[live review] Good music overcomes the weather at the inaugural Boston Calling festival

Walkmen _ Michael Marotta
Photos by Michael Marotta

There was no way organizers of the inaugural BOSTON CALLING MUSIC FESTIVAL could have predicted the miserable weather that welcomed the nearly 20,000 strong on Saturday. A cold rain steadily poured down as temperatures hovered in the mid-40s. Event staff quickly ran out of free ponchos, and the crowd looked like a sea of extras from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Atmospheric conditions aside, the music persevered, starting with Boston’s own Bad Rabbits. Determined to make an impression, singer Dua Boakye kicked out the funk jams with unabashed aplomb. From that point on, it was a mad dash back and forth from the short distance between the Main Stage to the City Hall Stage as Cults, St. Lucia and MS MR braved the elements, all set on alleviating any damper on the day. But it was Matt and Kim who made the first major impression, with the duo commanding the audience in an energetic set, dispensing hundreds of balloons at one point, and not surprisingly, drawing the loudest response with “Daylight.”

Portugal. The Man had the unenviable task of following up Matt and Kim, but delivered admirably; The Shins were welcomed back with open (albeit wet) arms, especially those still enamored by that Garden State song (“New Slang”); and Marina and the Diamonds, providing maybe the loudest shrieks and cheers from the crowd all afternoon, provided some much needed electro-pop, enabling the City Hall Plaza stage to break out into full-on dance party mode.

Fun. were pressured to live up to their moniker as exasperated and worn out festival-goers had begun to thin out and those remaining were suffering from markedly dilapidated morale. The NYC trio ended up making it look effortless, warming up a thoroughly chilly evening and rewarding those who stuck around who were either masochistic or hoping for something great with an inspired take on the anthemic “Carry On.”

The climate for day two was summed up in four words: “not the day before.” True, it was windy and atypical temps for Memorial Day weekend, but there was zero rain despite threatening forecast reports late as early morning that said otherwise. Beverly’s Caspian will forever be remembered as the band that brought the sunshine. The post-rock instrumentalists continue to make a name for themselves with airy and emotive pieces and a stunning set, and it was a treat watching them slowly winning over a crowd that may had never heard of the local band before 1:30pm that afternoon.

Youth Lagoon were the perfect follow up, with the scent of hippie lettuce making its debut waft of the afternoon; Dirty Projectors and Ra Ra Riot put in laudable performances (with massive crowds creating a crescent around the stage for the latter). But there had been a growing anticipation for the Walkmen that proved beyond justified. Three songs in and they dropped “The Rat,” hands down one of the best songs from the past decade – if not ever – and the bar was, effectively raised for the rest of the day. There’s something about the poise of frontman Hamilton Leithauser that cannot be discounted with a simple “goosebump inducing.” Introducing “The Rat” with a “let’s rock” comment helped considerably. Seeing everyone go apeshit as the skittish guitar began “The Rat” was something to be experienced, an indisputable highlight of Boston Calling. Those who ventured to The Sinclair for a late night set by the group were likely just as blown away.

Andrew Bird was a nice comedown; though he did a brief set, it was supplanted by the brilliance of closer “Fake Palindromes,” the catchiest and most disturbing track lyrically in his catalog. Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men displayed why Mumford & Sons weren’t there – they would’ve been completely shown up by the folk rock stylings that are so much better and feel more authentic, especially as the massive crowd feverishly chanted along “Hey!” to their hit “Little Talks.”

Young the Giant ended up as default opening act for The National; it was difficult not to look past them as the winds died down and the main stage across City Hall Plaza was set for the headliners, but with a spirited “My Body,” the YTG alt-rockers were no joke, even though frontman Sameer Gadhia made the questionable move to try and start a wave like it was a late 1980s World Cup match or something.

Leaning heavily on Trouble Will Find Me, with seven songs (!) in their set from the album released one week ago, The National killed it. Any other band who tried to pull that cocky move would’ve been criticized endlessly, but the fact that the record is an early frontrunner for best of the year, it felt more like a privilege to see the Brooklyn based outfit enthusiastically playing so much of the new material on the first major date in support of it.

Admittedly encouraged to step their game up by the Walkmen’s nearly untouchable set earlier, and with the added push of guitarist Aaron Dessner having curated the festival, there was a lot to live up to. Thankfully, The National was all about digging deep into their catalog with “About Today” and “Squalor Victoria” mixing well with the always crushing “Mr. November” and “Fake Empire.”

Before the National’s set, there was a video that surprised and electrified the audience: Boston Calling would be returning. That in and of itself wasn’t so shocking, but the fact that it will be early this September is. Taking place again at Government Center, Bat for Lashes, the Gaslight Anthem, Passion Pit and Vampire Weekend are some of the names that will tether a bill which should further demonstrate the viability of a big city in the city festival.

Unless there is a blizzard that weekend, it will no doubt be a blast.

National _ Marotta