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Boston Calling Fall 2015 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

Bostonians won't soon forget Alabama Shakes jamming beneath a Blood Moon

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Photography by Andy Moran

In an increasingly busy festival season, it’s imperative that festivals stand out and differentiate themselves from one another. This weekend’s Boston Calling was the sixth so far, but I get the feeling they still have yet to establish what the festival is really about. In addition to that, increased competition saw them potentially lose big draws and a bigger crowd.

Here’s what the Northeast had going on this past weekend: Boston Calling, the newly minted Landmark Music Fest in DC, Global Citizen Fest in New York City, and Hemp Fest in the Boston Common. Alright, the last one doesn’t really count, BUT it did have live music, and I imagine it drew away at least a handful of people who were looking for something to do on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. However, let’s take a quick look at Landmark and Global Citizen Fest.

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Global Citizen Fest is somewhat of an anomaly, a free one-day festival that takes place in Central Park, but it presented a lineup that undoubtedly had a big draw thanks to headliners like Beyoncé, Pearl Jam, and Coldplay. While the fest may skew towards a more mainstream focus, those acts are big draws that could or have headlined any major big-name festival. Landmark only premiered this year, but thanks to booking giants C3, it obtained Coachella-worthy headliners in The Strokes and Drake along with a decent and varied undercard. Notably, many of Boston Calling’s headliners were only subs at Landmark. Both of these festivals are relatively close to Boston, so why pay the same price when you can get more bang for your buck elsewhere?

Herein lies the biggest problem with Boston Calling: stagnancy. I’ve been lucky enough to attend five out of the six past festivals, and, while they’ve always been a good time, not much has changed since their inaugural year. Construction at Government Center inspired a few much needed layout adjustments, but since 2014 there’s been little change. For the most part, we’ve seen the same food stands, same sideshow attractions, and very similar bookings. To Boston Calling’s credit, they have yet to have a repeat headliner other than The National (which makes sense considering their continual involvement in bookings), and the last two seasons saw them somewhat diversifying things while still staying inside popular indie boundaries.

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Which is why this year’s lineup felt a little stale. The big-name acts weren’t necessarily big, and the undercard mostly consisted of indie pop acts. Sure, we had some hip-hop in Doomtree, some country in Sturgill Simpson, and an indie legend in Stephen Malkmus, but they were overpowered by the likes of acts like Walk the Moon and Misterwives. It was a solid lineup with no real standout act or star power.

I know Boston Calling wants to reach that rarefied air shared by the likes of big-name, second-tier festivals like Governors Ball and Shaky Knees. Like I said, last September’s rather eclectic booking of acts ranging from Lorde to The Replacements to Nas x The Roots proved that they have the ambition necessary to make that jump. In that sense, this September’s festival felt like a step back from the interesting stuff and a step towards what is a guaranteed sell. There’s always been that push and pull at Boston Calling with acts like St. Vincent and Beck rubbing shoulders with poppier alternatives like Halsey and Vance Joy. That delicate contrast, a little something for everyone, is what really sold me on the idea of the festival.

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To be fair, there were moments where I gave in to my inner poptimist. Nate Reuss caught me completely off guard in a set that I begrudgingly enjoyed. There’s no denying the appeal of Fun’s bigger singles, and it was a nice opportunity to see an act that I would never see outside of a festival setting. Misterwives and Walk the Moon were massive draws, bringing in some of the biggest crowds of the weekend, though Hozier topped them all by drawing a crowd larger than most of the headliners. While acts like CHVRCHES and Chromeo are considered indie, there is an unabashed pop element to both that provides an exhilarating rush. And, as always, Boston Calling showed some love to the local scene by highlighting Grey Season and Dirty Bangs.

Of course, we can’t forget Alabama Shakes. Their stone keeps rolling faster and faster this year thanks to the fantastic Sound & Color. Truly the most deserving out of all three of the headliners, they delivered perhaps the defining set of this year’s Boston Calling. With Brittany Howard’s primal scream, Alabama Shakes brought the festival to a rousing close under a blood-red super moon.

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So, Boston Calling got their pop kicks this September, and I had a pretty good time despite being somewhat apprehensive about the lineup. But maybe we could go back to a more diverse lineup this May? I want to love you, Boston Calling, but I know you can do better. For now, here’s the best that we saw this past weekend.

