10 Highlights of Boston Calling 2015

Matthew Shelter on June 1, 2015

The fifth installment of the Boston Calling Music Festival was held on City Hall Plaza over Memorial Day weekend, with some two dozen bands performing over a three-day stretch. Here, in roughly chronological order, are 10 highlights of this festival that is becoming a Boston institution:

1) Beck – Beck blew the cobwebs off the festival with an amped-up headlining set on Friday evening. This was not the version of Beck I expected, my only previous experience seeing him being a mellow set he delivered at the Newport Folk Festival a couple of years ago. This Beck was plugged in and ready to rock from the opening chords of “Devil’s Haircut” to the final notes of “Where It’s At.” In between was a swirl of 16 songs that bent and danced around a half-dozen different genres – rock, pop, folk, soul, hip-hop, psychedelia – sometimes all in the same tune. He plucked songs from throughout his lengthy catalog, from “Loser” off of his major-label debut Mellow Gold to a transcendent version of “Blue Moon,” the only track he played from last year’s Grammy-winning Morning Phase. The 44-year-old Beck strutted across the stage like an artist a good 10 years younger, engaging in banter with the audience between songs. Standout tracks: “Hell Yes,” “Think I’m In Love,” “Blue Moon,” “Sexx Laws” and “E-Pro.”

2) Bubblegum Bitch(es) – Chill, it’s a song title, otherwise I couldn’t get away with using it. Three indie-pop songtresses wowed the crowd with successive sets on the festival’s Red Stage Saturday afternoon: MØ, Tove Lo and Marina and the Diamonds. MØ, whose given name is Karen Marie Ølmstead, hails from Denmark, and in her native land the word mø means “maiden” or “virgin.” Ms. Ølmstead’s stage act was, well, just a touch less virginal than the name might imply, but no one in attendance seemed bothered by the discrepancy. She was magnetic on a too-brief set that included “Pilgrim,” “Walk This Way,” “XXX 88” and “Don’t Wanna Dance,” all off her debut album No Mythologies To Follow. The Swedish-born Tove Lo (real name Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson) picked up where MØ left off, delivering an electric 10-song set highlighted by “My Gun,” “Not On Drugs,” “Talking Body” and “Timebomb.” She got a lot of attention for lifting her shirt and flashing the crowd late in her set, but it was her music and dance moves that will stick in my mind more than anything else she displayed. Marina and the Diamonds have just begun touring the U.S. behind their third album, Froot, released in March. The Welsh singer-songwriter has a captivating stage presence and danceable catalog ideally suited to a sunny summer festival. More than half her set was drawn from the new record, including “Happy,” “I’m a Ruin,” “Blue,” “Savages” and the album’s title track. And yes her opening song, “Bubblegum Bitch,” was killer.

3) St Vincent – St Vincent’s late afternoon set on Saturday was considered the top performance of the festival for a large swath of Boston Calling attendees with whom I spoke. Annie Clark has been on a roll of late, with a Grammy under her belt for last year’s eponymous St Vincent, her fifth studio album. Her blistering live performances, though, are what keep drawing the biggest raves. Her Boston set steadily rose in intensity from start to finish, highlighted by stellar takes on “Birth in Reverse,” “Rattlesnake” and “Digital Witness.” Anyone still unconvinced of her prowess on guitar was likely won over by the extended jams she engaged in with bandmate Toko Yasuda as her set reached a climax on “Huey Newton” and “Cheerleader,” the latter of which saw Clark playing amongst the crowd atop a security guard’s shoulders.

4) Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals – Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals had the subheadlining slot on Saturday evening, and burned through a 13-song set that was equal parts rock, soul, blues and reggae. Harper is an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist who’s been active for more than 20 years, but he hadn’t played with The Innocent Criminals since 2008 until they reunited two months ago. The band, comprised of Michael Ward on guitar, Juan Nelson on bass, Jason Yates on keys, Oliver Charles on drums and Leon Mobley on percussion, is no mere backing band. Kicking off their set with a fiery “The Will To Live,” it was hard to believe Harper and the band had spent seven years apart. Their set reached a high point on the anthemic “Amen Omen” – and then kept going higher through wild closers “Burn One Down” and “Better Way.”

