“The bathrooms here are air conditioned. So, if you need me… you know where I’ll be.” Ellen Kempner of Palehound kicked off the main stage performances on the second day of Boston Calling with a bit of self-deprecation, needling the sparse, sweaty, and sticky crowd. Even an innocent mirthful taunt may not have gone over well, given that so many of the early attendees were doing their best to hide from the sun in the shadows of city hall. But kicking off a festival day with a set as taut and feisty as Palehound’s meant the crowd was easy to excuse any gibes she decided to toss our way.
And we were off on day two.
It was tough for Palehound to generate much momentum, given the scattered crowd littering the front of the stage. But Kempner and company managed to whip up something of a cyclone nonetheless. They started their set innocently, playing “Healthier Folks” from last year’s Dry Food. Kempner’s fragile voice wavered, but nailed every turn of the tune’s precarious melody, and the dedicated crowd responded in kind, tremulously dancing and digging deeper into the set. By the time the band reached the lopsided waltz of “Drooler,” from their Bent Nail EP, the skittered meter and tempo changes were in the band’s wheelhouse and the only shame of the performance was that Palehound wrapped up their set just as they were getting warm. The rest of us were already too hot.
The heat sapped any energy from the third stage of local comedy and music before the performers really started. A small crowd had gathered early, but most had retreated to the stairs in the shadow of city hall. Host Lamont Price was a trooper, as were comics Ken Reid and Kelly MacFarland. With the only laughter really coming from a small cadre of folks about twenty feet from the stage, they each pressed on. Reid worked the situation into a schtick, which was about the best any of them can do given the lethargy.
The situation had changed by the time the first band, Nemes, hit the third stage. A younger crew filed in for the energetic set, thickening the crowd. What Nemes lacked in presentation, they made up for in enthusiasm. With the better part of the rhythm section turned inward, playing to each other, the front wave of the audience bopped, but the back of the crowd watched silently filing in and out of the plaza.
Meanwhile, the Vaccines tore out a practiced and professional set that contrasted the local stage, with frontman Justin Young throwing his arms wide to welcome the reverent front rows of the audience. Awash in the screams of adolescent fans, Young bopped through a series of Vaccines’ best-ofs, particularly reveling in the libidinous “Post-Breakup Sex.” If there’s any man at Boston Calling happier to be a rock star than Justin Young, we’d be hard-pressed to find him.
Lizzo easily spun out of one of the most energetic and engaging sets of the day. She blended the playful and the thoughtful, admonishing the audience to put their phones away, but doing so because they were about to be doused by big gold water guns — a much appreciated gesture on the blistering plaza. And Lizzo’s performance did little to alleviate the heat, turning it up with each tune.
DJ Sophia played the roles of DJ, hype woman, and backup singer/rapper to Lizzo’s performance, providing pummeling beats for Lizzo and the Big Grrrls, Lizzo’s backup dancers. Lizzo owned the stage, striding widely to play out to the audience from end to end of City Hall plaza. Given the sheen of Friday night’s latter two performances, Lizzo and Palehound provided a genuine counter to the pop artifice of the previous evening, leveling a genuine, uplifting, and body positive image to the early crowd. And as she did at Hangout Fest last weekend, Lizzo gave a shoutout to her hometown hero Prince, with whom she and DJ Sophia collaborated on “BoyTrouble” on Prince’s Plectrumelectrum.
Is there a good live setting for post-rock soundscapes like those of Battles? Perhaps a more intimate club space would have done the trick, but here at City Hall Plaza the band’s slowly shifting textures washed over the crowd, and reverberated off of City Hall. The effect was soporific — and their affect was soporific — as there wasn’t much to give us a sense that we were witness to anything that couldn’t have taken place in their rehearsal space.
Except for the crash cymbal? What was up with that?
Finding something new to say about Courtney Barnett is a challenge. She’s built a tumult of press attention, and there are very few critical evaluations left that might offer a new angle on Barnett or her music. In some news, I suppose Barnett’s slacker chic presentation lends itself to drawing in the stoner crowd, since about five joints were in circulation near us during her set. At the same time, a large part of Barnett’s audience comprised adolescent girls in “that could be me” adoration. Given that Barnett was the first booked artist for this year’s festival, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that she drew a cross-section of fans. Though many of those fans retreated to shade since Barnett performed during the most sun-soaked hour of the day.
