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Ten Best Things About Boston Calling

by Matthew Shelter on May 29, 2014

The third iteration of the Boston Calling Music Festival took place over Memorial Day weekend, amid the brick-and-mortar splendor that is City Hall Plaza. The biannual festival – there are editions in May and September – expanded to a third day this time around, with an abbreviated Friday evening schedule. More than 20 bands graced the festival’s two stages over the long weekend.

Here is a subjective take on the 10 best things about Boston Calling 3.0:

Man on Fire

Far and away the highlight of Friday night’s show was the set by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. After opening with “40 Day Dream,” the band launched into one of their signature live tunes, “Man On Fire,” and got the early evening crowd jumping and swaying as one. The band’s frontman, Alex Ebert, was clad in loose-fitting white pajamas, a black top coat of sorts and slippers – looking like nothing so much as a patient on unscheduled leave from a mental health facility (perhaps as a result of exposure to all those magnetic zeros).

Whatever his story, the man knows how to get a groove on. “Man On Fire” warmed the crowd as the thermometer dipped perilously close to 50° with the sun going down. Ebert repeatedly hopped the rail separating the audience from the stage, plunging into the crowd, handing his microphone around and coaxing fans to sing a verse with him. The other two Friday artists, Cass McCombs and headliner Jack Johnson, turned in good sets, but Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros set the true tone for the festival.

Two Good Up-and-Coming Bands

Saturday and Sunday each saw sharp early sets by young, up-and-coming bands. Boston-based Magic Man, a synth-rock outfit that was one of two local acts on the bill, opened the festival on Saturday with a short, tight seven-song set of danceable numbers from their forthcoming album Before the Waves, due out in early July. Lead singer Alex Caplow can dance and leap across stage with the best of ‘em. Their music would appeal to fans of another Massachusetts-based synth-rock band that has made a name for themselves, Passion Pit.

Sunday saw a very different sort of band, The Districts, turn in a blistering early set. This young quartet out of Philly (young as in not even legal to drink yet) has been generating buzz with their high-octane live performances. Lead guitarist and singer Robby Grote looks like he has a love-hate relationship with the microphone, alternately attracted and repelled by it as he wails lyrics of struggling and stumbling. Highlight of their set was “Funeral Beds,” and a raucous closing jam that stretch on and on, leaving both band and audience ragged and sweaty.

Ashes to Ashes

Warpaint is running the festival circuit this summer in support of their third album, the self-titled Warpaint, released back in January. The album’s moody, ethereal songs take on a harder edge in live performance, with Theresa Wayman’s and Emily Kokal’s intertwined guitars soaring above the pulsing rhythm of bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg and drummer Stella Mozgawa. High points included “Undertow,” off of 2010’s The Fool, and “Love Is to Die,” the single off of Warpaint, but they topped it all off with a soaring cover of David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” that extended into a 15-minute sonic jam, putting an exclamation point on a fine set.

Jenny Lewis

After heavy doses of indie pop and rock, Jenny Lewis brought some welcome soul to the festival with a late-afternoon set on Saturday. She mixed in songs from Rilo Kiley and her solo career, and debuted a couple of new tracks off of her forthcoming album, The Voyager, due out in July. The new songs – an easygoing “Just One of the Guys” and a harder-rocking “Love U Forever” – bode well for the upcoming album, her first in six years. She also featured some of the strongest songs from 2008’s Acid Tongue, including “Pretty Bird,” “The Next Messiah,” “Bad Man’s World” and the title track, but the highlight of the set was a gorgeous version of Rilo Kiley’s “A Man/Me/Then Jim,” with its chorus about “the slow fade of love.”

Lewis and the other musicians on stage with her proved to be a great sunset band, with the long shadows cast by her songs matching the shadows that were stretching across the plaza in Boston as day turned toward evening.

