I’m old enough to remember a time when there were thick, dark, and usually kinda sexist and racist lines separating all the major music genres. But if I may point to a rare bright patch in the unholy nightmarescape that is 2019 America, a ubiquitous morsel of hip-hop-informed wild west fantasy dropped off by 20-year-old Lil Nas X handedly defined Saturday’s Boston Calling itinerary (May 25), punching a big ol’ hole in a barrier… ah, let’s call them “country purists”… can pretend remains impassable, but the hard numbers state to the contrary.
Though wildly different from what we recognize as Soundcloud rap in just about every other respect, “Old Town Road” echoes the incidental futurism that made Lil Peep (RIP) such an unlikely galaxy brain. See, if Fred Durst had written “Old Town Road,” it’d have hip-hop verses, a country chorus, we’d hear no discernible natural instinct to fuse the styles, and the whole deal would scan as a gimmick. But Nas X, it seems — who played his breakout hit and his breakout hit only during a break in Anderson .Paak’s midday set — just-so-happened to absorb his fair share of country and hip-hop over the years (kinda hard for him to avoid, having growing up in Georgia and whatnot), so those elements blended together in his noggin, and “Old Town Road” resonates like it came out organically. In much the same way, Peep made songs that were simultaneously emo and hip-hop just ‘cos he listened to a lot of rap and Warped Tour bands without devoting much attention to where one ended and the other began.
But if the bleeding edge of the mainstream has grown oblivious or indifferent to the building blocks of our musical lexicon, how do we talk about comparatively more traditional artists. Like, oh, let’s say, Mitski.
During her previous Boston Calling endeavor in 2017, you could’ve easily gotten confused and thought “Mitski” was the name of a band, as opposed to the title of the New York singer-songwriter herself. Brandishing a bass alongside a guitarist and a drummer, she appeared at the helm of a good ol’ fashioned power trio setup. But characterized by not-quite-so obviously guitar-centric singles “Nobody” and “Geyser,” 2018’s Be The Cowboy leans harder than their prior records into alt-pop than rock, as it’s conventionally defined. And since she’s still technically still touring behind that album, did that mean Mitski would materialize this time around not as the front person of a rock band, but as a pop singer?
Well, yes and no. Mitski didn’t play a live instrument on Saturday, which freed her up to dance like an android and slide around on a nondescript white chair and table to add a little zazz to the goings-on. But with guitar, bass, and drums all still included, plus gnarly, pre-Cowboy songs like “Dan the Dancer,” “Townie,” and “Drunk Walk Home” deployed with as much force and focus as ever, we can’t accuse Mitski of forcing a 180 and trying to pass herself off as Lady Gaga or anything like that, because people would think we’re crazy.
But while Mitski’s infrastructural formula remains pretty much the same, her archetype is a different story. Seeing as how we’ve all been absorbing music advertising and music-related promotional and marketing messages for basically our whole lives, it’s kinda hard to unlearn the conditioning that’s trained us to talk and think one way about performers who dance and sing about their sexual and romantic careers, and a different way about performers who wield a loud electric-stringed instrument while yelling about those same subjects. Mitski moving the dial on her presentation by simply handing the bass over to someone else doesn’t impact anybody’s listening experience, but going forward, dumb interviewers are way less likely to ask her what it’s like to be a woman in rock.
What I wanna know is next time I talk to somebody who says they’re mad that there aren’t any heavy rock and roll guitar bands at Boston Calling anymore, will they take me seriously if I point to Mitski and say, “Here’s one! And it’s a good’un!”?
Or maybe I can tell them to go ask the guy in neon green and white Reebok Pumps who went hard during White Reaper Saturday afternoon if he feels rock and roll deprived. ‘Cos y’know who definitely knows how to rock? Anybody wearing Pump sneakers in 2019. (I’m incapable of writing that sentence in a way that doesn’t read as sarcastic, but I assure you, it is not meant to be.)
Once upon a while ago, I futilely hoped Boston Calling organizers would lure the recently reformed Mclusky across the Atlantic for a festival payday. Instead I got Shame, which is, ah, not as good, but at least checks three of Mclusky’s boxes: They’re British, irreverent, and noisy. But the aforementioned two acts felt a little redundant after Pile more than filled the day’s quota for unmitigated auditory upheaval. The onetime (current? I assume they’ve all moved?) hometown quartet sent their early afternoon Green Stage crowd on a proverbial malfunctioning amusement park ride across the emotional spectrum, taking extended, leisurely stoppages at the focal points of fury and madness.
You know what’s way scarier than 300 teenage twenty one pilots fans with social media accounts and an axe to grind? Glancing at your phone, looking up, and realizing Pile’s singer has departed the stage and is suddenly screaming the last song 10 feet away from you.
Pile have been doing their thing since the late ‘00s, but when the festival drops newer regional acts in pre-2 p.m. slots, they don’t tend to garner much attention. So it was a pleasant surprise to see Sidney Gish draw at least as many people as Pale Waves — who benefit from way more promotional machinery — managed at a comparable time on the previous day. Bluntly confessional, hyper-specific yet widely-relatable statements like “I want to know the lyrics you think of when you’re high” could turn Gish into this era’s answer to Guyville and Whip-smart-era Liz Phair… unless she already is this era’s answer to Guyville and Whip-smart-era Liz Phair?
Anyway, all the way at the other end of the schedule, what the fuck, there might be tens of thousands of people at this ridiculousness, and less than 200 or so made it over to to soak in Dessa on the Arena Stage at 8:15 p.m.? I realize her solo material lands with a little more finesse, and a little less raw impact than her works in the company of her fellow Doomtree members, but maybe underground hip hop isn’t as popular as I had been led to believe?
Side note: Right before “Take Me To Church,” a Hozier fan who did not appear capable of benching 500 announced to his group of pals, “This song makes me bench, like, 500! Let’s go!” So now we know the secret of Hozier’s appeal. He helps listeners get swole. Would you like to get swole? Then listen to “Take Me To Church.” That’s the best way to get swole, I guess. According to that guy.
Barry Thompson is back at it today for Boston Calling’s final day.