened back to older music, TV on the Radio still delivered a futuristic blend of rock, funk, and soul with just the right amount of pop melodicism. –Edward Dunbar

Jason Isbell

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Reliably solid, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit gave us a tight set full of emotive and sometimes uplifting country songs. It’s no surprise that he’s friends with Ryan Adams; both know how to write songs that pull you in and grab your attention. However, the 400 Unit kept it calm and collected, electing to ride out Isbell’s songs smoothly. It was the perfect set to greet the late afternoon sun with: casual, yet captivating. –Edward Dunbar

Marina and the Diamonds

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Take note, aspiring pop artists: This is what pop should be. Marina hit the stage and rarely let up over her tight, 13-song setlist. One of the few acts to play Boston Calling more than once, Marina earned her repeat status by presenting an eclectic blend of the various facets of modern pop. While her set ranged from jaunty Britpop to EDM-inspired synths, everything meshed together into a joyous and poppy Froot smoothie.

Leading up to her show, it seemed like Marina was in steep competition with Gerard Way for the most dedicated fanbase. Once she hit the stage, it was clear that the love her fans have for her is unparalleled. Many of them spent the entire day camped out in front of the Red Stage, hoping to get a glimpse of their sparkling diamond. Fortunately, their love was requited, as Marina frequently asked the crowd, “You do know how much I love you all, right?” –Edward Dunbar

Tenacious D

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I could go on about how Tenacious D are true showmen, structuring their set like a story where each song linked logically to the next. How Jack Black, for all his goofyness, is actually a solid rock star, continuously running out of spare picks on his mic stand because he tossed one to the crowd after nearly every song, and making two on-stage costume changes with the help of his roadie, Bob. How they broke into a bit of Barry Jive and the Uptown Five jazz with Kyle Gass on double recorder and Black cuing solos from their able band by scatting out rhythms. How the epicness was captured as Black and Gass met center stage to share in the pleasure they found in their delivery of “Kielbasa”, Black complimenting their own performance with a giant smile and a fist pound. But it’s really all best summed with a line from “Beelzeboss (The Final Showdown)”: “We are the D, we are the D, we are the D, we are the D, we are the D, we are the D, we are the D, we are the D, we are the D!” –Ben Kaye

Run the Jewels

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At this point, Run the Jewels have solidified themselves as one of the most engaging hip-hop artists circling today. (They’re certainly one of the best duos in the game, if nothing else.) Seeing them at in an early afternoon slot at this point almost seems like a misjudgement of their status, but El-P and Killer Mike would own an 11:00 a.m. slot just as hard as they would a headlining slot. “I believe in Tom Brady, I don’t give a fuck,” Mike said as soon as he took the stage, instantly winning over the Boston crowd. His arm was wrapped in a sling just days after having surgery, but that didn’t keep the large grin from his face or the energy from his show. (“If I hurt my shoulder, I’m definitely getting on that unemployment.”) Their show is equal parts humble appreciation, joy, and straight hard hip-hop, a combination that’s impossible to find stale. The fitting irony of getting the crowd to chant, “Lie, cheat, steal, kill, win” right in front of City Hall wasn’t lost on the audience, either. –Ben Kaye

Tame Impala

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The first time I saw Tame Impala was way back in 2010 at their debut Boston show at the Paradise Rock Club. Wide-eyed and seemingly a little nervous about their first headlining US tour, they played a thrillingly raw and somewhat sloppy set of Innerspeaker and EP cuts. Nearly five years and about a million shows later, they are a hardened and experienced live band with the same charm and excitement that accompanied that first Boston gig.

I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing Kev and the boys a handful of times since and, to their credit, I have yet to see the same show twice. The venues may have gotten increasingly bigger, but their sound has evolved appropriately. Lonerism tour addition Julien Barbagallo continues to be the band’s secret weapon with his Chemical Brother-sized breakbeats propelling new songs “Eventually” and “Let It Happen” into the outer rims of the atmosphere. The rest of the band’s bass-heavy swirl of noise shook the entirety of Government Center. Most of the crowd was already clamoring for one more song before the crashing end of “Apocalypse Dream” sent them into a fit of hysterics. –Edward Dunbar

St. Vincent

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It’s hard to ignore Annie Clark. Aside from the four brilliant albums she has released over the course of her career as St. Vincent, nowadays she has an electrifying live show. Blurring the line between the usual concert fare and performance art (while taking some cues from the shows she did with David Byrne), she presented a festival-friendly version of her usual stage show. Songs like “Cruel” and “Marrow” got big cheers, but it was encouraging to see that newer songs “Birth In Reverse” and “Digital Witness” got the biggest reaction.

