Pixies triumphantly blasted the biggest Boston crowd they’d ever drawn. Tove Lo seductively lifted her top for a quick flash. Jack Black’s Tenacious D spoofed rock with surprising passion and precision. And bands spanned a scattershot spectrum from Americana to dance-pop, psych-rock and hip-hop, giving the near-50,000 people who invaded City Hall Plaza over the three-day weekend a full potpourri of Boston Calling.
“That’s the most psychedelic City Hall I’ve ever seen,” Beck said as kaleidoscopic lights sprayed that concrete edifice on Friday’s opening night. “That’s the way it should be.” And Beck matched the mood with a masterful mashup, eschewing his Grammy-winning Morning Phase in favor of a greatest-hits festival set, from the grungy “Devil’s Haircut” to the falsetto-soul of “Sexx Laws” and a “Where It’s At” spiced with classic-rock teases. He even reinserted sitar into “Loser.” So kill me, baby, but Beck slayed with a show that wasn’t topped all weekend.
Not that the 22 other acts were short of trying though, starting with space-rockers Tame Impala that first night. Good weather got ever better as the weekend wore on, and Boston Calling shuffled the deck to satisfy various tribes with a favorite band/style one set, only to introduce them to something entirely different next.
Saturday afternoon wove a dance-pop vibe with female-fronted acts like Tove Lo and Marina & the Diamonds, who built momentum sealed by the pumping “How to Be a Heartbreaker.” Yet those sets were contrasted by the topical, double-barreled raps of Killer Mike and El-P of the fun and fiery Run the Jewels (pictured above) and the fashionably bratty alt-pop of Gerard Way. St. Vincent’s Annie Clark (pictured below) cranked up her lead guitar to serve notice that she was the day’s most impressive shredder — as well as a coolly enigmatic vocalist who broke her façade to jump into the crowd. That’s not to take away from singer/guitarist Ben Harper’s incendiary lap steel, used sparingly in a more somber, melodic set with his revived Innocent Criminals, sparked by Roxbury percussionist Leon Mobley. Or the dual guitar textures of My Morning Jacket, its unusually insular set weighted toward its adventurous new album The Waterfall before the Kentucky rockers finished with the wound-up stomp of “One Big Holiday” – a fitting selection for Memorial Day weekend.
Southeastern-bred Americana instead surfaced as Sunday’s afternoon center, with two past and pending Newport Folk favorites. The Lone Bellow (pictured below) served emotive three-way vocals and guitar riffing – well, two guitars and one mandolin — and Jason Isbell’s country-shaded songcraft shared his skill for earthy observation and slide-fueled guitars in new and old material.
In turn, Lucius – replacing Chet Faker before returning to play the harbor-side ICA on Aug. 14 – delivered a gospel-esque new song between its art-pop fare. Jess Wolfe also feted her Lucius vocal partner Holly Laessig with a cake for her 30th birthday – 11 years since they started out here at Berklee. Aussie troubadour Vance Joy (pictured below) shared pleasant shuffles capped by earworm hit “Riptide” on his way to charm Taylor Swift’s stadium crowd in Foxboro on July 24-25, before sonically fidgety alt-rockers TV on the Radio finally provided a welcome, chaotic jolt in a tour-capping set that peaked with “Wolf Like Me.”
“I love the energy of this – it’s a nice thing to have,” TV on the Radio’s hyperactive frontman Tunde Adebimpe told the City Hall Plaza crowd. Even the Pixies seemed to get that, lining up at the stage edge to wave at the hometown masses both before the band crunched into “Bone Machine” and after Joey Santiago’s noise-guitar acrobatics in set-closer “Vamos.” Yeah, they miss original bassist/singer Kim Deal’s voice and personality, but with Paz Lenchantin assuming those chores on tour, the Pixies have tightened up in a different way, seemingly sounding better than ever.
Before the Pixies struck a note, Boston Calling was already looking ahead, with the on-site announcement of its Sept. 25-27 edition, headed by the Avett Brothers, alt-J, Alabama Shakes, Hozier and Of Monsters and Men. Here’s that full lineup.