reviews and photos by Michael McCarthy
As I previously mentioned, I was unable to make Boston Calling on Saturday. First, I woke up late at 11 when I’d meant to get up at 9 and take the 11 train into Boston from Lowell. Then I went to the train station to take the 1 train, as they only run every two hours on weekends, but that train proved to be a no show. When I first arrived at the train station I went and sat outside, which was another mistake on my part because it was in the 90’s and I am literally allergic to heat. I only expected to be sitting there for a short time, figuring the train would show up on time, but that’s not what happened. About 20 minutes after it didn’t show the ticker sign stated that it would be another 20 minutes late. Then that came and went and it said it would be another 25 minutes late. About half an hour after that it said it would be an hour late, which apparently meant that they were skipping that train and just sending the 3PM train, but I was having an itching attack – one of my heat allergy symptoms – at that point so I called and arranged for someone to come pick me up at the train station and skipped Boston Calling. This was also because I was going to have to leave Boston Calling early as it was because I was going to see Selena Gomez at TD Garden that night, having purchased a rather expensive ticket months before I knew what the dates of Boston Calling would be. So, if I’d waited for the three PM train I would have missed the artists I most wanted to see anyway; Battles, The Vaccines and BØRNS. So, it just didn’t seem worth it to go in and be exposed to more 90 degree heat and itching all over just to see a few sets. It seemed fate was determined to keep me away from BC that day and in hindsight I’m sure it’s a good thing I didn’t go because with my heat allergy I likely would have produced so much histamine that my throat would have started to swell up, which my allergist has warned could stop me from breathing, and I no longer have an EpiPen because I had one for several years and never reached the point that I needed it. Of course, I have prescription antihistamines, but the most potent has a warning to stay out of the sun and it makes me so sleepy I would have been stumbling around anyway, unable to pay much attention to the music. But this is about Boston Calling day three, Sunday May 29th, which would seem to have been the exact opposite as Saturday with temperatures that felt like they were in the 50’s and even a bit lower with the wind chill factor. It was so cold I went and spent the last of my money for the month on a Disclosure sweatshirt just so I could warm up. Granted, it’s a nice souvenir, and fortunately it was/is a very thick sweatshirt, it just wasn’t something I had budgeted for. (Like the second Selena Gomez shirt I bought on Saturday! Oops!)
In any case, Sunday was a blast and I’m quite happy that the train arrived on time at 11, which meant that I was able to spend the entire day at BC, save for having to leave before Disclosure finished to go catch the last train back to Lowell. Now, onto the reviews!
Michael Christmas is a very talented indie rap artist from none other than Boston. He’s one of those guys you listen to and you can’t believe they aren’t hugely popular already. Last year he released a fantastic album called What A Weird Day and if you’re a fan of storytellers like Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt, you would love it. With his performance at Boston Calling, Michael’s upbeat spirit was even more infectious than on the record. One of the reasons What A Weird Day is such a smash is that he sounds like he was having the time of his life when he was recording it, like he was a kid let loose in a candy store, and that’s exactly what he looked like up on the red stage at Boston Calling. Seeing him perform his songs with a big smile on his face put one on mine and damn near everybody else’s.
CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS
She was born Héloïse Letissier, but she goes by Christine and the Queens, perhaps inspired by Marina and the Diamonds and Florence and the Machine, solo artists whose names sound like band names. In any case, Christine is a very popular French artist. If Boston Calling was in France, Christine would be a headliner. Her music is very modern French pop of the most artistic variety, although nearly half of her songs are in English and those were the focus of her BC set. She began her performance with “iT,” during which she proudly sang, “I’m a man now and there’s nothing you can do to make me change my mind.” This had the audience cheering loudly and rightly so. During “Tilted,” she sang, “I am naturally good / Can’t help it if I’m tilted.” That’s the great thing about Christine – he songs are very diversity positive but she’s just being herself – she told the crowd she feels “like a little boy” – when she sings these things. She’s not singing them because it’s du jour or for shock value. If they get attention for either of these reasons, I doubt that she minds, but by and large she’s getting attention because her music is fabulous.
