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Boston Calling Spring 2014: Top 10 Sets + Photos

Festival Review

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Midday Sunday, I bumped into one of Boston Calling’s PR folks in the photo pit gearing up for Phosphorescent’s set. Knowing that I’d attended the previous two installments of the fest, she asked how I thought this one was going. I commented on their ability to adapt, to change, and figure things out, whether it’s dealing with a two-year construction plan usurping the space of one of their stages or finding a way to better service VIP.

“So you think it’s better this year?” she asked me. “Well, it’s hard to say,” I replied with a smile. “There were no problems last time, so what do you say when there are still no problems?”

I’m not just buttering their bread because Boston is my hometown. (Okay, I grew up outside the city limits, but it’s not like I’m from New Hampshire). The folks behind Boston Calling just really have their shit together. At first glance, there’s no less suitable location for a music festival than the brick courtyard and ugly stone facades of City Hall Plaza. But for three straight events, Crash Line Productions and 44-Communications have not just pulled it off, but done so with aplomb.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

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The biggest challenge they had to face this year was likely the construction taking place on the Government Center train station. The station usually lets out right at the gate of the festival, making for easy transport and entrance. With a two-year plan to upgrade the T stop beginning in March, that quick access was no longer available. Worse for the fest, the construction zone ate up the location where their secondary Red Stage sat last September.

Their solution came from shifting the stage 90 degrees to the right, lining it up perpendicular with the edge of the main Blue Stage. With the lightbooths now split in two, there was the risk of upsetting large portions of the crowd. Yet there was still plenty of room to move about and shift between the stages for an excellent view, even if you had to leave one for the other a bit earlier than before. It’s not like you’d really miss much music, anyway; the stages were barely a football field apart, if that.

Food service was also improved, with more variety inside the festival’s fenced-off perimeter, like Bon Me sandwiches or the you-don’t-get-it-till-you’ve-had-it Roxy Grilled Cheese. Sure, the VIP/Media food service didn’t stack up to last year, but from my understanding that’s largely Hard Rock Cafe’s fault, so no damage done to the festival folks. Even beer service was improved, with remarkably swift lines despite what seemed like fewer vendors. And while some folks were bummed that Sam Adams had stepped in as a sponsor/to limit the alcohol assortment, at least the city’s new mayor was down with open ordinances and you weren’t trapped in a guarded beer garden if you wanted a drink.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

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Hell, even the weather held out this go-around. Besides one spat of showers (fittingly during the return of Pacific Northwesterners The Decemberists), the weather report’s threat of rain never came to fruition, and warm late-spring days made for comfortable festing. Attendees were out in mass from the very opening of the gates, filling in considerably more space than in the early hours of last year’s editions to catch “local” openers Magic Man and Tigerman WOAH. From what I witnessed, they were friendlier and more held together than the previous crowds, too. As with any event like this, there were of course those folks who overdid it, but they were swiftly dealt with by EMS and police and far less rampant (whether or not that had anything to do with the makeup of the lineup versus last September’s is up for debate).

So, did Boston Calling get better? Well, it’s hard to say. When you’ve got an event that’s so consistently well-run, crowd-pleasing, and stress-free, how much better can you get? I guess we’ll find out when Boston Calling returns in September with their sickest lineup to date. But before we get ahead of ourselves, here are the 10 sets that helped solidify Boston Calling’s continued success as a worthy entry in the festival game.

–Ben Kaye
Assistant News Editor

Least Concerned with Being Cool

Warpaint

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Saturday, Blue Stage

Redefining Girl Power: Remember when girl power meant leggy skirts, a push-up bra, and a take-no-BS attitude? Well, this is 2014, people, and the new cool is being decidedly uncool. (Not that there isn’t something to be said for the role of overt sexuality in women’s liberation.) When Warpaint took the main stage in the mid-afternoon glow, they certainly didn’t strike me as worrying about impressing anyone. In loose hoodies and Brooklyn-chic garb, the quartet simply went about delivering a tight, tight, tight set of psychedelic indie swayers. “Undertow” was introduced by Emily Kokal as “a dance song,” and while no one was doing the two-step in the crowd, the ladies onstage were showing each other their moves, laughing at their bandmates’ awkward, goofy little motions.

