Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

Boston Calling 2013

07 June 2013, 13:50 | Written by Ryan Thomas

Boston is often stereotyped as a sports city. Which makes sense, as sports fans are always the loudest residents of any major city, Boston being no exception. More than most, however, Boston accounts for some of the loudest, drunkest, “are-you-kidding-me-ref?!”-ing-est kind of hardcore sports-fanaticism around.

For proof, one needs only attempt to leave a parking garage after a Red Sox game, to encounter a parade of car horns honking to the tune of residual stadium anthems. Or hop on the subway after a Bruins game to find a sea of black and gold jerseys…as well as a cacophony of boorish chanting and incoherent bantering. Even Facebook blushes a little at all the profanity it endures with every missed goal and/or surprise victory. After all, Bostonians will curse the birth of a newborn baby just as emphatically as they will that f#$%-ing prick who didn’t see the light turn green the very second it did.

But Boston is more than just its sports and at Boston Calling, the city’s first official music festival taking place May 25-26, a gap was bridged (at least somewhat) between what Boston is brazenly known for, and what more it can be.

Boston Calling was an event long overdue. In the U.S., it remains clear that all the good summer festivals take place way far west. Coachella is all the way in California; Lollapolooza is held in Chicago, Illinois; Bonaroo – Manchester,Tennessee; SXSW/Austin City Limits – Austin,Texas. New York has the Governor’s Ball and Rhode Island has the Newport Folk Festival (more locally-speaking). But what about Boston? It seems unfair that this fine city should get none of the love in its own backyard, and that its festival-deprived inhabitants should have to endure life-and-mind-altering cross-country pilgrimages to truly experience the finer points of indie rock all laid out like a wedding buffet.

Well, it seems somebody important overheard all these desperate pleas and finally decided to organize a chamber of commerce-behooving ‘big deal’ that Bostonians could finally take claim to. And it is a big deal.

Ra Ra Riot

Curated by none other than The National’s Aaron Dessner, who’s done his share of curating (see 2012‘s All Tomorrow’s Parties and Crossing Brooklyn Ferry), the lineup is as huge as it was bound to be: The Shins, The Walkmen, Ra Ra Riot, fun., Portugal. the Man, Andrew Bird, Of Monsters and Men…all leading up to a headlining Sunday performance by the National, the very first in their tour in support of Trouble Will Find Me.

All of this is very exciting, and even more so is the notion that this may very well become an outright institution. In addition to how quickly Boston Calling sold out, a wrist-crutch-dependent Mayor Menino makes an appearance on Saturday night, ushering in the Shins and offering a public endorsement.

“Now I trust the young people of our city,” Menino says. “An event like this doesn’t happen without leadership.” This is met with clamor and uproar, a notable step towards a healthier relationship between this city and its art community, even before Menino goes on to sully the transaction with an obligatory “Go Bruins!” (Come on man, this is a place of music.) But as Menino himself notes–19,000+ people made this musical wet dream a reoccurring possibility, with Aaron Dessner breaking the news on Sunday night that Boston Calling will be happening again in September.

The lineup for Boston Calling #2 is announced.

The first night of the event, however, looks like a bad omen. Forecast: unseasonable cold and a whipping rain – terrible weather for an outdoor concert, although sort of just an inconvenient shrug for New England. But it all feels so resolute, and is thoroughly reassured on the other side of the festival entrance: nothing is going to stop this thing from happening – not the weather, nor any blistering scars. Ponchos are at the ready, as are rain gear-clad Boston Police, whose abundance is as felt as it is welcomed.

Alexandra Hynes, a co-founder of 44 Communications, a public relations firm hired for the event, assures that security for the event was already an implicit guarantee, but that in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, “they definitely lasered it in.”

Just past the handheld metal detectors and bag searches, however, is a garden of Eden, and one which you could leave and reenter at will with outside food and drink – without the kind of wrath and scorn that makes indoor concerts such a drag. In fact, according to the Boston Calling website, exploring the surrounding area is fully encouraged. This freedom to roam and spend is more than anything a case for what a tangible force of good an event like Boston Calling, and music festivals in general, can be for the local economy. And how it is.

A fillafel place just down the road from the festival, called Piperi, stays open all day Sunday, a day on which it usually remains closed. On Sunday, Piperi receives an unusually large influx of customers, being mostly festival attendees looking for a quick tank fill between sets. Co-founder Tim Oliveri, who decided to open the store up last minute, says that they had already received triple the business they ever have on any given Saturday, and the day is still only half over: “Rock and roll is great for business,” he said, adding “I’d love to have a festival every weekend.”

Flashback to Saturday. An unshakably unpleasant chill and incessant spray offers reports from the colorless sky above. During an equally unshakable performance by MS MR, a dance circle breaks out. The music offers the colour the weather won’t. The lead singer’s bright smile, pink hair, leopard/camouflage tights do the same. The beat is infectious. Everything is good here.