The Head and the Heart

Seattle’s indie folk darlings The Head and the Heart had one of the sub-headlining slots on Saturday. Only three years after the release of their first album, THATH nearly have the musical chops to headline a festival of this size. I saw them put on a fine show two years ago when they were touring in support of their self-titled debut, and they have only improved since then.

Gone is some of the “gee, I can’t believe we’re really on tour” vibe, replaced by a harder, road-sharpened edge to both their music and their stage presence. They opened with a trio of songs from last year’s Let’s Be Still – “Springtime/Summertime,” “Shake” and “Homecoming Heroes” – before dipping back into their earlier songbook for “Couer d’Alene,” “Sounds Like Hallelujah” and “Lost In My Mind.” The two- and three-part harmonies that Charity Rose Thielen, Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell can weave together have lost nothing from three years on the road – no more evident than on crowd-pleasing closers “Down In the Valley” and “Rivers and Roads.”

The Return of The Decemberists

The other subheadlining slot on Saturday went to The Decemberists, marking their official return to the concert stage after a two-year hiatus. Unfortunately for the crowd, the start of The Decemberists set coincided with the only dose of bad weather to mar the festival. “Now begins the Pacific Northwest portion of the program,” Colin Meloy said with a sheepish grin, as a steady rain pelted the crowd. After opening with the suite of title tracks from The Crane Wife, Meloy said “We’re going to try and play a summer song.” They broke into “July, July,” but seemed truly to hit stride with “Down By the Water” and “Calamity Song,” both off their most recent album, 2011’s well-received The King Is Dead.

Meloy noted from the stage that the band is working on a new album, and they played two unnamed songs from the forthcoming disc. They closed out their hour-long set with another summer song, “June Hymn,” and by then the rains had abated.

Phosphorescent

Alabama native Matthew Houck, who performs under the stage name Phosphorescent, made up for musically what he lacked in fashion during a Sunday afternoon set. Sporting black jeans, shades, a Phosphorescent t-shirt and an “I Love Miami” cap of the kind found at only the finest truck stops in the land, Houck brought Muchacho and his earlier albums to life with a superb set of guitar-driven rock. The set featured at least a half dozen songs off the most recent album, including a steel-guitar tinged “Down to Go” and a soaring “The Quotidian Beasts.” Houck and his four supporting musicians closed it all out with an extended jam on older tune, “Los Angeles,” that ended up in Neil Young and Crazy Horse territory.

Tegan and Sara

The appeal of Tegan and Sara is in their marriage of pop song sensibility to rock and roll beat. The result is raw and mesmerizing. I had misunderestimated this duo as being a little too cute and poppy, but that misperception was cleared up right from the get-go, when they opened with a blazing version of “Back In Your Head.” Backed by a formidable rhythm section, keyboards and guitar, the duo rocks like a pair of street toughs. Watching their set was like expecting a trip on a moped and getting a lift on a Harley instead. The songs positively thrummed along: “Monday Monday Monday,” “Goodbye, Goodbye,” “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend,” “Now I’m All Messed Up.” Perfect driving music – and perfect festival music.

Brand New

When Brand New hit the stage at dusk on Sunday, the festival got a quick jolt of adrenaline. The emo band generated the most rabid fan response of the festival, with more than a few in the crowd attempting to hurl themselves at the stage. This may not be a band I would listen to on album (simply a matter of taste), but their live show won me over through sheer take-no-prisoners brashness, particularly during “Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t,” “Sic Transit Gloria…Glory Fades” and an epic, set-closing version of “You Won’t Know.”

Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse brought the festival to a close with a shimmering, hour-plus set Sunday night. These indie rock veterans have not released an album in quite some time, but still retain ardent fan support on the basis of their live shows. They played a stretch including “Paper Thin Walls,” “Dance Hall,” “Dashboard” and “Dramamine” that was as good as anything heard all weekend.

Boston Calling returns in September with a strong lineup anchored by The National, Lorde, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Replacements, and NAS & The Roots.

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