–Edward Dunbar
Contributing Writer

Of Monsters & Men

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There are a few songs in Of Monsters and Men’s songbook that are so inescapable that even those listeners who aren’t necessarily fans of the Icelandic band can’t totally distance themselves from them. That said, just about every person who took in OMAM’s sub-headlining set Friday evening came in with at least some familiarity with the band. That’s a pretty powerful card to hold in your hand, one that even Friday night’s healiners, The Avett Brothers, couldn’t lay claim to. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m pretty indifferent to these guys, but I was open to the possibility that they might win me over onstage. But outside of the ubiquitous “Little Talks”, OMAM didn’t build on their built-in momentum. The band’s paint-by-numbers brand of radio-ready indie pop felt way too close to the vest, and their attempts at anthemic, arena-sized indie a la contemporaries such as Arcade Fire and The National didn’t quite hold up. –Ryan Bray

Twin Shadow

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Technical difficulties marred the start of what was essentially a homecoming show for George Lewis Jr., a.k.a. Twin Shadow. But Lewis wasn’t to be denied. Critics in our hyper-divided music culture have opted to describe Twin Shadow as chillwave, but if it’s ok, I’ll regress and more broadly categorize Lewis’ music for what it is, namely ’80s-inspired synthpop. Mic in one hand and a drumstick in the other, Lewis, dressed as some bizarre cross between Mario Andretti and Michael Jackson, brought plenty of urgency to the stage to counterbalance his music’s almost too leisurely lean, bounding about passionately while making ample use of an overhead cymbal propped up behind him. Sadly, a decent chunk of the audience opted to talk amongst themselves instead of giving their attention to the band. Sometimes being the most laid-back dude in the room has its drawbacks. –Ryan Bray

Sturgill Simpson

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Much like Doomtree’s hip-hop, Sturgill Simpson’s country seemed somewhat out of place. While his music has much more in common with the many folk artists that permeated this season’s lineup, his frequent forays into hoedowns and speedy chicken-pickin’ guitar licks really threw me off at first. However, while the subtleties of his music may have been lost on such a massive crowd, his delivery was booming and unwavering. Not to mention his backing band were incredibly talented, and Simpson was more than happy to sit back and let them jam it out. He eventually won over most of the crowd by alternating between country balladry and hoedown get-downs with small pockets of the crowd bursting into their best square dancing moves. –Edward Dunbar

Gregory Alan Isakov

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It’s hard not to suspect that the Boston Calling folks knew what they had when they brought Gregory Alan Isakov onto its September bill. The Colorado indie-folk troubadour started his set of warm but majestic “sad bastard songs” just as fans were starting to arrive Friday night. The neo-folk resurgence that’s overtaken mainstream pop music in recent years has by now been sufficiently flogged to death, and it was hard not to roll your eyes at Isakov’s old-timey prospector getup. But surface bullshit aside, Isakov’s set worked. With the sun fading over City Hall and the crisp, comfortable early fall air sweeping gently through the crowd, he and his band eased fans into the weekend on a suitably rustic note. The Walk the Moons, Chromeos, and FIDLARs of the world would soon bring the energy, but Isakov aptly proved that sometimes it’s best not to rush into things too quickly. –Ryan Bray

Doomtree

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It was slim pickings for hip-hop fans as Doomtree were the sole hip-hop act of the festival. It was a tough position to hold: Not only did they have to appeal to the predominantly indie/folk crowd, but they also competed with the memory of last May’s barnstorming Run the Jewels set. Luckily, for the most part they succeeded. After battling sound issues for the first half of the set, the seven-member-strong group found their groove and stuck with it throughout their set. With that many people on stage (5 MCs and 2 DJs), it was amazing how well rehearsed they were. They did a great job of not getting tangled over each other – a classic problem with hip-hop groups of a larger size. Their strong showing undoubtedly won them a few new fans, and it was a welcome diversion from the indie and folk music that dominated this year’s festival. –Edward Dunbar

Daughter

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After the twin punk assault of Bully and FIDLAR, Daughter was a nice, soft cooldown. That isn’t to say they weren’t compelling – in fact, they managed to draw the biggest crowd of the day thus far. With a minimal stage setup and a band dressed in all black, it didn’t seem like they expected this much attention. “This is a very large crowd,” singer Elena Tonra mused. “Don’t mind me, I’m just having a slight breakdown!” Any notions of this being a sleepy, mid-afternoon set were lost during their continuous, slow-burning anthems that built up to massive, post-rock-esque explosions. Unlike many of the quieter acts yesterday, Tonra and her band were actually able to capture the attention of the mass crowd thanks to these dynamic flourishes. –Edward Dunbar

