Boston Calling: The 5 Best and 5 Worst Performances

The 1975. Photo © Ty Johnson.

By Landry Harlan
BU News Service

BEST

1. Brandi Carlile

In a rock and rap heavy festival, Carlile’s folk Americana burst through and drew droves of fans to the Green Stage on the sunny Saturday afternoon. Carlile engaged the crowd with stories about marrying her wife in eastern Mass. and played a gentle ode to her daughter Evangeline, also called “Evangeline,” that left many of them with tears. By the time she started playing her magnum opus, “The Story,” my only complaint was why she wasn’t a headliner.

Brandi Carlile. Photo © Loreen Kelley.

2. Sigur Ros

I admit up front, Sigur Ros is this reporter’s favorite band, so I was on Cloud 9 as soon as it started. They can do no wrong in my eyes. Still, the Icelandic group known for their operatic rock and lead singer’s heavenly falsetto kept it intimate for their performance, with only three members on stage. It was dark and it was rainy and it was appropriate. Atmospheric visuals added to the dreamscape. Chance the Rapper may have drawn the biggest crowd competing in the late time slot, but Sigur Ros drew the most captivated one.

Sigur Ros. Photo © Ty Johnson.

3. Francis and the Lights dancing with Chance the Rapper

You’ve definitely heard “May I Have This Dance,” a collaboration between the Oakland-based electro-pop project Francis and the Lights and Chance the Rapper. It’s catchy and buoyant, both words that can be used to describe the performers. As Francis grooved his way around the stage Friday afternoon, the suspense built on whether Chance would show up to sing his part. Instead, Francis sang it, and it seemed we’d have to wait till Chance’s performance later that night. Hold on! At the last moment, Chance rushed onto the stage to join Francis in the music video’s signature synchronized dance. “Dancing with the Stars” will surely be calling soon.

Francis and the Lights, and Chance the Rapper. Photo © Ty Johnson.

4. Tig Notaro

It was easy to forget in the midst of three stages of music that comedian Hannibal Burress was hosting a comedy consortium inside the Harvard Athletic Complex’s hockey arena. Strangely, it was warmer in there than outside, though still the perfect place to rest your cramping legs. Burress saved the best for last. Notaro’s dry, dark observational humor could compete with Louis C.K. Stories about her cat, wife, and relationship with Ellen Degeneres and Degeneres’ wife Portia were the knee-slapping highlights. Seriously, get over to Netflix and watch her special ASAP.

Tig Notaro. Photo © Rebecca Taylor.

5. The 1975

A charismatic lead singer and a dazzling light show can elevate any concert, and The 1975, an English pop rock band from Manchester, was lucky enough to have both. And on top of that, their music is pretty damn catchy (look up “The Sound” and “Somebody Else”). The fangirls were out in spades, but debonair lead vocalist Matthew Healy made me one by the end with his Bowie-like stage presence and ability to sing a song while smoking a cigarette. They don’t make rock stars like this anymore.

The 1975. Photo © Ty Johnson.

WORST

1. Migos

It’s hard to replace a Knowles sister (Solange dropped out of the festival on Thursday because of production issues), but Migos’ repetitive and lazy hip-hop wasn’t up to the task. Producer DJ Durel tried to warm up the crowd at the start with a solo set, but after 30 minutes of it the crowd was anxious and I was wondering if the group was even backstage. It didn’t improve much when they finally made it on. Rappers Quavo, Takeoff and Offset are no Tribe Called Quest. Each song was muddled under beats and autotune. “Bad and Boujee” made people throw their phones in the air for a Snap, but that’s all the show was good for: pretending on social media it was better than it was. Someone started a “Free Solange” chant halfway through.  It didn’t work.

Migos. Photo © Ty Johnson.

2. Russ

Russ, a significantly better rapper with a dash of R&B from Jersey, maybe wouldn’t have made this list if he wasn’t 50 minutes late to his set, just five minutes before he was scheduled to finish. “They’re trying to get me offstage but I’m not leaving,” Russ said once he got started. The flows of “What They Want” and “Psycho Pt. 2” got the energy up, but the casual fans and passersby were long gone by then. It’s hard to recover a set from chants of “What the f*** Russ,” no matter how good your rhymes are.

Russ. Photo © Ty Johnson.

3. Bon Iver

Fans hoping to hear the sparse indie-folk of Bon Iver’s first two albums were surely disappointed Friday evening. Bearded creator Justin Vernon played songs almost exclusively from his cryptic and electronic 2016 album “22, A Million,” the stage made up mostly of computers and keyboards. It was too quiet for anyone in the back of the crowd to hear, and the vibe was much too contemplative to fit a vibrant, outdoor music festival. For this album to work, it needs to be inside, and everyone should wear headphones. Only “Skinny Love” at the end of the set provided an opening for Vernon to engage the crowd, but by then it was much too late.

Bon Iver. Photo © Ty Johnson.

4. Tool

Tool, a heavy metal band from LA, have their die-hard fans, and they showed up en masse Sunday night sporting their Tool merchandise. I admittedly had never listened to them until the festival. Hey, my ears and heart were open to joining the ranks of the die-hards. It wasn’t the place to become one. Tool’s raging guitars and guttural vocals don’t reach far back in the crowd without getting muddled. The stage was so shrouded in darkness that only a few fleeting silhouettes could ensure a band was even there. The giant off-stage screens meant to bridge the gap between the band and audience mostly weren’t even used, and when they were, disturbing visuals (a hallmark of the band, lead guitarist Adam Jones makes them) flashed by. I admire Boston Calling for trying to cater to a wide variety of genres, but a little accessibility for curious fans would have gone a long way.

Tool. Photo © @__kristamichele.

5. Festival lines

I know how this sounds, but the Boston Calling organizers should have let fewer people into the festival. Hour long lines at the entrance, at the food vendors, ID check, and even the Ferris wheel made a large amount of the festival experience just waiting, and not for a band you love. The Harvard Athletic Stadium is a new location, so I give the organizers some leeway for growing pains. Still, the overflowing trash cans and inability to move through half the festival ground due to overcrowding needs to be addressed next year. Sometimes, less really is more.

Festival crowds. Photo © Landry Harlan.

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