Christine wore a white T-shirt and gray dress pants like her band – the only difference being that she wore a gray suit-coat – and the four dancers who occasionally joined her. She performed her BC set with one gentleman playing bass and two playing a variety of keyboards, drum machines, samplers, etc. (At least I’m guessing that’s what they were doing up there with their assorted gadgets.) No six string guitars in sight, but you certainly don’t miss them. You’re too busy dancing, which many in the crowd were doing, especially when she played a bit of Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You” and Technotronic’s “Pump Up The Jam.” She also received a big reaction from the crowd during the ballad “Paradis Perdu,” which she described as a “mash-up,” being that it’s essentially a cover of French pop star Christophe’s song of the same name with an interpolation of Kanye West’s “Heartless” during the chorus.
UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – usually just called UMO by their fans – has members from both America and New Zealand. When I first listened to the title track of their latest album “Multi-Love” on Spotify before the show, they struck me as being a pop rock band, but listening to them perform live they struck me as being more in the R&B vein. Another difference was that their songs sound somewhat minimalist on their album, but live they had a fuller sound and a bit more energy. They kicked off their BC set with “From the Sun,” the opening track of their 2013 album entitled II. I was especially impressed by their performances of “How Can You Luv Me,” “So Good at Being in Trouble” and “Multi-Love.”
Vince Staples is a rapper from Long Beach, California. He is one-third of the hip hop group Cutthroat Boyz, which also includes fellow California rappers Joey Fatts and Aston Matthews. He’s affiliated with Odd Future, especially Earl Sweatshirt and Mike G. He’s one of my favorite rappers to emerge during recent years. His songs tend to pack mean bass but generally are not club bangers. The music on his album Summertime ’06 is more for chilling at the after party and it’s very easy to picture people smoking up while listening to it. Like Michael Christmas, Vince had a good sense of humor. Well, assuming you were not one of the police officers at the festival, being that Vince had the audience chanting “Fuck The Police!” He did apologize afterward though, saying, “I’m sorry if you’re a cop. I accept your position.” He was a natural entertainer and an amusing one at that.
CHARLES BRADLEY AND HIS EXTRAORDINAIRES
Daptone Records’ Charles Bradley is an astounding funk/soul/R&B singer. Often, his songs could be considered as all three of these genres. His music tends to be so unique you can’t quite put your finger on it; it defies categorization. I wasn’t familiar with him prior to looking him up before Boston Calling, but when I checked out his latest album, Changes, on Spotify I was blown away. You could say he’s a James Brown motherfucker. He sings with such confidence and power, except for when he’s singing ballads that could slay you with their emotiveness. To that end, his songs at Boston Calling ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other. He began his set with the mid-tempo delight “You Think I Don’t Know (But I Know)” from his latest album Changes followed by “How Long” from his classic album No Time For Dreaming. He set also included “You Put The Flame On It,” which was amusingly followed by “The World (Is Going Up In Flames).” For me, the highlight of his set was the title track from Changes, the Black Sabbath classic from the ’70’s.
THE FRONT BOTTOMS
Indie rockers The Front Bottoms hail from New Jersey and strike me as being a cross between Barenaked Ladies and Ben Folds, largely due to the sound of charismatic frontman Brian Sella’s voice. All eyes were on him during the band’s fun and energetic BC set, as he had the audience eating out of the proverbial palm of his hand from the time the band opened their 12 song feat with “Skeleton” until they closed it with “Twin Sized Mattress.” One highlight was “Summer Shandy,” before which Brian remarked that he had chosen shorts to wear at Boston Calling but that it was too cold. To that end, one of the guys in the band had a sweatshirt on with the hood up. I also really enjoyed “Au Revoir (Adios) and “The Plan (Fuck Jobs)”; come to think of it, their lyrics remind me of Ben Folds, too.
Singer/songwriter/actress Elle King is quite the enigma. Her vibrant songs never fail to blur the lines between country, soul, rock and blues. She reminds me of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals to some degree, but there’s really no one quite like her. Her album Love Stuff is one of my favorite records from the past few years and her BC performance was one of my favorites as well. She was on fire as she belted out tracks kick ass songs like “Ex’s and Oh’s,” “Where The Devil Don’t Go,” and “America’s Sweetheart.” The high point, though, was a rousing cover of The Beatles’ “Oh Darling!,” which gave her the opportunity to hit a high note that could have shattered glass.