Ending her set with the sprawling “Your Lips Are Red” was a bold move in the face of a festival audience. As the song’s deafening guitar screeches grinded to a dramatic halt, I heard someone declare, “She’s wasting time!” Wrong! But you know what? That’s okay, because when faced with a bill full of artists who are far too eager to please everyone, it’s nice to have someone who isn’t afraid to take a risk. –Edward Dunbar


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The last time I saw Pixies, there was a general air of unenthusiasm, even though it was a homecoming show that sold out within minutes. Perhaps it was the stuffy setting — despite a storied history of rock concerts, the Orpheum Theater is not the optimal place to lose it during “Crackity Jones”. Whatever the case was back then, Black Francis and co. seemed to have shaken off the “Indie Cindy” blues and brought their A game to Boston Calling. Frank Black wailed over every song, embellishing the fire and anguish of his lyrics while Joey Santiago blasted distortion over the proceedings. David Lovering got the spotlight with his usual “La La Love You” and even Paz seemed to be having a ball. While it’s still bittersweet to see them without Kim, Paz did a valiant job of holding down the rhythm section and backing vocals. Spurred on by an enthusiastic crowd and the sight of their hometown bathed in the glow of evening light, Pixies gave us an absolutely brilliant ending to the weekend. –Edward Dunbar

My Morning Jacket

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My Morning Jacket really want to run with their stage time, and city festivals burden them with a strict curfew. As one of the best rock bands of the modern era, however, they know how to make the most of whatever situation they’re given, and that certainly held true for their headlining spot on Saturday. Though there have been larger crowds for final acts at Boston Calling (Pixies and Beck both commanded larger audiences), few were as passionate as those that hung around for MMJ.

I’ve seen the band numerous times, but I can’t recall feeling more like I was surrounded by hardcore fans than at this particular concert. Everyone around seemed to know every word to every song, from newer tracks like opener “Believe (Nobody Knows”) to classics like “Wordless Chorus” and even older slow jams like “The Way That He Sings”. The band has already worked out a nice balance of old and new material, highlighting all aspects of their catalog in what was an incredible tight setlist. The “Big Decisions” — “Circuital” — “Tropics (Erase Traces)” line in particular proved that their more recent material holds equal weight as their Z and It Still Moves songs. Even Evil Urges plays like a masterwork live; as the opening notes of “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2” began to build, one fan behind me turned to his friend and asked, “Are you ready to go on this journey? We’ll go on it together,” as he took hold of his compatriot’s hand.

Jim James may have seemed a bit stiff at times (perhaps his bad back was bothering him), but he and the boys still appeared to be thriving off this new album. I’m not sure if it’s the communal recording nature of The Waterfall or if I was just having that experience of seeing a movie for the fifth time and noticing all the little bits I never saw before, but the band felt like they were clicking on new levels. Both guitar Carl Broemel and bassist Tom Blankenship put on one of the best performances I’ve seen from the pair, wilding out on the close of “Spring (Among the Living)”, pushing their instruments into their amps. Pat Hallahan was a typical beast behind the drums, turning the solo at the end of “One Big Holiday” into one of the greatest sights in rock music. James shined most when he got weird on “Victory Dance”, cape draped across his shoulders and towel upon his head. “We’re proud to be with you tonight,” he said early on. “To feel the magic, feel the power, of old Boston town.” During the most epic set of the weekend, My Morning Jacket brought a power all their own. –Ben Kaye


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While Beck’s studio output will always be somewhat unpredictable, he has established himself as a reliable live act. With a bulletproof, hit-filled set list that touched upon nearly every album post-Stereopathic Soulmanure (sadly forgetting about the underrated Mutations), Beck established himself as what could be the best headliner to hit Boston Calling so far.

The sheer level of energy that Beck brought was astounding. One second he was hopping around during a guitar solo for “Gamma Ray”, the next he was dropping some of the smoothest moves this side of Michael Jackson during “Sexx Laws” and “Hell Yes”. All the while, his backing band effortlessly kept up, with bassist Justin Meldal-Johnson in particular causing a stir by smashing his bass amps during an electric performance of “E-Pro”.

At the core of Beck’s performance is an undying commitment to the fun and wacky attitude that first garnered him mainstream attention. “Loser” featured a real sitar, and his band members were introduced with short snippets of songs like “Miss You” and “Takin’ It To The Streets” (with keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr doing a very convincing Michael McDonald). “Debra” was drawn out into a ten minute love fest with Beck taking a moment to lie down and take it all in: “I feel so comfortable here. Y’all ready for a story? This about a girl I met at somewhere special … JCPenney”. You get the feeling that everywhere Beck goes is somewhere special just because he’s there. –Edward Dunbar


Photographer: Ben Kaye