The Avett Brothers

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Ok, I’m a bad festival reporter. I would have loved to hang out for the entirety of The Avett Brothers’ set. It’s just that Stephen Malkmus was playing an aftershow in Cambridge, and channeling my inner Liz Lemon, I had to go to there. Still, the first half hour of the Avett’s set proved them plenty worthy of Friday night’s headlining slot. Chill was the order of the day on Friday, as Gregory Alan Isakov gently roused the crowd, and Of Monsters and Men trotted out a largely boilerplate indie pop set. But to their credit, The Avett Brothers brought the first semblance of any sort of party atmosphere to the fall fest, weaving fun-loving ragtime joints in between mellower songs with sophistication and heart. Sorry I couldn’t stay longer, but their tunes rang happily in my ears as I was whisked off to Pavement Country. –Ryan Bray

Alt-J

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After only two albums, Alt-J are an arena-fit act. In many ways, they come off as smarter versions of indie arena acts like Mumford and Sons; they’re not afraid to push themselves into mainstream-friendly sounds, but unlike the aforementioned band and others like them, they still retain an air of experimentation and artiness. With a surprisingly muscular rhythm section, they rattled through a mixture of songs from their debut album and last year’s This Is All Yours. While earlier singles like “Breezeblocks” were the biggest crowd-pleasers, more recent songs like “Every Other Freckle” were great choices to show off their tight interplay.

As someone who is admittedly not a big fan of their work, their broad appeal makes a lot more sense as a live prospect. A strikingly minimal light show projected them as silhouettes against lighter shades of blue and red. Impressively, they were able to present their music to a mass audience without losing any of its subtly. It helped that this was one of the few times today where the bass didn’t completely overpower everything else in the mix. The next Radiohead? Not quite, but they certainly know all the right moves to please a massive crowd. –Edward Dunbar

Father John Misty

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Father John Misty is not known for being an introverted artist despite some of the more delicate moments of his discography. In the last month alone, he released a video that featured him making out with himself and a Lou Reed-impersonating cover of Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 (say that three times fast) – one that he quickly removed after Lou Reed allegedly visited him in his dreams and warned him about invoking the dead. His persona is both pompous and proud, and live he pulls off every exaggerated frontman move in a bold, attention-grabbing fashion. Which is why I was taken aback by how oddly quiet he was during the entire show. He was the first act of the day to draw a decently sized crowd, yet he seemed very somber.

His usual witty banter was reduced to “I hope you’re enjoying your Bostonian festival … Gorging yourself on pleasure.” Whether or not that was a contemptuous jab at festivals crowds is beyond me. What I do know is that he laid it all out on the table. There’s no denying his commitment towards delivering an entertaining live show. Every kick, twirl, and jump were delivered with aplomb as he breezed through a set that mostly consisted of tracks from I Love You, Honeybear. The one-two punch of “Hollywood Cemetery Forever” and “The Ideal Husband” was a noisy end to a well-played yet impersonal set. –Edward Dunbar

FIDLAR

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So much has been made of FIDLAR’s return from the abyss of substance abuse and personal strife of late that it’s easy to forget the LA slack punks have more to offer the world than an indie rock E! True Hollywood Story. That’s unfortunate because beneath the drama is a really good band. But if the band’s loveable fuck-up image sometimes threatens to eclipse their songs, maybe it’s in part their own doing. “Six years ago, I used to live right down the street from here,” frontman Zac Carper told the Boston Calling crowd Sunday afternoon. “I used to smoke a lot of weed in this area.” Carper has successfully wrestled his personal demons, but the band’s set proved it hasn’t totally gotten the booze, weed, coke, and crack completely out of its system, at least not thematically. It’s somewhat of a curious double standard, but leading a cleaner life doesn’t necessarily call for pitching away scores of solid tunes. At the end of the day, FIDLAR’s songs still hold up, even if they’re not quite the reflection of the band now as they were then. –Ryan Bray

Chromeo

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Chromeo know how to party. After a day mostly full of sleepier indie acts, their show was enough to rouse even the most apathetic naysayers in the crowd. With vocoder out the wazoo and a spectacular, disco-inspired light show, they consistently kept the energy at a high level and warmed everyone up on what turned out to be an unusually chilly night. While many of their songs blended into each other, it was hard to be mad as they kept the dance party going and going. They’re total cheeseballs, but it’s all in good fun – they don’t take themselves too seriously, and they’re all the better for it. In fact, their funky brand of dance music was the first set to garner a massive response from the majority of the audience. Whereas most of the earlier acts seemed to only reach out to the first few rows, Chromeo demanded that everyone from the front of the barrier to those waiting it out for CHVRCHES on the other side of the center get down and boogie. –Edward Dunbar

