Live Review: Boston Calling's Downtown Swan Song

Sufjan Stevens on the opening night of Boston Calling’s final round on City Hall Plaza.

 Disclosure’s Guy Lawrence marveled at the kaleidoscopic lights reflected onto the face of City Hall and surrounding buildings – and he wasn’t the only one capturing that mental snapshot — as his electronic duo brought closure to Boston Calling on Sunday. After three years on City Hall Plaza, the music festival moves next May to the open fields of Harvard’s athletic complex in Allston. And while the weekend’s hot-to-chilly weather swing made the plaza’s old brick-and-concrete expanse a bit harder to endure, I’ll miss Boston Calling downtown — particularly at night, when breezes die down and the lights come alive to bounce about Government Center.

Guy and Howard Lawrence of Disclosure thrill electronic music fans at Boston Calling.

Add a sea of fans waving illuminated tubes given out by a sponsor and City Hall Plaza was primed for the audio-visual quake of Disclosure, which demonstrated that electronic music can command in prime time. At least the British brothers – atop impressive spaceship-sleek DJ platforms – fared better than Saturday headliners Robyn (below, who shimmied up a dance party but got lost in anti-pop remixes) and Odesza, whose Harrison Mills hopefully meant to be funny in saying his duo brought a “full band” in its horn players. Even with canned vocal mixes (such as Sam Smith on “Latch”), Disclosure flashed textural chops beyond their knob-twiddling, with Howard Lawrence also playing bass guitar while Guy dabbled in live percussion as well as a snatch of guitar.

However, when it came to full-band treatments, Sunday also hit weekend highs with soulful, old-school sets by Charles Bradley (above), the former James Brown impersonator whose gravelly voice exuded pure emotion, and the futuristic whirlwind Janelle Monae (below), who led a nine-piece group in matching zebra colors. Bradley transformed Black Sabbath’s “Changes,” while Monae inserted covers of Brown, the Jackson 5 and her hero Prince, who she called “the greatest rock star that ever lived” before a typically hyperactive “Let’s Go Crazy.”

Monae also championed equality in our time of transition, of “freedom over fear,” echoing the LGBT hopes of Christine & the Queens singer Heloise Letissier, whose infectious choreography with male co-dancers made the electro-pop act a surprise highlight of the festival in its early Sunday slot (Letissier was also the only artist who I heard introduce every one of her dancers and musicians).

Christine & the Queens (above) later romped out for a cameo with Haim, the LA sisters’ band for “I Will Die 4 U” — perhaps the only way to follow Monae with another Prince cover. But Haim (centered by Danielle Haim, below) held their own in bridging Monae and Disclosure with a high-powered pop set that bridged past hits with catchy new songs (like “Give Me A Little of Your Love”) and a three-way drum-off to seal their sibling versatility.

Otherwise, Sunday’s smorgasbord included the lean, mean raps of Vince Staples (above), the punk-inspired anthems of the Front Bottoms, the heady grooves of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and the bluesy country-rock of Elle King (below), who joked about being “the only white trash person here” and mixed a reggae beat with banjo.

Sunday certainly stood out in contrast to a sun-baked Saturday that lacked the star power to beat the heat, though Courtney Barnett lent ragged joy in a grungy rock ‘n’ roll way. City and Colour also turned up electric guitars in keeping with the Alice in Chains T-shirt of leader Dallas Green (above), but the sound of his folk-rooted group seemed to flatten out on the steamy plaza. Miike Snow singer/pianist Andrew Wyatt (below) admitted he wasn’t in the best voice and producers Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg plied toys on plexiglass tables rather than the provocative joint workstation the Blog they’ve used on past tours, but the Swedish outfit finally brought its electro-swirl to a peak with its 2009 hit “Animal.”

In retrospect, one of the most striking sets of the weekend – at least in terms of energy and spectacle – came on Friday night from orchestral indie-rocker Sufjan Stevens. He knew how to make an entrance, raising giant bird wings along with his backup singers and smashing a banjo in “Seven Swans,” then downplaying songs of death (2015’s Carrie and Lowell reflected on his mother’s passing) for fun, donning suits that made him a towering mirror ball and a balloon man. If Stevens favored low-budget theatrics, Friday headliner Sia (below) went for modern, stylish mystery, hiding her face with a two-toned wig as she sang to prerecorded tracks like a doll at the mic stand while dancers pantomimed to her lyrics. Performance art ensued as the screens mixed seeming onstage action and celebrity video (was that Maddie Ziegler live, but not Kristen Wiig?) that dancers expertly mimicked.

It was an odd start to a wildly diverse weekend that didn’t draw as well as earlier Boston Calling editions, though perhaps nothing stood out on the level of such past acts as Pixies, Beck, the National (whose Aaron Dessner co-curates the festival and performed Friday with Lisa Hannigan), Lorde, Kendrick Lamar, Alabama Shakes and the Replacements. A new third stage made an impression with fine local bands that included These Wild Plains, Nemes and Black Beach. Supposedly that’s what the relocation of Boston Calling to the fields of Harvard will mean: room to expand the number of stages, range of music (along with a film component curated by Natalie Portman), capacity of the event, and the ability to book even-bigger names. And if that happens, maybe Boston Calling will grow that much closer to being our Coachella, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands or Austin City Limits.

Related Articles

Comments are closed.