Boston Calling 2018 day 1 review & pics: Killers, National, Paramore, Portugal the Man, more
Boston Calling returned for its second year in a row to The Harvard Athletic Complex (and sixth year overall as a festival), and there were a few upgrades and differences to the festival this year. They had more and better food vendors, more bars, the ferris wheel moved right next to the red stage (which made for a nice added touch to The National’s visuals once the sun went down), and the main green stage now has a cool light-up Boston Calling sign. We’re also having great, hot and sunny weather so far — fingers crossed that it stays this way!
Perfectly fitting the hot and sunny vibe was Big Thief, the first band I saw on Friday (5/25), who took the stage at the bright, early, and hot hour of 3:25. There’s pretty much no better time or place to see breezy folk rock like this than daytime and outdoors, so Big Thief were the perfect band for the occasion, and they delivered. Their quiet songs added some much-needed chill, but they also matched the temperature of the sun with their white-hot guitar solos. Big Thief keep getting better, and they keep getting louder too. New song “Not” (which they played) is one of their most rockin’ songs yet, and they let their guitars scream at the end of set-closer “Real Love” in a way that they only hint at on the album version.
Another nice thing about Boston Calling is that with only three stages, two of which are right next to each other, tough conflicts are minimal, and you hardly have to do any walking or waiting to see back-to-back acts on the green and red stages. That meant it was super easy to stay put after Big Thief ended and see Perfume Genius just a few minutes later. Like Big Thief, Perfume Genius may be known for his quiet songs (or at least he used to be), but he really brings his sound to new, louder levels in a live setting. The industrial-leaning parts and the screams of the Too Bright songs and the majestic art pop of the No Shape songs really filled the giant festival stage in a way Perfume Genius’s fans probably never imagined when he was just a guy at a piano. It was not just full-sounding, but also the most radical-sounding set I saw all day (though to be fair, I missed Pussy Riot, but our photographer didn’t – see pictures in the gallery above). Between his provocative dance moves and his in-your-face, experimental pop music, it was impossible to look away. And if he weirded a few people out in the process, that was probably the point anyway.
On this rock-heavy festival day, the one dose of hip hop was Noname, who took to the green stage right after Perfume Genius wrapped up on red. Noname is a highly skilled rapper and she’s got the confidence and stage presence of someone who’s been doing this much longer than she has, and it’s made even better by her ace band. Her band took the stage before she did, showing off a rich jazz/soul hybrid and a lot of technical prowess. During the set, the band’s two backup vocalists added a nice dose of melody to Noname’s fast-paced, polysyllabic delivery, and at one point Noname and the backup vocalists did a little crowd involvement that probably perked up anyone who was previously unfamiliar with the songs. If you were, there’s a good chance you left her set as a newly-converted Noname fan — even if her songs aren’t really your thing, it’s tough to walk away from a Noname set unfazed.
Again, it was a rock-heavy day, and the four big acts who closed out the festival were all massive rock bands. They were also all bands who got their starts and/or breakthroughs in the early-to-mid 2000s, and who all remain popular and relevant enough to be the main draws at major festivals today. Paramore and Portugal. The Man are both fresh off recently reinventing their careers, while The National (whose Aaron Dessner is a co-curator of Boston Calling) have found longevity by only making minor tweaks to their sound, and The Killers‘ mid-2000s Top 40 domination has sustained them for going on 15 years. It was during this time that I was faced with the only real tough conflict of the day for me: The National and Paramore played at exactly the same time (I ended up seeing half of each).
