Now in its second year, our city’s bi-annual Boston Calling Music Festival expanded to three nights back in May, tacking on a three-band Friday night slate that first felt… well, just tacked on. The spring session of Boston Calling — which in 2013 drew headliners like Passion Pit and the National as well as acts like Kendrick Lamar, Major Lazer, and Flosstradamus — kicked off with a vibe-clashing Jack Johnson rounding out a meh-gnificent opening night that also featured the soft-serve musical stylings of Cass McCombs and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros.
This time around, however, Night 1 of Boston Calling felt like a true lead-in to the weekend ahead. For a festival that spent a good amount of effort hyping its various afterparties, it turns out that its pre-show might have been the best attraction. Especially since, unlike May, the pre-show wasn’t so much a pre-show as it was just a part of the entire package.
With live music starting up around 6:45 p.m. and ending just before 11 p.m., dusk and the backdrop of a night outside in the city took center stage, and people seemed more energized at 9 p.m. tonight then they might have been if they were standing within the brutalist concrete jungle of City Hall Plaza since, say, 2 p.m. As the sun faded, glowing lights washed away the drab beige of City Hall Plaza and drenched the festival grounds in technicolor warmth. The pleasant late-summer weather only added to the vibe.
Other efforts were made to aesthetically dress up City Hall Plaza, with good results. Artwork adorned the makeshift 360-degree walls around the several thousand spectators, artists were seen at work in various corners, and giant banners resembling a sports team’s past championship titles hung from City Hall depicting Boston Calling’s instantly rich musical alumni. It was a nice touch, and a sign, literally, that this thing has grown very quickly.
Musically, the evening was a banner event as well. A far cry from May’s opening faceoff with Cass McCombs, Baltimore’s Future Islands set the tone for this forward-thinking lineup with a fluttering blend of synth-pop and orchestral rock, with frontman Samuel T. Herring dancing, growling, and Morrissey-ing just like how we first saw him earlier this year on Letterman. Some of their charm was lost in the wide expanse of City Hall Plaza, and it’s possible that this is a band that puts on one hell of a club show.
Up next was Neutral Milk Hotel, a folk project of cult-like appeal and a strict no-photo policy (even the festival had to turn off its cameras, preventing those in the back near the food and beer stands to watch on the big screens side-stage). Since its release in 1998, people have obsessed over Jeff Mangum’s classic LP, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but with blown-out audio and a live approach that felt catered only to those who knew every word, this was a good time to look around at all the pretty colors jazzing up City Hall, grab a Sam Adams at the Octoberfest tents, or play Jenga with big ass pieces of wood over by the adult playground far away from the stage.
Closing the night was New York indie rock royalty the National, making a return appearance after headlining the inaugural Boston Calling in May of last year just as Trouble Will Find Me hit the mainstream. These are the benefits of acting as co-curators, as is the festival role of guitarist Aaron Dessner. But this encore was no charity case; the National’s sublime, at-times explosively withdrawn and confessional rock and roll was the perfect capper to a carefully-curated introduction masquerading as a Friday night party, highlights being the sullen “I Need My Girl” and sing-along stomper “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” It was a confident, crowd-pleasing effort — they took the stage to the Doors’ “Riders On The Storm” — that stole nothing from the 18 or so bands coming up Saturday and Sunday but also raised the bar for the fest’s large-font bands this weekend and beyond.
To think there’s two more days of this, both double in length of tonight’s get-together, is both awesome and intimidating. Let’s hope the weather holds up and the colors keep shining on — and off — a suddenly lively and attractive City Hall.