Special thanks to Maia Kennedy, contributing editor, for her excellent photos.
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DAY THREE: SATURDAY, MAY 23, 2015
THE BALLROOM THIEVES
Boston’s own band The Ballroom Thieves were formed in 2011. On Facebook they describe the genre of their music as “alternative rock & folkin’ roll.” And they really could not describe themselves better. They deliver a sometimes sweet, sometimes salty blend of folk rock that is always tasty. They released their fantastic debut album, A Wolf In The Doorway, just last month. It didn’t make a blip on my radar at the time but when I saw they were playing Boston Calling I checked it out on Spotify and was blown away; there isn’t a bad song on the album. I was so impressed that I bought the record and I showed up nice and early on Sunday morning to catch their set, which began day three of the festival.
As with on the album, the band’s performance at Boston Calling was brimming with powerful emotion, each member of the trio doing their part as if their very lives depended on it. But an outpouring of emotion doesn’t necessarily make for a good show. You have to have the songs to expend the emotion on. And The Ballroom Thieves have some incredible songs, most of which have choruses that were so infectious it was impossible to sit still through them. You had to tap your foot, dance, use the table in front of you like a drum pad, etc. If you didn’t move voluntarily, their songs were going to move you anyway. What made their set especially memorable was the intensity of cellist Calin Peters, who brought the songs to life just as much as the vocals, guitar or drums. Her playing was very, very impressive and a key factor in The Ballroom Thieves’ unique sound.
While I watched The Ballroom Thieves I found myself thinking, this is a band that’s going to be back here headlining Boston Calling in another year or two. I continued to think this throughout the day as I heard the other artists and compared them to The Ballroom Thieves, realizing, time and time again, that The Ballroom Thieves have the talent neeeded to become the next Lumineers, Mumford & Sons or The Civil Wars. They’re that good.
Ashley Nicolette Frangipane goes by the stage name Halsey, which is an anagram of her first name. She’s signed to Astralwerks and her music could be described as electronica, but when I listened to her at Boston Calling I couldn’t help but pick up on a punk rock vibe. Suffice to say she’s not an easily categorized artist. The most accurate description I could come up with while watching her work the stage and sing her edgy songs was rocktronica. And if that’s not already a thing, don’t worry, she’s up for making it one. She definitely has that whole indie-minded, won’t be put in a box, vibe about her. And it works for her. You feel like you’re watching the next Lady Gaga, though her sound was perhaps closer to Kerli’s first album. At one point, she said, in a self-depracating manner, “Maybe this will be the last time I visit Boston.” But then she apparently perked up – in more ways than one – asking the audience, “Do you see my nipples now?” The crowd cheered for that and she smiled and said, “Maybe this won’t be the last time I visit Boston,” which generated more cheering. She also managed to get the crowd singing along to part of one of her songs, which goes, “We are the new Americana / High on legal marijuana / Raised on Piggy and Nirvana.” Not all of her songs were uppity anthems, however. One song, “Hold Me Down,” was about a record company jerk who thought he’d take advantage of her when she was 19. Before she began the song she pointed out that she signed with another label and wrote a song about the motherfucker, which got the crowd screaming. Suffice to say it was a very emotional if not disturbing song. But it showed that she can write serious songs just as well as the fun stuff and her ability to do both is probably why she was the most talked about artist online at this year’s SXSW.
You can see her on tour opening for Imagine Dragons starting next month.
Los Angeles’ ILoveMakonnen, otherwise known as Makonnen Sheran, rose to fame last year when Drake remixed the hip-hop artist’s popular song “Tuesday” and appeared in its video. His mixtape Drink More Water 5 also helped him rack up 52k likes on Facebook. (You can still download it for free — see his official site.) His songs range from slow and trippy to super synthy and sometimes they’re both at once. But for some reason they didn’t grab me. Not on the mixtape and not live at Boston Calling. He just doesn’t seem to have enough energy and his rapping leaves a lot to be desired, as he comes across like someone who just started rapping two weeks ago and still hasn’t quite gotten the knack of it.
Of course, my two cents ultimately means nothing, as the audience cheered him on, rather impressed.