Despite that, Barnett eased into her set with a rote take on her single, “Dead Fox,” before deliberately amping up the performance, culminating with a roar through “Pedestrian At Best.” Drawing on the energy and awe from the audience, she found herself writhing on her back, grinding through some of the most raucous rock and roll Boston Calling has seen this weekend.
Remember Chris Gaines? The alter ego of Garth Brooks? The one that released a single pop album — which bombed horribly — and had an awful soul patch? City and Colour brought him to mind a little too readily. There was little wrong with Dallas Green’s performance — his voice resounded throughout the festival with a brilliance and clarity that few could match — but there was little exciting about his performance either. He stood stock-still with a blasé take on contemporary folk, providing a staid moment to an otherwise ramping energy on Saturday.
Yesterday, we gave out our earliest award for Biggest Spectacle. Today, we give out our award for best attempt to pay tribute David Bowie. Truth be told it, there was only one attempt to pay tribute to David Bowie today, but BØRNS offered a full-on ode to rock of the 1970s replete with a solid, if unremarkable cover of Bowie’s “Heroes.” His broader ode began with his best Robert Plant impression, wailing in his upper tessitura. It continued throughout the set with a band driving and throbbing in emulation of disco Led Zeppelin, led by drummer Kristen GP. Closing the set with “Electric Love,” BØRNS channeled Marc Bolan, completing his tour through British rock of the 1970s, through the peculiar pop lens of Garrett Borns.
On the third stage, Bostonians Lady Pills also offered a tour of rock history. But instead of a decade, Lady Pills connected wormholes through a number of eras, bands, and styles. Guitarist Ella Boissonnault sported a Danelectro of 60s garage rock issue, while bassist Alison Dooley took the stage with a Lemmy Kilmister model Rickenbacker. The retro visuals were in place, at least instrumentally.
Lady Pills favor 90s local favorites Blake Babies, but with a sultry and eerie edge casting them toward defunct Brooklynites the Vivian Girls. Couple that with Boissonnault and Dooley’s habit of drawing vocal harmonies directly from the Brian Wilson songbook, and Lady Pills may indeed be the most compelling listen on the local stage. They competed with the abiding bass of Miike Snow’s set in the background, but I think very few of us at the third stage felt worse for the wear because of it.
On that end, the bass heavy sound of Miike Snow evinced awkward dance exhibitions in the crowd, but segued well into the dance-heavy closers Odesza and Robyn. Singer Andrew Wyatt wasn’t in full voice on the evening, recovering from bronchitis. But the show was unaffected, and it was a charming turn from the more highly produced stage shows of the evening before. Wyatt’s presentation was unencumbered by artifice, and the Miike Snow diehards in the audience were feeling it: throwing hands high and singing full-throated.
Wyatt worked complements to the evening in, kicking off “Sylvia” with the lyric, “Reach the city steps tonight,” while singing on the steps of city hall. Such gestures felt a little heavy-handed in Wyatt’s presentation, but it was forgiven. If Wyatt commanded the Miike Snow diehards, the subtle gestures to connect broadly like this one drew the rest of us in.
The evening took a dance turn with the mainstage headliners Odesza and Robyn. The Seattle dance duo Odesza kicked off the last two sets with a chill downtempo groove and a bit of audience interaction. If the set felt a little incomplete — a focus on gradually shifting dance textures instead of traditional forms left anyone on the fringes of EDM looking for something to grab onto — it meant nothing for the grooving bros on the steps of city hall or the chillwave kids at the barrier in front of the stage.
It’s a split decision on headliner Robyn’s performance here at FRB. The Swedish pop queen propelled herself through a kinetic and dynamic performance that had the whole plaza dancing. Even feet in the media tent were tapping throughout the set. Fronting a live band accompanied by some recorded tracks, and supported by backing singers who stepped forward for a lead now and again, Robyn jived her way around the stage, twisting and writhing and generally convincing us all that she may in fact be ageless.
But Robyn wrapped her set ten minutes earlier than advertised, leaving the crowd, and even the tech operators confused. And her late-announced remix project held a number of us waiting for a hook that never came.
(Similarly, there was a split decision on the surprise appearance of Patriot receiver Julian Edelman before Robyn’s set. A Super Bowl hero is always welcome on stage in New England, but more than a few folks grumbled at Edelman’s effusive willingness to indulge every selfie in the photo pit during Robyn’s set. Maybe ease up on things once the music starts, Julian.)
What we do know is that we couldn’t, wouldn’t, and didn’t stop through Robyn’s set. So the dance lineup that spawned a million previews? Yeah, it’s working out for the organizers so far.