Fest Forward

A look at summer’s top 10 shows.

Music festivals have come to command the summer, from the heart of the city—the free Summer Arts Weekend brings Los Lobos to Copley Square on July 26—to 30 miles offshore, where the inaugural Nantucket Music Festival presents Bruce Hornsby and Guster on Aug. 2-3. Yet standby local venues like the Xfinity Center and Blue Hills Bank Pavilion (still Great Woods and Harbor Lights to some of us) sport some standout shows of their own. Here are my 10 outdoor-music picks for the season.

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Photo Credit: Baldur Bragason (Trent Reznor), Guy Aroch (Arcade Fire), James K. Lowe (Lorde)

Boston Calling Music Festival

Sept. 5-7, City Hall Plaza

Saving the best for last this summer, Boston Calling outdoes itself with a blockbuster back-to-school bookend to its Memorial Day weekend bash. Yes, the headliners are even more impressive and diverse, with moody indie-rockers the National, pop prodigy Lorde, rapper Nas and the Roots (separately and together) and the scrappy Replacements, back after 20-plus years with the Neighborhoods guitarist Dave Minehan aboard. But the middle lineup is also stronger, with cult favorites Neutral Milk Hotel, Childish Gambino (the hip-hop guise of Donald Glover, moving beyond NBC’s now-axed Community), alt-rockers Spoon, English upstarts the 1975 and mash-up king Girl Talk as well as the War on Drugs, the Hold Steady and our own snowballing Lake Street Dive.


Arcade Fire

Aug. 19, Xfinity Center

Montreal’s indie-rock heroes have long had grandiose ambitions that blossom in exhilarating shows, so the band’s growth into arena rock stars shouldn’t come as a surprise. But Arcade Fire does it with chutzpah, mixing the arty pretension of face paint, papier-mâché masks and an expanded live band’s Haitian-inspired rhythms with the festive physicality of players ever ready to throw themselves into their instruments—or into the crowd.


Newport Jazz Festival

Aug. 1-3, Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I.

Celebrating its 60th anniversary, Newport Jazz may transcend the week-earlier Newport Folk Festival, which continues its consistent summer brilliance with the likes of Nickel Creek, Ryan Adams, Mavis Staples and Milk Carton Kids. Newport Jazz has added its own Friday afternoon lineup, and it’s a challenging doozy, highlighted by John Zorn’s Masada marathon (including Dave Douglas, Marc Ribot, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron) as well as Snarky Puppy, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and a Charlie Parker tribute by Rudresh Mahanthappa. And the rest of the weekend blends cutting edge and mainstream with Wynton Marsalis, Trombone Shorty, Robert Glasper, Brian Blade, Dr. John, Gary Burton, Vijay Iyer and Danilo Perez.


Green River Festival

July 12-13, Greenfield Community College

With Newport Folk already sold out, this Western Massachusetts fest has booked some of the same great acts (Lucius, Trampled by Turtles, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and Norah Jones’ new band Puss N Boots) as well as Josh Ritter and Trombone Shorty. But beyond its deeper-than-usual lineup on multiple stages, Green River also has hot-air balloons, offering rides and a spectacular backdrop when they rise at sunset.


Nine Inch Nails/Soundgarden

July 29, Xfinity Center

Trent Reznor’s revitalized Nine Inch Nails still boasts the most innovative light show around, with haunting, three-dimensional scrim effects as stark and unsettling as the industrial/electronic music. It’ll be an extra-heavy night with grunge veterans Soundgarden celebrating the 20th anniversary of their landmark Superunknown album. Chris Cornell remains one of rock’s most powerful singers, and while drummer Matt Cameron is touring with his other group, Pearl Jam, replacement Matt Chamberlain (who’s worked with everyone from Tori Amos to Bruce Springsteen) ably holds down the fort.