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Their presence wasn’t the only aspect of the performance loaded with unassuming confidence. Even with a few technical snafus, they delivered numbers like The Fool’s “Bees” and Warpaint’s “Love Is to Die” with absorbing consistency, their eerily good harmonies and near-mystic chords swirling through the crowd like a spell. If it felt like the band wasn’t terribly concerned about making an impression on the audience, it was most likely because they didn’t have to be; you don’t need to look like you’re making the biggest effort in the world when you’re just that good.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Smooth recovery, Emily: When one of those equipment difficulties forced a stagehand to come fiddle with Kokal’s keyboard, she asked the crowd, “Can you guess what song we’re playing yet?” Only the most old-school fans would’ve likely recognized the opening bars to David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”, but with the slick delivery and the smooth transition into “Elephant”, any tech issues were easily forgotten.

–Ben Kaye

Most Colorful Performance

Jenny Lewis

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Photo by Tom Hardy

Saturday, Blue Stage

Jenny and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat: Whoa, check out the threads. Between her multi-colored nudie suite and an acoustic guitar that looked like it was lifted from the set of The Neverending Story, Jenny Lewis took the Boston Calling stage Saturday looking like she had a head-on collision with a Crayola box set. But it was hardly a distraction. In fact, the off-the-wall get-up suited pop music’s most free-spirited ingenue quite nicely. Lewis sang and frolicked spiritedly about the stage with carefree non-chalance, her set splitting the difference between countrified alt-pop rockers (“The Next Messiah”) and more subtle, singer-songwriter fare (“Bad Man’s World”). Even the dour sentiments of a song like “Slow Fade of Love” (“I had one friend recently who hung himself with string.”) couldn’t dull Lewis’s shine.

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But the highlight of her set no doubt came in the finale, as Lewis tugged on the crowd’s collective heart strings with a soulful rendition of “Acid Tongue”, complete with her backup band singing a cappella side-by-side around a microphone. Perfect harmony for a picture-perfect spring afternoon. Hearing Lewis dust off her set favorites gave me hunger pangs for new material, but fortunately we won’t have to wait long for the release of her long-awaited third solo joint, The Voyager, on July 29th.

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Photo by Tom Hardy

Jenny, will you go to prom with me? …asked some poor sap in the crowd with a sign. “Did I go to my prom?” Lewis asked playfully. “No.” Tough luck, kid. Have a run at Tegan and Sara tomorrow, though. You never know.

–Ryan Bray

Most Ironic Break in the Weather

Death Cab for Cutie

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Photo by Tom Hardy

Saturday, Blue Stage

Rain, Rain Go Away So I Can Mope: Okay, so you wouldn’t necessarily call Death Cab for Cutie “emo” in the way that perhaps you’d do so with Brand New. There’s no denying, though, that the majority of that band’s material is made up of Debby Downer tunes. That’s why it struck as fairly ironic that their set Saturday night also signaled the end of the one rain shower to dampen the crowd that weekend. “Hope you enjoyed your sunny day until now,” Ben Gibbard said to the crowd early on. While we certainly had, the break in the weather giving way to a cool, clear evening was actually perfectly fitting for DCFC’s indie pop rock vibes. And the band made the absolute most of it.

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I once wrote that the eight-minute long “I Will Possess Your Heart” was a “ballsy first single,” but as a show opener, it’s almost quintessential. With red and purple mood lighting cutting through the plumes of smoke, the song’s long piano build was a perfect way to pull in an audience. The crowd would’ve likely been with them one way or another, though, as you could hear the die-hards belting along throughout to classics like “The New Year” and the encore centerpiece “A Movie Script Ending”. In fact, perhaps the biggest sing-along all weekend came during an acoustic rendition of perhaps the most romantic-yet-depressing entry in their entire catalog, “I Will Follow You into the Dark”. Downer band or not, the crowd hung on every word.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

The setlist, as it has recently, pulled largely from material post-Plans. Regardless of the source, everything was given a surprising jolt of energy onstage, including pre-encore closer “The Sound of Settling”, which saw Gibbard and his guitar joyously enter the crowd. For those wanting to hear even newer stuff from the band, Gibbard apologized for the wait since 2011’s Codes and Keys. “We feel bad for making you wait,” he told the cheering audience. “But it’ll be better that way.” Here’s hoping it really is, and that their next release can live up to the standards of this headlining performance.