Bully

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If nothing else, Bully won the affections of one particularly excitable fan early Sunday afternoon. “You’re so pretty,” the mop-topped fan in a tie-dyed shirt yelled over an otherwise silent crowd of onlookers. “Thank you,” Alicia Bognanno, the band’s front woman and all around grunge pop heroine, deadpanned back.” He might have been the most vocal of Bully supporters, but the dude wasn’t alone in his support of the fun but ferocious Nashville four-piece. The band’s ’90s-canvassed brand of alt punk rang loud and clear Sunday afternoon, and that went double for Bognanno’s hair-raising wail. But for all the redundant Hole comparisons the band has been left to endure as of late, there’s a pop sense to Bully’s songs that stands on its own two feet. They also closed with a killer and unexpected cover of the Butthole Surfers “Who Was in My Room Last Night”, so you’ll get no complaints from this guy. –Ryan Bray

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks

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When faced with an audience rife with po-faced Walk the Moon fans, what does our hero Stephen do? Well, he mostly just leans back and lets the music do the talking. It was clear that the majority of the younger audience that lined up and down the barrier were not particularly interested in The Jicks. Each song was met with a few smattered rounds of clapping while many of the face-painted campers looked down at their phones as they staked out their spot for one of the later acts. This indifference wasn’t lost on Malkmus, but he took it all in good fun. At one point, he pointed at someone at the crowd with face paint and gave him a quizzical look. With no response, he simply smiled and shrugged before going back to the tunes.

But you know what? That’s okay because I sure as hell loved this set. Malkmus is undoubtedly one of the most consistent songwriters to come out of the ’90s, and this is very evident in last year’s Wig Out at Jagbags (what a title!). While he stayed clear of any Pavement songs, he reached into his solo back catalog and delivered rousing versions of “Stick Figures in Love” and “Forever 28”. Plus his guitar playing is the most brilliantly messy this side of Keith Richards. For those who do enjoy his music, it was a solid set. But I can’t help but think it would have been funny if he busted out that Pavement classic “Stereo” with the immortal chorus: “HEY LISTEN TO ME, I’M ON THE STEREO.” –Edward Dunbar

CHVRCHES

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It’s more than a little depressing that today only featured two front women: Doomtree’s Margret Wander and CHVRCHES’ Lauren Mayberry. It’s more of a state of the industry thing rather than something that is exclusive to Boston Calling; in fact, last May’s fest was relatively female-heavy compared to other festival lineups this year. We’re fortunate then that Mayberry is such an emotive and dynamic frontwoman. CHVRCHES make no bones about wanting to be a big band, as evident from their latest sky-scraping single, “Clearest Blue”, and Mayberry is the main catalyst for that jump to the big leagues. She simply demands your attention through her fierce delivery and deep-cutting lyrics. She also proved to be the most personal frontperson of the entire day. She frequently reached out to the crowd, offering explanations for her frequent towel use (“I snotted on myself!”) and the change of lyrics in “Make Them Gold” (she began to sing the original demo lyrics).

By keep the songs big and the banter relatable, she was able to effectively keep the large crowd enthralled while still retaining a sense of personality and fun. Despite having a high-profile slot, this show is essentially a warm-up for what is to inevitably be a sprawling tour for their just released Every Open Eye. I didn’t get a chance to check out the entire album before their set (it was only released the day before), but the new songs seemed to stick close to their original sound of arena-ready Depeche Mode-esque synths and catchy pop melodies. Recently released singles like the aforementioned “Clearest Blue” got welcome responses, but the biggest cheers were for “Recover” and “The Mother We Share” — two fantastic singles that are still some of the best slices of synthpop in recent years. –Edward Dunbar

Alabama Shakes

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Talk about tough luck. The Alabama Shakes’ festival headlining set was arguably the most eagerly anticipated of the weekend, the buzz simmering to a quick boil by the time they took the stage Sunday night. But the band had a special kind of obstacle to contend with, as a Blood Moon, super moon, lunar eclipse, whatever the hell you want to call it turned fans’ attention away from the stage and toward the skies over City Hall. “Some weird shit’s gonna go down,” Brittany Howard told the crowd, rolling with the punches. Fortunately, the Shakes didn’t fold in the face of distraction.

If anything, the circumstances made what was already bound to be a spellbinding set that much more potent. Howard came as advertised, a true force of nature with killer pipes and an undeniable stage presence. The rest of the band locked in behind their ass-kicking frontwoman, winding their way through gospel, soul, ’70s-inspired R&B, blues, and rock and roll like they invented the shit. Things got downright sultry when the band slow jammed along to the Blood Red Moon hanging in the sky, as fans swayed gently to the emotive power of the music. Brittany 1, astrological phenomena 0. –Ryan Bray

Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Boston Calling Fall 2015.

Gallery

Photographer: Andy Moran

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