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Photo Credit: Paul Robicheau (Rudresh Mahanthappa, The Mavericks), Emily Shur (Neko Case)

Willie Nelson/Alison Krauss & Union Station

June 17, Blue Hills Bank Pavilion; June 20, Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion at Meadowbrook

One may think country outlaw Nelson, at 81, has been mellowed by age and marijuana, but he’s in good enough shape to have just earned a fifth-degree black belt. And he should be inspired on this bill with angelic singer Krauss’ bluegrass group featuring dobro ace Jerry Douglas, one of a few fine double bills at Boston’s renamed harborside pavilion (also see Ray LaMontagne with Jason Isbell and ZZ Top with Jeff Beck). The opener is country upstart Kacey Musgraves, which only sweetens the pot.


Beyoncé/Jay Z

July 1, Gillette Stadium

Jay Z must have enjoyed the stadium life teaming up last year with Justin Timberlake, since he’s back at it this summer with his wife, Beyoncé. It’s a wonder this power-coupling didn’t happen before, and while stadiums aren’t ideal for concerts, Beyoncé has the megawatt voice and razzle-dazzle choreography to make the “On the Run” tour click, with her husband as a fitting foil. Not sure about her sister Solange getting an invite.


Billy Joel

June 26, Fenway Park

Long Island’s iconic piano man, who just turned 65, takes a break from his continuing residency at Madison Square Garden to tackle hallowed ballparks like Fenway. Backed by a band that includes veterans such as saxophonist Mark Rivera, Joel will trot out both hits and rarities from the ’70s to the ’90s—a sure summer kickoff from a guy with the tunes and attitude. And it’ll be followed by Fenway shows from Zac Brown and Tom Petty.


The Mavericks

Aug. 9, Indian Ranch, Webster

Still going strong after two decades thanks to a 2012 reunion, this eclectic alt-country outfit can echo Tex-Mex, surf-rock and even ska as well as subvert songs by Bruce Springsteen and KC and the Sunshine Band back-to-back in concert. Centered by Raul Malo’s resonant voice, spiced with Eddie Perez’s guitar and supplemented with horns and accordion, the Mavericks should bring the perfect party for the shed on the shores of Webster Lake.


Neko Case

June 28, Lowell Summer Music Series at Boarding House Park

Now rooted in Vermont, the fiery-haired Case remains a force of nature with her distinctive siren’s voice, and this park, nestled among mill buildings, is a sweet setting for it. Her reflective The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight… was among 2013’s best albums, and she and backup singer Kelly Hogan closed a Boston show in November with a couple of Heart covers. Who knows if and how Case and company will go crazy on you.


Sophomore Surge

Boston Calling Goes Big in Its Second Year

It’s only a third of the size of Lollapalooza in Chicago, with less breadth and weight in the music bookings, but Boston Calling has outdone itself, capping its second summer with a broader September lineup that’s bursting with headline talent.

Mike Snow, co-founder of the urban rock festival, says that’s just how things panned out, that organizers weren’t out to top themselves. “It’s really a balancing act between luck of the draw and timing,” he says. “We were really fortunate.”

The booking team, which includes his Crash Line Productions partner, co-founder Brian Appel, promoter Bowery Boston and curator Aaron Dessner of headliners the National, had been “chasing” Lorde for almost 18 months, he says. When the Replacements couldn’t make the Memorial Day weekend fest, talk turned to September. Then someone brought the hip-hop collaboration between Nas and the Roots to the table. “It is a crazy combination,” Snow says. “It’s amazing that it got done.”

Even with such a strong slate, some fans were hoping to see more DJ/electronic acts or strict indie-rock along the lines of last September’s lineup, he says. “You can say, ‘This is what we did last year and it worked,’ and set out to do the same thing, but if eight of your top 10 bands or DJs are not touring, you say, ‘I guess it’s going to have to go in a different direction,’ ” Snow says. “You can’t plan it all.”

This year, adaptation also meant moving the second stage on City Hall Plaza closer to Cambridge Street because of the renovation of the Government Center T station. But Snow says the organizers are still happy with the brick-and-concrete plaza, which includes VIP terraces on City Hall overlooking the action. “We love the space,” he says of the downtown setting, which offers the advantage of surrounding shelter as well as hard surfaces, so mud isn’t an issue in rainy weather.

“We would have had a much different festival last May if we were in a field somewhere.”

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