Bands loving bands: “Finally saw Warpaint live,” Gibbard said in the middle of the set, “and they were fucking incredible.” Right he was, and that wasn’t the only time they shouted out a fellow act on the bill. He dedicated “Cath” to “our friends” The Decemberists, which was an interesting choice for the folk outfit’s first night back in three years, as the refrain rings, “And soon everybody will ask what became of you.” I’m sure Colin Meloy knew what it meant, anyway.

–Ben Kaye

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Most Earnest Set

Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Saturday, Red Stage

A songsmith for the people: I have to say, I think I underestimated Frank Turner a bit. I’ve seen Turner spit his blue-collar brand of workingman pop punk a few times before, but this was my first crack at catching him in Boston. Turner wasn’t subtle in vocalizing his love for Beantown, but while praising the city you play in is pretty much outlined on page one of the “Playing Rock Star for Dummies” handbook, Turner and his cohorts in the Sleeping Souls, all decked out in marching white-collared shirts, seemed to genuinely be enjoying themselves onstage Saturday.

And if I had to distill Turner’s performance down to one word, it might be just that: genuine. Onstage, the singer playfully spoke in grandiose terms about “being overcome by the majesty and spirit of rock and roll,” and those comically oversized overtures got a rise from the crowd. But even if he made those comments in jest, it’s not hard to tell from his passion that Turner does believe in the power of rock and roll to positively impact people’s lives. To prove the point, Turner pulled a fan up onstage to play harmonica for a song, and it was hard to tell who enjoyed the experience more. It was an honest moment in a big festival setting that is traditionally devoid of them, and Turner’s complete lack of pretense won the hearts of Bostonians in attendance.

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Photo by Tom Hardy

KISS of death: Frank Turner, after reading Gene Simmons’ autobiography, came to the (probably correct) conclusion that the famed KISS frontman is “a bit of an asshole.” His distaste was enough to inspire him to pen the song “Wherefore Art Thou, Gene Simmons,” written about Simmons’ claim to have bedded some 4,600 women in his life. It was a perfect David vs. Goliath example of a decidedly anti-rock star taking shots at rock and roll royalty.

–Ryan Bray

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Most Spirited Return to the Stage

The Decemberists

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Photo by Tom Hardy

Saturday, Red Stage

Every now and then, a little rain must fall: It was hard not to connect the dots between the cold rainfall and the start of The Decemberists’ co-headlining set Saturday night. After a cool but beautifully sunkissed late-spring afternoon, the skies opened up at the tail end of the Head and the Heart’s set on the opposite stage. By the time the Decemberists took the stage, the sideways-driving rain was such that even frontman Colin Meloy couldn’t get started without calling attention to the cosmos. “Welcome to the Pacific Northwest portion of the evening, which wouldn’t be complete without a little bit of rain,” Meloy said, noting his band’s slot in the schedule directly before Death Cab for Cutie.

It was an auspicious start to the band’s first live set in two years, but to their credit, you couldn’t tell that the band’s been resting on the sidelines as of late. Meloy’s arsenal of wry, literate alt-folk tunes were as razor sharp as ever, and the rain put the band’s darker songs in their appropriate milieu. But the elements didn’t dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm, as fans clung to every syllable of favorites like “July! July!”, “Rox in the Box”, “The Engine Driver” and “16 Military Wives”. The band also tossed a few new tracks fans’ way, which Meloy promised will take residence on the band’s hotly anticipated follow-up to 2011’s The King Is Dead.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

And now for a hilarious slam on Boston that even Bostonians appreciated: “It’s good to be in Boston, where even the nation’s oldest bookstore has a shot at becoming a Chipotle.” Boom. Don’t be mad, Beantown. You know what you did.

