The sophomore sprawl of Boston Calling covered extremes in weather and musical menu this past weekend, while smoothing the entrance and concession lines that plagued last year’s debut at its new Harvard Athletic Complex site.
New speaker systems made the 40-plus performers sound great on big stages without bleeding too much noise to Cambridge neighbors, who couldn’t have been happy with bomb-like mock gunshots that dotted Eminem’s festival-capping Sunday set.
In his first Boston appearance in 14 years, Eminem fired up the three-day fest’s biggest main-stage crowd. Backed by a large band and hype man, the Detroit rapper still flashed rapid-fire rhymes in “Rap God,” inspired a sea of cellphone lights in “Sing for the Moment” (which interpolated Aerosmith’s “Dream On” to hometown effect), teased fans about whether he should date Nicki Minaj, and closed with the coiled tension of “Lose Yourself” to a final spray of fireworks.
Eminem at Boston Calling 2018. Photo credit: Jeremy Deputat.
The Killers likewise proved a mainstream crowd-pleaser but opted to frontload their Friday-headlining set, audaciously opening with the mega-hit opening punch of “Mr. Brightside,” “Spaceman” and “Somebody Told Me,” though incendiary sing-alongs continued into the night. The Las Vegas arena-rockers even gave a Cohasset teenager the chance to play drums on “For Reasons Unknown.”
Jack White at Boston Calling 2018. Photo credit: Paul Robicheau.
Saturday headliner Jack White served a more mysterious career-spanning set stuffed with rearranged songs by his old duo the White Stripes, a taste of side projects the Raconteurs (fans chiming in to “Steady As She Goes”) and the Dead Weather, and an arc of solo fare including his gonzo new Boarding House Reach. With two keyboardists and a bass-drums combo highlighted by the flailing swing of drummer Carla Azar, the blues-steeped guitarist finally succumbed to crowd pressure to finish a 10-song encore with chant-along hit “Seven Nation Army.”
Julien Baker (left) and St. Vincent (right) at Boston Calling 2018. Photo credit: Paul Robicheau.
Armies of all kinds roamed the Harvard sport fields between two main stages and a satellite third stage of music, negotiating weather from Friday and Saturday’s hot, humid days to Sunday’s spritzing rain and 30-degree cooler conditions. The weather didn’t help Sunday’s practical folk fest on the third stage, which featured the insular but cathartic Julien Baker, the Decemberists (who oddly fit the setting with commercial new tunes like “Everything is Awful” as well as a snatch of trad-folk nugget “Blackleg Miner”) and Fleet Foxes, whose harmony-laced songs make sunny days seem brighter and drizzly days drearier. The weekend also sported hip-hop acts like Tyler, the Creator (who flailed and engaged in alienated form), masked maverick Leikeli47 and Boston’s own star Cousin Stizz, who drew a vocal contingent to his substitute set for the cancelled Stormzy. Alt-rockers Belly and hip-hop heroes STL GLD also made fine local ambassadors. Outlier acts included electric bass virtuoso Thundercat (whose hip-hop/R&B cred devolved into crazy jazz-fusion jams), the raw, churning rockers the Oh Sees, and even Alaska-born Portugal. The Man, which buffered soul-pop hit “Feel It Still” with cover snippets of Metallica, Pink Floyd and Beatles and sludgy, interminable jams (and I’m not saying that because the band dissed rock critics in its disconnected screen images).
St. Vincent (art-rocker Annie Clark) proved more calculated and intriguing, with manipulated images of herself complementing the cool, electro-tinged throb of the music. Her half-masked band (three musicians joining Clark in a rear-stage line) also diffused the self-indulgence of her solo tour earlier this year. It’ll be interesting to see what she’ll convey at the Newport Folk Festival in July. And back on the third stage, Paramore’s frontwoman Hayley Williams asserted her flair as a live dynamo as the band continued to steer beyond its emo-punk roots.
Hayley Williams fronts Paramore at Boston Calling 2018. Photo credit: Paul Robicheau.
Khalid (left) and Brockhampton’s Matt Champion (right) at Boston Calling 2018. Photo credit: Paul Robicheau.
But when it came to non-headlining acts who captured Boston Calling on the cusp of bigger things, the best candidates would R&B upstart Khalid and self-declared boy band Brockhampton. “Let’s do all the stupid shit that young kids do,” the 20-year-old Khalid sang in opening number “8Teen,” his easy smile and exuberance proving contagious as he danced from the upper platform to the stage below to weave between four dancers. And Brockhampton drew an even more vociferous reaction at Sunday’s third stage as five members of the band romped with hip-hop attitude while the young crowd echoed the lyrics to each song. One wouldn’t easily surmise he background drama of Ameer Vann being ousted from the band earlier in the day over charges sexual misconduct until members of the group (who didn’t fill the gaps of Vann’s lines) huddled and broke down at one point. Boston Calling was Brockhampton’s last show before the group cancelled tour dates to return home and regroup. Hopefully they’ll retain their momentum.
And while I’m not a fan of DJs taking over music festivals, it was a smart addition to the Sunday dinner hour to have the Beastie Boys’ Mike D assume a slot after a Bryson Tiller scheduling conflict, filling the grounds with a range of music that included nods to his past with “Brass Monkey” and “Intergalactic.” Some in the crowd may not have noticed that the guy on the mic was the dude from that hip-hop supergroup, but it wasn’t easy keeping track of everything at Boston Calling.