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The 10 Best Things About Boston Calling

Matthew Shelter | May 28, 2013

Matt & Kim

Boston finally joined the ranks of the other big-kid cities by staging its first-ever music festival May 25-26 at City Hall Plaza in the heart of downtown. Christened the Boston Calling Music Festival, the two-day affair featured 18 bands on two stages erected at opposite ends of the sprawling brick plaza that surrounds Boston’s City Hall, and drew close to 20,000 fans each day.

Here are the 10 best things about the first-ever Boston Calling:

1) Free Ponchos – Hey, the weather sucked. I guess it’s possible to have worse weather at an outdoor festival, but not much worse. Temps on Saturday were in the 40’s. And it was raining. And it was windy. Sunday was better but still mighty chilly for late May. It was so cold that Of Monsters And Men, who are from Iceland (Iceland!), had to point it out. “We are from Iceland and should know cold. But this is really cold.” And that was on Sunday, the nicer of the two days! But hey, it’s Boston. Surviving the first day of the festival became a rite of passage. Festival organizers did hand out free ponchos to everyone entering on Saturday, and the fact that the event was held on a broad expanse of brick with nary a blade of grass in sight meant there wasn’t any mud (silver lining).

2) Well-chosen Line-up – The whole line-up for the inaugural festival ended up coming off like a well put-together playlist. There was plenty of variety, but there was also a sound that carried things along from group to group, a sort of dreamy trippy indie pop vibe that connected bands as disparate as Fun., The Shins, Of Monsters And Men, Young The Giant and The Cults. The National’s Aaron Dessner, who helped curate the festival, said he was looking for bands that were strong in both songwriting and musicianship. The ones he found blended very well together.

3) Ms Mr Covering LCD Soundsystem – Ms Mr, the dream pop duo out of New York, produced one of the first “moments” of the festival with a spacey cover of LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean.” There weren’t 20,000 people in the venue yet, but there were at least 5,000 in front of the side stage where Ms Mr were playing an early afternoon set, and the duo (the Ms is Lizzy Plapinger and the Mr is Max Hershenow) got them all into one groove that made you forget about the cold and the rain.

4) Matt & Kim – Here’s an interesting fact: there is no music festival anywhere in the United States of America that would not be improved by having Matt & Kim on the bill. Anyone who has seen their live shows knows how crazy they roll, but the pair was on fire at Boston Calling. There really are no filters on their stage act; they are pure rock-and-roll id. I think I may know more about Matt & Kim’s sex life than my own. Their lyrics aren’t terribly profound – tending toward the “let’s go, let’s go, let’s go” end of the spectrum – but it doesn’t matter. They were the talk of the festival in the wake of their 45-minute ecstasy rave.

5) Portugal. The Man – The band from Wasilla, Alaska was the hardest-rocking outfit at Boston Calling, and maybe in an effort to keep warm they put on a blazing hour-long set that included a handful of tracks from their forthcoming album, Evil Friends, set to be released in early June. Most notable was a string of songs connecting the title track from the new album with the standout “So American” from 2011’s In The Mountain In The Cloud and “People Say” from 2009’s The Satanic Satinist. They closed with a hard-as-nails version of “Hey Jude.”

Fun.

6) * “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” * – Fun. wrapped up a headline-worthy set on the festival’s first night with a sweet cover of the Stones classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Charismatic frontman Nate Reuss noted from the stage that this was the Grammy-winning band’s biggest show to date. As they strummed the signature opening chords to the Stones song, a roar of approval echoed across the frozen plaza. This is the reason people stand in the cold for eight hours, for moments like this and songs like this.

7) Caspian – This local band out of Beverly, Mass. launched Day 2 of the festival with an unexpectedly blistering set of instrumental, post-rock crunch. I didn’t know anything about them coming into the festival but was googling them when their set was done – always a good sign.

8) Of Monsters And Men – It was clear from talking to festival-goers that Of Monsters And Men were a big part of the draw on Sunday, almost as much as the headliners. The quintet out of Iceland has generated a fair amount of buzz over the last year, but still seems to lack indie street cred. There are those who pooh pooh Of Monsters And Men as some sort of lightweight pop band. They couldn’t be more wrong. Live in concert all their songs get muscled up. A lot of that has to do with the propulsive drumming of Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson, who looks like someone the band plucked off a fishing boat in Reykjavik Harbor and installed behind their drum kit. Highlights of their hour-long set included “Dirty Paws,” “Slow And Steady,” “Lakehouse,” and “Little Talks,” the last of which is tailor-made for a festival crowd.

9) Young The Giant – This was another band that I was unfamiliar with coming into the festival but was immediately captivated by. They’re an indie band out of California whose eponymous debut was released two years ago. Their songs range between spacey jams and gut-wrenching tales of pain and anguish. Lead singer Sameer Gadhia is a captivating presence, throwing himself around the stage like some Middle Eastern Joe Cocker. Their version of “What You Get,” as day turned to night on Sunday, was positively hypnotic.

10) The National – This was the first major show for The National following the release of their latest album, Trouble Will Find Me, just a few days prior, and they featured a good half-dozen songs off the new disk in their 90-minute set. The new songs were well-received, but the standouts from the set included an intense version of “Abel,” off of 2005’s Alligator, a set-closing “Fake Empire” that seemed to spiral up into infinity, and an encore version of “Mr. November” in which frontman Matt Berninger, who looks like he could have been a favorite high school science teacher in an alternate life, waded a good 20 or 30 rows into the packed-house crowd. A fitting close to a well-done first-year festival.

As an encore of their own, festival organizers announced from the stage that there will be another Boston Calling in September, featuring Vampire Weekend, Passion Pit, Local Natives, Kendrick Lamar and others.