–Ryan Bray

Most Audacious Wardrobe Choice

Phosphorescent

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Photo by Ben Kaye

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Sunday, Blue Stage

Guess what band I’m in? It’s an old and fast rule: You don’t wear a t-shirt of the band you’re seeing live. It’s redundant and silly. Of course, festivals provide a nice opportunity to bend the rule a bit, but typically not if you’re actually in the band. That didn’t stop Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck, though, as the bandleader wore a black t-shirt with his own band’s name proudly brandished across his chest. If you’re going to be so bold, you better damn well own it, and Phosphorescent definitely did. As the late Sunday sun muddled with the haze of fog machines, the soothing crackle of Houck’s voice embraced the crowd during softer numbers like “The Quotidian Beasts” and “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)”.

It was the more rollicking numbers, however, that really sold the t-shirt. They opened “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)” wide like a 70’s road-rock number and kicked up the tempo for “Ride On / Right On”, causing the crowd to bob and nod in pleased agreement. Off stage right, though, was a group of fans who waved and clapped throughout the set. Houck acknowledged them with a smile and point, and even the sun seemed to signal them out; beams of light cut through the scaffolding above the stage, dousing the die-hard contingent in warm light as Phosphorescent’s equally warm indie folk washed over them.

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Photo by Tom Hardy

Can you read me? Those wavers and clappers weren’t the only ones Houck saluted. “How about we all give a hand to these sign language interpreters,” he beckoned the crowd as he pointed out the signers stage left, causing them to laugh as they had to translate his praise. “I’m really enjoying that very much.” They took a bow, and as always, they deserved it.

–Ben Kaye

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Best Sunday Wake-Up Call

Kurt Vile and the Violators

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Photo by Tom Hardy

Sunday, Blue Stage

Walking on a pretty day(ze): None of us are immune to festival fatigue, myself included. After a day’s worth of standing for hours on end Saturday, some of it in the cold rain, I admittedly wasn’t in the biggest rush to get back in to the festival on Sunday. Being a smaller festival, there aren’t a ton of options to occupy your time if you’re not watching whoever happens to be playing on one of the two stages. That said, I opted to start my day with Kurt Vile’s 3:00 p.m. set on the Blue Stage. And I have to say, it was kind of perfect.

What little rain that was set to splash down on festivalgoers this weekend came and went quickly, and by Sunday afternoon, it was nothing but blue skies and sunshine. There was a peaceful ambience in the air, and the sight of Vile ambling around the stage prior to his set, his unruly mange of hair swaying haphazardly in the easy afternoon breeze, seemed fitting for the occasion. But while he fits the part of a half-baked musical savant without a care in the world, it wasn’t long into “Walkin’ on a Pretty Daze” before it became evident that there’s a method to the music’s disarming aloofness.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Vile and his band took to their hazy, atmospheric guitar rock with a sort of freewill that echoed their music. Perhaps you could argue it was a bit too loose at times, as the band could have probably squeezed in an additional two or three songs if they tightened up the slack just a little bit. But the beauty of the Violators’ music is that nothing is rushed or forced. It’s music that works on its own time and at its own speed, and as such it was a great set to ease into what was a busy second day of the festival. Plus, anyone who is willing to cut loose on a crazy solo on an acoustic guitar has my vote.

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In summation: Kurt Vile sounds like a stoned version of Paul Westerberg playing on two hours of sleep. (Cue Andy Samburg’s Nick Cage impersonation.) That’s high praise.

–Ryan Bray

Most Ownership of Schedule Spot

Brand New

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Sunday, Red Stage

Rock out, emo kid: Brand New stuck out on the bill like a single black nail polished finger. With a lineup full of indie pop/rock and folk acts, here were these Long Island emo stalwarts slated as pre-closers to the entire festival. Honestly, I was excited to see them, having gone to college on LI and knowing all about them but never seeing them. I wasn’t alone, either, as die-hards began lining the rail in front of the Red Stage as soon as gates opened, and you knew who anyone with a Saves the Day or Jawbreaker shirt was there to see. Still, there was this feeling of outsiderness that threatened a set that wouldn’t gel with the rest of the bands. But damn it all if Brand New didn’t bring it in no equivocal terms.