The presence of intermittent dance circles suggests a few things; one of them is the spontaneous invention of community. Another is that sort of free-love-for-all ethos that has been a festival mentality dating back to Woodstock, carrying on straight to Bonnaroo. It becomes apparent that Boston could offer refuge to this sort of communal mentality, if only it were more regularly encouraging. Boston Calling is a start, and this dance circle is the symbolic nucleus of the whole thing.

The MS MR dance circle is started by one couple, named Cass and Josh. Of the pair, Cass has never been to a music festival, while Josh has been to several – most recently, an EDM festival that took place in Chicago. Josh says, “I’m actually glad it’s 50 degrees , that dance circle warmed me up.”About Boston’s first music festival he says, “I was a little skeptical at first, because this is so not like Boston, but people came out.”

On stage, singer Lizzy Plapinger keeps the dampened crowd’s morale floating on high, spiritually desiccated, hands flapping as she instructs the crowd to “throw your hands up Boston.” During a break, she tells the audience, “Remember you’re already wet so just go for it,” then proceeds into a song called “Hurricane.”

MS MR play their set on the second of two stages set up so that the music remains continuously on tap, without the fear of overlap that other festivals with much more stages frequently pose.


On the Main Stage, which accommodates a much larger standing audience than the aforementioned, Matt and Kim enter, and their scant two pieces (i.e. drums and keys) do very little to suggest just how well-suited this act is to an arena-sized audience. Their TV-commercial-staple pop songs already offer ready means to swollen mass dissemination. And their on stage personas are just as huge.

Drummer Kim promises to get everyone laid, instructing the the audience to follow her dating service on Twitter (#kimsdatingservice). She says, “I’m ready to get the weirdest I’ve ever been with Boston,” while Matt comments on unfortunate weather, saying “It’s been so cold and so rainy, and you’ve been an incredible fucking audience.” Before they leave the stage, Kim shakes her ass to the clubbiest hip-hop jam playing overhead.

After Menino walks on and off the stage, the Shins come on, and bring with them an endless summer of garage-y psychedelia and sticky kind bud resin. Their on-stage banter, sun-ripened melodies, and literal fumes overhead reek of the latter and everyone in the audience gets at the very least a contact high. The background imagery provides a fittingly trippy visual accompaniment, ranging from tribal motifs (tying in with the album artwork of their most recent Port of Morrow), to out-of-focus abstractions, to a 9×9 cubic grid display of eyeball-studded baby hands. Before performing “No Way Down” frontman James Mercer muses proudly, “We got this into the Spider-Man soundtrack.”

Other awesome Mercer moments include: him observing (to audience), “Even the cold can’t keep you down,” which is met by one audience member calling out, “Prove it!” as he expresses further bitterness about how much warmer it must be on stage; Mercer baiting a non-present Taylor Swift, after commenting on effective strategies for keeping warm. Mercer: “‘Dancing in the Cold.’ Is that a song yet, Swift? Is that one of yours?”; The Shins play a softer, more downbeat number, outfitted with twinkling keys and chiming notes. A guy in audience calls out, “What is this, a fucking lullabye?” (In print, all the unruliness – emanating from what may or may not be the same guy – sounds disruptive and relentlessly cynical, but it is all assuredly taken in good humour, as a welcome lack of inhibition. Loving support in Boston can often sound like heckling.)

Later on, and frequently, the crowd joins in to accompany all the wordless hooks, to where every ‘ooh’ and ‘la’ is provided a free background choir for which lesser artists would have to resort to Kickstarter.

Saturday wraps up with a performance by probably the most famous name on the bill, Grammy-winners, and wholly-pervasive indy-pop act fun. Their set is as squeaky clean as their sound, sing-along hooks by the barrel-full, and auto-tune. The whole audience seems to know the words to every one of their songs. (And it’s probably no small mention how much radio-play virtually every one of their songs receives as well.) They alternate between swollen pop anthems and stripped-down piano balladry. The biggest surprise, however, is in how utterly minimal their sound can and does become. And in that way, they seem to satisfy everyone’s needs, right up until Boston Calling Day One finally decides to call it quits.



Sunday brings a whole new day, an even more exhilarating lineup, even more wristbands, and (at last) sunlight! Dirty Projectors, Ra Ra Riot, The Walkmen, Andrew Bird, Of Monsters and Men…capped off by The National. What an amazing lineup, all united by what Aaron Dessner identified in a Rolling Stone interview as “a strong element of songwriting and musicianship.”

The Walkmen

A fair number of these acts also, as it turns out, happen to share a distinctly Brooklyn nativity – the biggest exception being Of Monsters and Men, who come all the way from Iceland to share their utterly-huge, cathartic singalong folk sound with us bleedy-hearted stateside. Of Monsters’ draw has to be the night’s second hugest – second only to The National’s devoted cult-hoard which squeezed in hours before their set, to get as close to Matt Berninger’s beard as humanly possible. It’s what we all payed for after all. Okay maybe not the beard, but this band for sure – a.k.a. God’s voice incarnate – which CoS accurately labeled a “New York institution.”