THE LONE BELLOW
The Lone Bellow’s new album Then Came The Morning is one of my favorite albums released thus far this year. The way they blend Americana, folk, rock and pop is nothing short of magical. There’s no limit to the peaks they rise to and their songs are rich in vivid, kaleidoscopic color, which was obvious to anyone who saw their passionate set at Boston Calling. The difference between their album and their live show is that they sound much more like a rock ‘n’ roll band live. Like rock folk, not folk rock. And that’s just fine because they’ve got the chops and certainly get the audience excited. I just wish they’d let Kanene Donehey Pipkin, their mandolin player, sing lead on a few songs. Zach Williams has a nice Springsteen-esque voice, but Pipkin’s voice is just as powerful and quite beautiful. Besides, Williams’ voice did sound like it could’ve used a break by the time their set was over and he’d struggled to hit some of those high notes, his voice sounding like it was starting to crack. So, why not give him a break to rest his voice and give Pipkin the spotlight now and again?
Chet Faker couldn’t make it to Boston Calling due to an injury, Boston Calling veteran Lucius being their replacement. On Facebook they simply list “music” as their genre and it’s no wonder, as their songs go just about everywhere, dipping in one genre here and another genre there. They had songs that were almost as light as air and songs that could kick your ass so high that you’d bounce out of the festival. I had to strap myself into a chair that was bolted to the ground to be sure that wouldn’t happen to me during their set. OK, I’m joking, but you get the idea — this is pop folk indie rock with wings that would make Red Bull envious. Rolling Stone once called them “the best band you may not have heard yet.” I think that’s a sentiment most of the people who attended Boston Calling would agree with. (Unless they had heard them already, which many clearly did as there was a fair amount of singing along.) They reminded me of Jenny Lewis, who’s one of my favorite artists, so I’m very curious to hear more from them now.
Prior to going solo, Green Hill, Alabama’s Jason Isbell was a member of Drive-By Truckers for six years. And, yes, the singer/songwriter/guitarist waves that confederate flag high. Well, not really, not that I know of, but his music is rich with southern influences aplenty. To my ears, his sound is similar to that of Ryan Adams, who he opened for back in 2012. I was really looking forward to his Boston Calling set because I knew it would be a mellower affair than the artists preceding him, so it would be something of a welcome break, giving me a moment or two to let my brain tone down a little after all the loudness. And, sure enough, his sound came across like country with some rock and Americana influences. So, yes, it wasn’t as sonorous as the artists earlier in the day. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t engaging because I rather enjoyed it; it more than held my attention. He has a relaxed, classic country voice, not a pop country voice, which was plenty refreshing because I love old country but can’t stand most of what passes for country today.
His new album, Something More Than Free, due out on July 17th, is a must-have, especially if you like southern music that isn’t your typical southern rock.
You might not be aware of it, but surely you’ve heard Vance Joy’s music before. He’s still riding the wave of his major international hit “Riptide,” which is pretty darn catchy if I do say so myself. I’m just hoping he has another smash hit soon so he doesn’t become a one-hit wonder. But I expect he’ll have plenty of other hits in the near future, being that he’s opening for Taylor Swift this summer. You can’t get more exposure than that. Plus, most of the audience seemed to be familiar with his music, not just the one song. As I observed his set, I found myself thinking that he’s like a cross between Phillip Phillips and The Lumineers. But with a subtle Australian accent, being that he’s from there. And I must say, his perfectly accessible music went down as smoothly as a vanilla frappe as each song sounded almost exactly like it does on his album, just ever so slightly rougher around the edges.
By the way, Atlantic signed Vance to a FIVE album deal in 2013. It’s a rare thing for a new artist to get a hefty deal like that. But I’m happy to hear it — it means we’ll be getting lots of new music from him!
TV ON THE RADIO
TV on the Radio is one of those sweet indie rock bands that the cool kids stick to like bees to honey. I’ve been a fan since 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain album. The rich production of their songs is one of the things that drew me to them. You’re always hearing that this band and that band create a wall of sound, Phil Spector-style, and half the time that’s bullshit. It just sounds like they’re creating a wall of sound because their music is so loud. With TV on the Radio’s albums, you get a wall of sound because there are so many layers to their songs. Lots of subtle, little details that you only notice once you’ve heard a song 10 times. They’re like Garbage in that respect. Going into Boston Calling, I had no idea what they would sound like live. Well, in a word, they sounded: different.