The story of Portugal. The Man’s reinvention is well-known by now: long-running indie-psych band scores a world-conquering, beating-“Despacito”-at-the-Grammys hit with a song from their eighth album, and then flies up to the big font at major festivals, where they draw thousands of fans ready to sing every word of said hit. They closed with that song (“Feel It Still”), and it was as much of a sing-and-dance party as you could’ve hoped, but the more interesting part of Portugal. The Man’s set was everything they did before playing that song. They might be big in the pop world now, but they haven’t lost sight of where they came from at all. If anything, it feels like they’re leaning into their roots a little extra heavily on purpose. Their live show was heavy on prog, psych, metal, and jam tendencies, and I don’t know if there’s another band right now with as much actual pop appeal as Portugal. The Man who do anything like this in a live setting. As they often do, they opened with a medley of Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” into Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall pt. 2″ into their own “Purple Yellow Red and Blue,” and they threw in teases of other songs like Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” at the end of “Modern Jesus” and a sludgy take on The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” after the extended jam that punctuated “All Your Light (Times Like These).” A lot of songs were stretched out like this, and a lot of their jams came with serious riffs (at one point they projected a self-aware, half-joking message on the screen that said something like “that’s right kids, actual guitars!”), as well as horns from The Soul Rebels. The jams could really take you there, especially aided by the psychedelic, oil-drip visuals, but the jams wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if Portugal. The Man didn’t have legitimately great songwriting in the mix too, and they did. Stuff like “Live in the Moment,” “Hip Hop Kids” and “Modern Jesus” inspired just about as much dancing and singing from the crowd as “Feel It Still,” reminding you that while the success of “Feel It Still” was surprising, it was no fluke.
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Paramore have actually been tearing up the charts slightly less with their great new album After Laughter than they did on previous albums, but their reinvention was a drastic shift from pop punk to sharp new wave, and it’s gotten them increased critical acclaim and it makes them fit a little better on “indie” leaning festivals like Boston Calling. Paramore are really a band who have grown with their fans; if you were rocking “That’s What You Get” as a teenager in 2007, there’s a good chance you’re into stuff like Perfume Genius or St. Vincent (who plays today, 5/26) now, so Paramore had the unique advantage of offering up both nostalgia and great new music at Boston Calling. When they played “That’s What You Get,” you could see everyone around reliving their past lives, and when they played “Hard Times” and “Fake Happy,” Paramore were lyrically addressing topics and sonically playing music that feels necessary and relevant right now. And whether you came for the old songs, the new songs, or both, Paramore played everything with as much power and precision as you could ask for from a rock band on their level.
By the time I ran over to The National‘s set, they were playing “Day I Die” off their great new album Sleep Well Beast, which means I missed Maggie Rogers‘ guest appearance on “I Need My Girl” (which was one song earlier). From there, I saw The National mix it up from all over their career, playing Boxer deep cut “Slow Show” into the new album’s weeping ballad “Carin at the Liquor Store” into Trouble Will Find Me‘s driving “Graceless,” and ending with their usual triple attack of “Fake Empire” into “Mr. November” into “Terrible Love.” The last time I saw The National was their tiny album release show in NYC for Sleep Well Beast, and as much of a treat as it is to see these guys up close and personal, they actually look and sound even better on a huge stage. Their vivid light show was mesmerizing even from dozens of yards away, and even when they play a more somber song, their sound fills out the large festival grounds. Matt Berninger is a rockstar frontman and the Dessner brothers are guitar heroes, but in their own, subtle way. (Except for on “Mr. November,” when Matt Berninger is rockstar in the most traditional sense of the word.) It feels almost too obvious to say, but The National are really in their own league at this point, and that came through loud and clear at Boston Calling. My only complaint was I wish I could’ve seen more of it.
Wrapping up the day was headliners The Killers. If you felt like The Killers aren’t quite festival headliner material, they made that feeling go away instantly when they opened with “Mr. Brightside,” not needing a second to warm up or find their groove, and leading the gargantuan crowd in the biggest singalong of the entire day. The Killers really are pros — a little too pro sometimes… it’d be nice to see them loosen up a bit, but pros nonetheless. The band is impossibly tight, and Brandon Flowers harnesses Bono/Springsteen star power and delivers it convincingly. The downside of opening with “Mr. Brightside” is that it’s inevitably all downhill from there, but the upside is that the energy level both on stage and off was a 10/10 off the bat, and the band has enough undeniable hits to keep it from ever going below an 8/10. The songs off the last two albums made for a few weaker moments, but when The Killers play stuff like “Spaceman,” “Somebody Told Me,” “Smile Like You Mean It,” and “Human,” and you’re surrounded by thousands of people singing every word, it’s damn near impossible not to join in on the fun.
Check out photos from day one of Boston Calling in the gallery above. The fest continues today (5/26) with Jack White, Queens of the Stone Age, St. Vincent, Belly (the rock band), and more; and wraps up Sunday (5/27) with Eminem, Fleet Foxes, The Decemberists, and more. Stay tuned for more coverage. UPDATE: day two pics and review HERE, and day three pics and review HERE.