5) My Morning Jacket – A surprisingly sizable portion of the festival crowd did not stick around to see My Morning Jacket’s headlining set on Saturday night, which is a shame because they missed a top-notch performance from a band that just may be at its musical peak. MMJ’s set leaned heavily on their recently-released seventh album, the (already) critically-acclaimed The Waterfall. Jim James and co. opened the show with a pair of tunes off the new record – “Believe” and an intense “Compound Fracture” – before dipping into the back catalog for treats like “Off the Record,” “The Way That He Sings,” “War Begun” and “Golden.” Another spate of tunes from the new release – “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall),” “Big Decisions,” “Tropics (Erase Traces)” and “Spring (Among the Living)” [what’s with all the parentheses, guys?] – anchored the middle of the set, with the band performing in front of a trippy light show of swirling colors that mirrored the design of the psychedelic jacket James was wearing on stage. The band closed out their 90-minute set with the trio of “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt 2,” “Anytime” and “One Big Holiday.”

6) Ballroom Thieves – Boston Calling makes an effort to include at least a few up-and-coming local bands on the bill at each festival. The Ballroom Thieves, whose debut album, A Wolf in the Doorway, landed just one month earlier, snagged the opening slot on the third and final day of the festival. The three-piece band – Martin Earley on guitar, Calin Peters on cello and Devin Mauch on percussion – tags itself as a “rock band in a folk suit,” and that’s a pretty fair description. They’re not the only ones mining this territory, but they seem to be doing it without the self-consciousness of some other bands in the folk-rock/Americana genre. They only had time for a handful of songs, but they’re clearly a band worth watching. Standout track: “Wolf.”

7) Then Came The Morning – Having seen The Lone Bellow shine in the intimate confines of small-to-midsize clubs, I was a little concerned that it would be a let-down to watch this Brooklyn-based band perform in the middle of the afternoon on a large stage in front of a festival crowd. I needn’t have worried. By the time they got to the third song of their set, “Then Came The Morning,” frontman Zach Williams was in full preacher mode – shirttails flapping, hair askew, sweat soaking through his clothes. They had to forego some of their slower songs, leaning instead on upbeat rockers like “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home,” “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” and “You Never Need Nobody.” This band never fails to deliver in live performance.

8) Lucius – Another Brooklyn group, the indie popsters Lucius, was a late addition to the festival, thrown into the lineup only days before the event to fill in for an injured Chet Faker. Although they’ve been off the road and in the studio for much of 2015, they had the crowd up and dancing to infectious, percussion-driven tracks like “Tempest,” “How Loud Your Heart Gets” and “Wildewoman.” They debuted one new song and covered an old We Five tune (“You Were on My Mind”) before rocking to a close on “Turn It Around” and “Genevieve.”

9) Sunset Sets – Boston Calling has had some trouble with the weather during past festivals, but they seemed to get the calibration just right for this version, particularly on Sunday, when festival-goers got an early (for New England) taste of summer, with temperatures well up in the 80s and the sun shining brightly. As afternoon turned toward evening, Southern rocker Jason Isbell and Australian singer-songwriter Vance Joy turned in shimmering, back-to-back sets that perfectly fit the mood. Isbell, onetime member of the Drive-By Truckers, is currently backed by the 400 Unit. His set went down as easy as a smooth glass of bourbon. Highlights included “Stockholm,” “Flying Over Water,” “Cover Me Up” and “Traveling Alone.” Vance Joy kept the vibe going, no more so than on a sublime version of “Best That I Can.”

10) Tenacious D – Okay, the D won me over. I went into this weekend a little skeptical that Jack Black’s comedic band really deserved the subheadlining slot they were given on the festival’s final night. But it’s hard not to get sucked in by Black and his bandmate Kyle Gass’s oddball charm. Their songwriting style is somewhat different than last May’s subheadliners The Decemberists; Black and Gass would be unlikely to use words like “prevaricate” or “panoply” in any of their songs, and by the same token it is hard to envision The Decemberists ending one of their sets with a ballad like “Fuck Her Gently.” Black, Gass and their able if unheralded band strutted and preened through a 17-song set that included a lot of paeans to the greatness of Tenacious D. If you like your heavy metal bombast with a touch of wit, then the only thing better than Tenacious D might be a Tenacious D cover band.

Come September, Boston Calling is moving their fall festival from Labor Day weekend to the end of the month (Sept. 25-27), with headlining sets from The Avett Brothers, Alt-J and Alabama Shakes.