From the opening one-two of “Millstone” and “Sowing Season” to the even more pummeling one-two closer of “Degausser” and “You Won’t Know”, the band delivered the single hardest set of the fest. Spittle flew from frontman Jesse Lacey as he belted his lyrics, while guitarist Vincent Accardi simply wiled out. During the closer he used one of the onstage spotlights to grind his guitar, going so hard he tripped over and wrecked an amp. But dazed and sweaty, he got to his feet, ran to the crowd, and delivered a giant hug to a group of fans. It was a sweet end to what was a thrashing, impressive set.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

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Would you like ketchup with those words? Fellow CoSer Tom Hardy cooled my anticipation before the set by saying he saw them at Lollapalooza and called their performance “phoned in.” His text to me during the Boston Calling set read: “Forget what I said about phoning it in, this is hot shit.” My response? “I may have had too much fun in the [photo] pit to get a great shot.”

–Ben Kaye

Most Workmanlike Set

Built to Spill

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Sunday, Red Stage

Less talk, more rock: Built to Spill exist in a bubble of their own design, not just musically, but in seemingly every facet of what they do. On record, their idiosyncratic brand of mind-bending guitar rock stands in a category all by itself, but they’re equally cut adrift onstage. Their set at Boston Calling on Saturday went pretty much as follows: They set up their own gear, played their eight or nine songs, and they left. They weren’t politic, and they’re weren’t much for inane, go-nowhere stage banter. When frontman and reigning indie-guitar overlord Doug Martsch did interact with festivalgoers, it had an obligatory, almost lethargic feel (“Thanks.” “It’s a great day to be outside.”).

And yet they expectedly gave one of the weekend’s better performances. Therein lies the beauty of Built to Spill. There’s a purity to them that so many other bands lack. Throughout the weekend, it wasn’t uncommon to hear bands yell “Boston” ad nauseam in a desperate play for the crowd’s affection. It’s a cheap but often effective ploy, but there’s something to be said for a band that completely cuts out the bullshit to make more room for the music. Martsch and Built to Spill hit fans hard over the head with the goods (“You Were Right”, “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” “Stop the Show”), and it was more than enough to hold fans’ attention for the course of their hour.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

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There’s a reason why after 20-plus years these guys are rightfully considered indie-rock royalty. Yeah, the musicianship is pretty much head and shoulders above their peers, but they also don’t let many distractions get in the way of the business at hand.

Urgent Text from Tom during BTS’ set: Fuuuuuck Velvet Underground cover. Oh Sweet Nuthin. I’m dead.

Follow up text from Ben: Best cover? This is pretty rad.

Me: Yup.

–Ryan Bray

Best Headliner

Modest Mouse

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Sunday, Blue Stage

Still floating on: My first inclination was to preface this write-up by saying I’m not all that current or up to date on Modest Mouse. Then it dawned on me that there’s not a whole hell of a lot to be current on. The band’s long-delayed follow-up to 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is practically growing moss at this point, and beyond that there hasn’t been a whole lot to report on.

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That said, I was surprised to find that I had so much to digest and think about on the heels of the band’s festival-closing set Sunday night. First off, I’m not sure who the hell is in the band anymore. Longtime bassist Eric Judy’s gone, while Johnny Marr’s trial run with the band came to a close long ago. In their place, founding members Isaac Brock and drummer Jeremiah Green surrounded themselves with a sizable cast of touring players that traded off instruments like hot potatoes. During a full-bodied rendition of the Tom Waits-ian “This Devil’s Workday”, there were as many as nine players onstage, a far cry from the little band that could that first broke through the mainstream 10 years ago.

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Photo by Tom Hardy

Bigger means better: The “modest” in the band’s name has given way to a very ornate setup that shares more in common with that of a roving musical carnival than simply a band. But the band’s growth spurt isn’t necessarily a detriment. Brock, dressed like a shrimp boat deckhand in a black skull cap and a hoodie, led the band through a calculated setlist of fan favorites new and old, including a stellar encore of “Cowboy Dan”, “Interstate 8”, and “Satin in a Coffin”.

In general, the songs were louder and noticeably more festival-ready; the quieter, more introspective moments of songs like “The World at Large” rang with bombast in place of spacey airiness. It was exciting to hear these old songs pumped up and reimagined some with a new cast of players, and it begs to be asked if this bigger direction is one they’re taking into the studio or saving for the road. Only time will tell, but hopefully the wait won’t be too much longer

–Ryan Bray

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Photographer(s): Tom Hardy, Ben Kaye

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