In terms of the musicianship, there were six of performers on the stage and they absolutely created a wall of sound. It was a fantastic wall of sound, in fact, delivering beats that ranged from rock to funk to soul, and the audience saw it fit to dance to all of them. I’m talking about intense dancing. People were really feeling TVOTR’s punchiness, their sharp hooks, their whole good time vibe. It was like being at a concert by none other than The Rolling Stones. And they definitely had a Stones vibe going on as they kicked ass and delivered hooks aplenty, proving to be much, much heavier live than they are on their albums.
If there was going to be one novelty act at Boston Calling this May it was going to be Tenacious D, the comedy rock/metal duo consisting of lead vocalist and guitarist Jack Black and lead guitarist and vocalist Kyle Gass. It’s hard to believe they released their first album, which was self-titled, way back in 2001. (They’ve since released two other albums, 2006’s The Pick of Destiny and 2012’s Rize of the Fenix.) But, yes, they have been around that long. These days, they don’t play live very often, so seeing them at Boston Calling was a rare treat. (According to their website, Amnesia Rockfest is the only other date they’re performing this year.) What’s always impressed me is how good their songs actually are. Since they’re considered comedy, their music wouldn’t necessarily have to be spectacular. It’s Jack Black’s theatrical vocals that make the songs funny. However, their songs actually do kick some serious ass. And someone has to carry on the tradition of the late Ronnie James Dio. To that end, one thing that’s obvious when you see Tenacious D perform is that they actually love the music they’re parodying. They might render the songs over-the-top for laughs, but, as was evident at Boston Calling, they’re also performing this music because they enjoy the hell out of it.
They opened their set with “Tribute,” which is one of their best songs, and watching them play the hell out of it, I realized that these guys are actual rock stars. Maybe it started out as a joke, but now they’re a heavy rock band first and a comedy act second. It was only funny when Black and Gass were trying to make it funny, like when Black demanded a towel, stating, “I get my towel on time. I’m not intimidated.” Or when Black had his roadie come out on stage and help him get changed. Those moments were hilarious. But when they were performing tracks like “Rize of the Fenix” and “Low Hangin’ Fruit,” it was easy to get lost in the moment and throw up metal horns. And, seriously, Black does have a genuine rock star voice. He can hit some very impressive high notes, his falsetto nothing short of magical.
I came away from the show wishing Black and Gass would make a serious hard rock or metal album next time around. It would rule. Then again, they already rule.
The Pixies are one of the most influential bands to ever come out of Boston and they were ahead of their time, apparently, as they seem to be more popular today than they were when they released their first four (now classic) albums between 1988 and 1991. As for who they’ve influenced, have you heard of Nirvana or Blur or Radiohead? They were all influenced by Pixies. No kidding. Check Wikipedia if you don’t believe me. Or just asked Jack Black, who, near the end of Tenacious D’s set, said that without the Pixies “there would be no Nirvana or Radiohead. Or there would, but they wouldn’t be as good.”
Suffice to say that Pixies were *the* band that everyone was most looking forward to at Boston Calling. Every time I turned around I heard someone mention them. “The Pixies are gonna kill it!” “The Pixies oughtta be great.” And so on. And my hopes were high, too. I felt like I was attending a homecoming party, the way I’ve always felt when I see Aerosmith in Beantown. And, let me tell you, the Pixies did not disappoint. Far from it! They were ferocious, like a rapid racoon or anxious cobra, ready to strike at any time. And it almost did feel like they were striking out at the audience as they played their electrifying guitars with some serious gusto. And vocalist Black Francis has never sounded more vital, belting out their tunes with a sort of attractive desperation, like he was in fight or flight mode. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him.
I didn’t feel like I was watching an old band during their set. After a few songs I felt like I was watching a new band, a new band on the verge of becoming huge. Every other band that had played that day paled in comparsion to the Pixies. There was so much anger, so much rage, and so much love happening on that stage. It was starting to become overwhelming when they finally slowed things down for a few minutes and played “Wave of Mutilation,” their classic from the Pump Up The Volume movie soundtrack that everyone I know had by the time I graduated from high school in 1991. It’s a wave I’ll be riding with them from now on.
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