All horseplay ceases when The National take the stage. After a number of entitled/drunk teenagers push through to “meet their friends up front,” a pact is formed amongst several National-ists (this one included) to refuse any further attempts to snake up front, in front of all the die-hard stalwarts who waited all day to secure their spots. From henceforth we all maintain a Gandalf-esque “You shall not pass!” stance of marble inexorability.


Finally, the moment arrives. Aaron Dessner, our beloved curator, addresses the crowd, asks who made it out the day prior in spite of the rain, and previews Boston Calling #2 with a promo video (the lineup for which is greeted more ambivalently, as Vampire Weekend and some rappers populate the bigger slots). Promptly thereafter, The National proceed to blast our faces off with a whole bunch of new material.

The first song is ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap,’ a leading single off their new album. And the whole band is in full view. Matt Berninger in glasses and dapper coattails, swigging wine from a plastic cup between vocal breaks. A two-pierce horn section upstage right, which consists of Kyle Resnick and Ben Lanz (of the heavily-ornamented indie band Beirut), who also offer background harmonies and accompanying keys, and overall lend a hand in helping the setlist come alive as fully as it deserves to.

Song two: ‘Buzzblood Ohio,’ from 2011’s High Violet. A second before he treats us to that withdrawn baritone which sets the song (and our gooey hearts) into motion, he spits out a vertical cloud of smoke, before singing those first lines: “Stand up straight at the foot of your love…”

All the fans hang on to his every lyrics with rapt devotion.

Song three: ‘Mistaken for Strangers,’ off Boxer. We start to hear the surly Berninger we rarely hear on the albums, and that you never expect to see if you’ve never seen The National play. Actually it seems almost every aspect of each song is somehow reimagined for a live setting, as if to let each performance be its own unique experience, its own living moment. One of the secret to this band’s everlasting listenability is in how you never really hear/see the same band twice. Complacency is simply not a factor.

In a short break, Matt finally addresses the crowd: “This is the first show of our new tour. We’re honoured to do it in Boston.”

Song four is another track off Trouble Will Find Me: ‘Sea of Love.’ This has to be the most volatile performance of the night, a propulsive number which builds and builds to a more and more uninhibited Berninger barking the lines “I see you rush-ing now” with a frothing snarl a la Nick Cave circa Birthday Party, until the song finally crashes to a halt, finally punctuated by Berninger’s microphone stand being cast to the ground in a fit of rage. The song capsizes under its own windforce. We are left in shambles.

Before getting into song five (‘Heavenface’), Berninger, still spinning from all the adrenaline of the previous song (not to mention the wine), takes a moment to compliment the oft-tourist-photographed Boston architecture. “That architecture gets a bad rap, but it looks amazing from this standpoint.”

‘Afraid of Anyone’ is up next. Here the ghastly wall of harmonies is preserved, to the credit of the aforementioned pair of accompanists. Here lines like “I don’t have the drugs” and “Your voice is swallowing my soul” are harshened as Berninger sees fit. ’Conversation 16′ follows, and at this point we are effectively at a rock concert. We can hear guitars more clearly than they appear on the album, the chords are choppier, more visible. Next: ‘Squalor Victoria,’ is given an extra long drum intro, and Bryan Devendorf is given a bit of the spotlight he never particularly asks for, given his dutiful playing style, although he frequently demands it.

‘Need My Girl’ calms down the show a bit, presenting a more sentimental Berninger (the one we are so intimately acquainted with), quelling guitar notes, and the incredible visual of Aaron Dessner picking up a second guitar to create some purposeful feedback, before slowly driving it into the stage.

Berninger – with what must be the longest microphone cord in existence – goes deep into the crowd during an encore performance of ‘Mr. November.’ He then leans back on a visibly starstruck audience, singing the pertinent lines “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders…” Before leaping into a more rambunctious Alligator cut (‘Abel’), guitarist Bryce Dessner gives a shout out to a tiny Boston venue called T.T. the Bears where they performed the song the first time around.

During the triumphant-sounding ‘England,’ Berninger starts pacing the stage, while cradling a loose microphone stand idly over his shoulder in a bout of random, yet highly-entertaining stage antics.

Coming from the band’s Cherry Tree EP (‘About Today’) offers up another soft moment. Here we get to see the Dessner brothers showing off some of their sibling-powered guitar dynamism. It is during this song that an ungrateful train of thoroughly-unimpressed teenagers (from way too far upfront) leave the show early. It is also during this song that someone else in the audience says something to effect of “this is exactly what we came for,” stewing in the kind of subtly-evocative instrumentation that makes this band so important to so many awe-struck souls-in-distress.

After this song, Berninger walks downstage right and tells the reeling audience, “Shh! Be quiet,” like a more cordial Jim Morrison. After he hushes the audience as best as he can, it’s time for ‘Fake Empire,’ and the audience returns to a state of near-hysterical excitement.

The most spectacular moment during the performance is when the music cuts out briefly, and suddenly the words “We’re half awake in a fake empire” are collectively chanted and broadcasted straight into the heavens. All this coming from a city that’s never been more happy than in this brief and clearly audible moment to finally get the chance to sing.

Photographs by Ryan Thomas

Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next