In my opinion, Janelle Monáe is one of the most fascinating artists on the planet right now. Her music is best described as R&B, but it certainly packs elements of rock and soul. There’s a bit of a sci-fi element to her music as well. She’s quite the mogul, too. She has her own record label, she’s a Cover Girl spokeswoman, she’s appeared in several television commercials, and now she’s also an actress. I just hope these other ventures don’t consume all of her time because she’s due to release a new album, her last being 2013’s The Electric Lady, and I want it now. Seeing her live at Boston Calling was was just the fix I needed to hold me over, though, her songs jumping out at you even livelier than they do on her albums, which I would not have thought possible given the spunk on those. Surprisingly, she did three covers during her set, the first being James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” which was immediately followed by The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” It was an interesting contrast, considering that “I Got You” is arguably more serious than it is fun, whereas The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” is one of those songs you hear and it immediately puts a smile on your face. Actually, I take that back; they were both incredibly fun. As much as I love her original songs, it was her final song, her last cover, that totally blew me away, being that it was Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” which is exactly what it had the entire audience doing.
Este, Danielle and Alana Haim – and drummer Dash Hutton – make some mighty pop rock. Their blend of contagious vocals, often funky bass lines, and incredibly heavy beats has made them world famous. Their 2013 album, Days Are Gone, still blows me away every time I listen to it (and iTunes states that I’ve listened to it 75 times and that’s not counting all the times I’ve listened to it on vinyl). It’s as vigorous as anything out there today and the intricacy of their percussion rivals the best math rock. I knew they were going to be fantastic live from having seen videos of their Coachella 2014 appearance, but I could not have been prepared for the sheer energy they packed, just how overpowering their beats would be. They practically knocked me on my ass. I’m not kidding. Their drums were so loud it was as though the rest of the festival had been turned up to 8 and they turned it all the way up to 10. They started off with “If I Could Change Your Mind” and “Don’t Save Me” before bringing out Christine and the Queens for a killer cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U,” which was just as potent as Janelle Monae’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” and had the audience jumping about like crickets. The rest of their set consisted of several other tracks from Days Are Gone, including the singles “Falling,” “Forever,” “My Song 5” and “The Wire.” All of these were superb, but it was their new songs “Give Me Just a Little of Your Love” abd “Nothing’s Wrong” that left the strongest impression on me. If they’re any indication, their sophomore effort should be as rock solid as their flawless debut.
This time around all of the Boston Calling headliners were foreign with the brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence, better known as Disclosure, hailing from mighty ol’ England. (Surrey, in particular.) During the past few years, they’ve easily been the most popular electronic act in the world with hits like “Latch” featuring Sam Smith, “Nocturnal” featuring The Weeknd and “Magnets” featuring Lorde. They were the last act of Boston Calling’s May ’16 festival and they made their performance memorable by turning City Hall Plaza into a veritable discotheque that had the crowd dancing their asses off as they performed all of the above songs along with a dozen others that included all of the best tracks from their albums Settle and Caracal, the latter of which was nominated for a 2016 Grammy Award. While the vocals for most of their tracks were canned – it’s not like they could have 20 superstars appear with them – they did have two special guests, Lion Babe joining them for a potent rendition of “Hourglass” (from Caracal) and Brendan Reilly joining them for “Moving Moutains” (from Settle). Obviously, these were among the many highlights of their set, which frequently had Guy playing a drum pad while Howard played bass in addition to singing some of their songs, but for me their hit song “You & Me” featuring Eliza Doolittle was the high point. (Eliza is criminally under-rated in the U.S. but huge in most of the world.) What impressed me most, however, was their musicianship. I had, perhaps naively, expected them to both stand there like DJs, so it was refreshing and unexpected when they actually played instruments.
All in all, Sunday was one of the most memorable line-ups I’ve seen at Boston Calling and this was my fourth time covering it.
BONUS PHOTOS BY MICHAEL MCCARTHY: