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Boston Calling

by Victoria Wasylak and Taleen Simonian

Photography by Mike Diskin

Friday, May 27 – by Victoria Wasylak

Festival fanatics gathered for what they had just learned would be the last Boston Calling at City Hall Plaza, the iconic skyscrapers surrounding the two stages like art deco barricades. With the new format of only Memorial Day weekend festivals—thus no more concerts in September—the brick musical Eden saw the beginning of the end of its biannual bash.

Irish songstress Lisa Hannigan wielded a humble stage presence combined with lyrics so crisp they could have been pulled from a detailed memoir (see: “Little Bird”). Festival producer Aaron Dessner inched his way onto the lineup as one of her accompanists onstage, alongside mellowed-out keyboard, drums and bass, her whispery vocals added the proper garnish to the hollowed-out acoustic melodies. On “Knots” the group played together with the cadence of a thundering freight train, seamlessly complementing each other, with Hannigan on the ukulele.

Almost per tradition, Hannigan fit the usual style of every Boston Calling opener, her sparse folk typical of most Friday openers. Past openers included Sharon Van Etten and Gregory Alan Isakov who exuded a similar vibe. Her set proved that yes, some songwriters can be pulled from the dark pits of open mic night and launched into the dusky spotlight.

Sufjan Stevens dressed for the Electric Daisy Carnival, bringing an entre squad of neon-clad musicians onstage with him, crewmembers included. Rising in a mellow vocal crescendo, he raised his costume wings as his voice soared on “Seven Swans,” subsequently shattering his banjo amongst the balloons strewn onstage. Sonics alone, Stevens presented himself like an ethereal rocker tinged with funk, but visually, his crew was a viable opening raver for The Flaming Lips.

Amidst the chaos, Stevens’ vocals were hardly audible, let alone decipherable, making for 12 cosmic but homogenous songs. During the finale, he donned a (potentially Lady Gaga-inspired) half-jellyfish, half-disco suit atop a ladder swathed in prism-like wrapping paper. To sum it up with a traditional drug metaphor, it was as if the ’80s took shrooms and projectile vomited all over the stage.

Stepping onstage as Friday’s headliner, Sia found herself in a locale she never intended to be in. In the face of a stadium tour, beginning with Boston Calling, she masquerades behind her now-iconic black and white wig, her only refuge from the aggressive flashbulbs of the press.

With an air of mystery, crewmembers dropped a black curtain to reveal Sia atop a white perch, her dancers gyrating in front of her and the clean white background. On the jumbotron next to her, pre-recorded music videos matched every move onstage, most times indistinguishable from one another between the identical costuming and choreography; from dance hit “Cheap Thrills” to borderline abusive “Big Girls Cry,” and a totally new cut of “Elastic Heart.”

Sia’s entire feat was a cinematic production, a live action expression of abstractism and hypersensitivity. Feelings abounded from the intricacy of her howls and her dancers’ evocative performances—exhaustion, mania, desperation, isolation, invincibility. Rigid paranoia crept in during the anxious whispers piped in during the interludes.

For a woman who made no eye contact onstage, she bonded immediately with the crowd on opening number “Alive.” While she moved very little from her perch, when she did shift to match the music videos, seeing-eye crewman gently escorted her as she followed blindly.

In the years since her pop stardom explosion, Sia has become known for her versatile and soaring “I’m still alive” anthems, “Bird Set Free” and “Unstoppable” being main sources of inspiration. But straying slightly from that reputation, Sia treated the crowd to “Diamonds” (a Rihanna hit she penned) and pre-stardom “Breathe Me.” For a finale, she offered the “Titanium” heard ’round the world in a stripped-down version of the EDM hit, and offered her utmost vocal vulnerability on “Chandelier.”

With an innovative and raw presentation, Sia wooed and bonded with the crowd without a single bat of an eye.

Saturday, May 28 – by Taleen Simonian

Boston-based rock group Palehound kicked off the day, gracing the crowd with their wry, unparalleled sound. At the center of attention was Ellen Kempner, who showed off her agile guitar skills song after song through effortless strums during complex melodies. Her silky-smooth, impassioned vocals cut through the instrumental sounds of “Healthier Folk” and reached a point of growling aggression in “Cinnamon.” Palehound’s lyrics were notably confessional, allowing the crowd to feel as if they each had a timely glance at Kempner’s secret diary.

With the bar set high, hip-hop aficionado Lizzo took the stage, accompanied by her entourage of dancers. With a hard-as-nails sound, Lizzo showcased her rapping skills and fiery attitude from the get-go with “Ain’t I.” To the crowd’s delight, the feminist rapper gave a tribute to Prince mid-performance, proclaiming, “It’s a purple summer, Boston!” Near the conclusion of her set, she set aside her prickly exterior and sang “My Skin” with a soulful passion that made everyone forget, if only for a moment, that she was all about delivering a sassy tell-off through her music. By the end of her performance, Lizzo left the crowd feeling content knowing that they'd seen both sides of her.

A shift in sound occurred when Battles took the stage, opting for a slew of instrumentally-driven songs from their latest album, La Di Da De. With a tasteful marriage of guitar, drums and keyboard, the group successfully mesmerized their audience. The limber guitar and bass chops, executed with absolute finesse made a standout performance. When lyrics did accompany the music, they were strictly limited to prerecorded choruses. The vocals resembled the high-pitched voices of children singing in unison, adding a twang of youthful innocence to their otherwise mature-sounding set.

The rock vibes continued, altered slightly by The Vaccines, who infused a hint of indie to their performance. Channeling a sound similar to that of The Strokes, the English rock quartet captivated the crowd with songs “Wetsuit” and “Post Break-Up Sex.” Easy-to-follow choruses and singer Justin Young’s buttery voice allowed everyone, even those who weren't familiar with the band’s songs, to sing along. Guitar solos undercut soft melodies and added a hardened element to their sound, validating the band’s rock roots.

Keeping the indie sounds alive, BØRNS was greeted with a warm welcome by fans eagerly awaiting the singer’s collection of euphoric, falsetto-heavy songs. With his shoulder length hair frizzing in the humid air, BØRNS flounced across the stage in a floral top and began crooning his dreamy love song, “Past Lives.” By the time he reached his hit song “10,000 Emerald Pools,” the crowd was eating up his energy like the candy he sang about in his final song, “Electric Love.” Each track was performed with noticeably more passion than can be heard on the recorded versions, making the BØRNS live experience that much more attractive.

Courtney Barnett then took the stage to rough up the gooey vibes left behind by BØRNS. Dressed in casual jeans, an oversized t-shirt, a baseball cap and, of course, a guitar, Barnett looked just like her songs sound: effortlessly cool. No time was wasted as the Australian native delivered songs including “Dead Fox” and “Pedestrian at Best” in such an impassive way, she almost looked bored. Almost is the key word, because her elaborate guitar work required epic concentration. Her jumble of raw lyrics are what enthralled the audience in the first place, as they nodded their heads to rock songs about things as simple as houses. That’s Barnett’s charm; what she lacks in stage performance, she makes up for in lyrical genius and master guitar skills.

The mood then took a 180 degree turn, shifting from nod-your-head rock to sway-your-body acoustic. City and Colour brought music that was slow and melancholy, easy to take in and hard to forget. Starting off with “Woman,” the first track off of their latest album, If I Should Go Before You, singer Dallas Green and his band created an intimate feel amidst the nearly chaotic festival. Delving into the rest of their set, the group executed folky sounds that were leveled out with riffs of the electric guitar. Their stage setup was sparse, lacking in lights, background and any superfluous set piece. Yet, when they made their quiet exit from the stage, the crowd was left feeling fully satisfied.

The sounds featured at the fest continued their transition as the indie, synth pop sounds of Miike Snow were introduced. Opening with the impressively falsetto-driven “My Trigger,” the crowd couldn't resist the group’s infectious, groovy beats. Their music was more than enough to keep the audience engaged, but it was the camerawork that was a highlight of the set. The spotlight was shared with the performers and the listeners, as concertgoers eagerly tried to pinpoint themselves in a sea of hundreds that the camera featured. People were raising their hands, dancing and singing along to the music in hopes of getting their moment in the spotlight. Miike Snow proved they knew how to masterfully entertain as the crowd nearly exploded during the highly-anticipated “Animal,” where lead singer Andrew Wyatt belted lyrics and twirled the microphone chord around his finger in true rockstar fashion.

As the day rapidly approached its conclusion, ODESZA filled City Hall Plaza with their dreamy, electric sounds. With a flashing light show almost as impressive as their eclectic range of synths, the duo added prominent beats to songs that were heavy, but not overpowering. Such was noticeable in their remix of Zhu’s “Faded,” which was recognized by many and received praise for its revved up sound and new rhythm. With a set list that oozed energy and featured regular bass drops, songs like “Say My Name” were greeted with an energetic reception. ODESZA made a point of calling attention to their live band, composed of the trombone and trumpet, giving their entertaining performance a whole new dimension.

The crowd’s energy was nearly palpable by the time Saturday’s headliner, Swedish pop icon Robyn, took the stage to close the show and kick off her summer festival performances in America. To upkeep her electro-pop reputation, she performed a slew of remixes of her original songs, most noticeably Axel Boman’s take on “Hang With Me” and The Black Madonna’s version of “Indestructible.” The stage was dripping in metallic silver and gold costumes and instruments, shining as bright as the starlet who was performing her hit songs. Robyn herself was dressed to the nines in a silver bodysuit, attracting the eyes of everyone and complementing her platinum hair. The lights that accompanied her set were striking, displaying a different color for each song, reminiscent of a mood ring. By the end of her 90-minute set, covering songs such as “Stars 4-ever” and “With Every Heartbeat,” Robyn visibly exceeded the crowd’s expectations.

Sunday, May 29 – by Taleen Simonian

Boston-based rapper Michael Christmas opened the fest, but he was visibly unaffected by the intimidating task; it was apparent in the swagger of his step that he could handle anything thrown at him. With elements of hip-hop immediately identifiable in his music, Christmas delivered just the right energy to get the crowd going.

In the spirit of diverse music, Christine & The Queens was the next act to take on Boston Calling. Executing a set list oozing with electronic, pop sounds, Héloïse Letissier and her army of agile dancers overdosed the crowd with a pulsing energy that had no chance of being eradicated. Her French roots were celebrated as Letissier performed a song in her native tongue that was mashed with Kanye Wests’s “Heartless,” adding a sense of familiarity for her audience. The rest of Christine & The Queens’ songs paralleled the upbeat, sunny sound heard throughout their set. Before she exited the stage, Letissier was sure to say a polite merci beaucoup to the cheering crowd.

The transition to the psychedelic, R&B sounds of Unknown Mortal Orchestra was a brief one, giving the crowd little time to adjust to the change in pace. However, this enhanced the group’s opening number, as listeners embraced the sweet melodies of guitar, drums and piano. With songs featuring colossal hooks as well as significant time set side for instrumental solos, the members of Unknown Mortal Orchestra proved just how large of a creative force they are through their music.

It was then that rapper Vince Staples returned the element of hip-hop to the fest. Sauntering around the stage in a simple getup of jeans and a sweatshirt, Staples looked like he was in his element. He served as an outlet of energy while performing “Nate,” a real-talk, raw track that riled up the crowd to a heightened extent. He created unadulterated fun, relying on nothing and no one but himself to curate a good time. By the end of his set, he was expressing his approval of the crowd, who was anything but lethargic, and exited the stage on a high note.

Next up was Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaries, one of the highlights of the entire festival. From his first to last moment on stage, Bradley had the audience hooked on his powerful, resonant voice. The soul singer was dressed in his Sunday best, sporting a sequined, floral jacket layered over a faded, burgundy suit. If his clothing wasn't enough to impress the audience, his raw talent, which was undeniable as he belted out the lyrics to “You Put The Flame On It” had what it took to turn heads. Riding on the immense momentum of his songs, Bradley was almost always swaying back and fourth, eyes closed, feeling the music in his bones.

The Front Bottoms took their time on stage to play around with their eclectic sounds of rock, indie and punk. Jumping around like a child on a sugar high, vocalist Brian Sella eagerly encouraged the crowd to join him in signing songs like “The Beers” and “Summer Shandy.” Leaving time for instrumental solos as well as crowd banter, the New Jersey band utilized their lyrics and overall sound to elicit certain emotions from the audience that typically only early 2000s rock bands like Paramore and Simple Plan could have.

Adding a heavy dose of blues to the lingering rock vibes, Elle King waltzed to her microphone with a drink in hand. Her icy blue hair, revealing hues of lavender when the stage lights swept over it, and her flared jeans characterized King as a woman who doesn't have a care in the world about trends. And with a dominant voice like hers, why should she? Her set served a dose of reality to listeners, featuring pessimistic lyrics like “Preacher man won't cut no slack / Called my demons but gave them back.” But even so, they went unnoticed as King’s gravely voice reached high and low notes, dripping out of her mouth with ease and becoming somewhat of an addiction to listeners. Before anyone knew it, an hour had passed and King, to listeners’ dismay, said her final goodbye.

Janelle Monáe contrasted King’s sound with her R&B, funk tunes. Her elaborate, all white set was overtaken by her band, backup singers and

dancers, and Monáe clearly enjoyed the company. Her voice was distinct through her music, reiterating her ongoing theme of choosing freedom over fear and promoting equality of all races, genders and religions. Her performance was well-executed, incorporating jazzy dance moves and a spotlight on the instrumental abilities of her band. “Q.U.E.E.N” and “Electric Lady,” upbeat songs with powerful messages, had the crowd dancing and singing along. Monáe’s all-out energy seemed to put her in her very own world and for the reminder of her set, the audience was simply a part of it.

When the soft rock sounds of Haim began, crowds of eager listeners surged toward the stage in order to get a better look at the trio. When they were able to catch a glimpse of the ladies, it was obvious that they were inherently cool. Dressed in leather jackets, the sisters were illuminated by yellowing lights and covered in fog, giving them a nearly surreal appearance. With their advanced instrumental skills and harmonic voices, it was sometimes hard to decipher of the sisters were, in fact, real. Shredding their guitars and whipping their voluminous heads of hair to “If I Could Change Your Mind,” it was clear that HAIM knew exactly how to please audience. Playing popular singles like “The Wire” and debuting newly recorded material, the sisters gave everything they had to their audience, who ate it up and left none to spare.

Closing the entire festival was a job well fit for Disclosure, the U.K. synth-pop duo known for their unprecedented sound and collaborations with popular vocalists. Their setup was detailed; lights and screens were working harmoniously to make the audience feel as if they had been transported into a different dimension. Disclosure did far more than simply play around with buttons to make beats; they added a touch of live instruments to the show. Another addition was their own vocals, featured alongside recordings of artists like Sam Smith and Lorde. Dressed in all black, the duo blended in with their surroundings and could have easily been missed if it weren't for the occasional light that shone on them. Yet, what they were producing was impossible to ignore—the beats of their songs were like small explosions, loud and vibrating the bodies of listeners. They provided the perfect tempo to dance to, and after 90 minutes of raving, Disclosure closed the final Boston Calling at City Hall Plaza.

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