Boston Calling Day One Recap: A Touching, Introspective Beginning

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To fully grasp the feat that Boston Calling, the bi-annual three-day music festival pulls off in style, one has to understand the location: the entirely brick-and-cement City Hall Plaza in downtown Boston. While certainly not an ideal locale for a music festival — even within-city-limits festivals Lollapalooza, Governor’s Ball and Outside Lands take place in parks — it suits the historic city to party in a historic place. Regardless, Friday’s indie rock trifecta of synth-y Future Islands, cult folk stars Neutral Milk Hotel and alt rock stars The National began the fest in a way that can rival the best. 

Boston Calling 2014

The weather, a late-summer breezy warmth, foreshadowed the night’s action. Heavy on introspective, lyric-driven bands, college kids returning to school, families and rock club regulars danced along with singer Samuel Herring (of Future Islands), swooned along to Jeff Mangum’s folk instrument-heavy 1998 cult classic (Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”) and sang along with Matt Berninger’s (of The National) forlorn tunes of love and loss. 

Our Boston Calling (and everyone who showed up early enough) began with Future Islands, the Baltimore-based act which has four synth-y yet emotive LPs to their name. Lead singer Samuel Herring commandeered the stage, rightfully punching hearts early with songs on romance, change and renewal. Over the 45 minute set, Herring called out to the heavens, bowed down in a scrunched figure to highlight and showed his primal side with chest-slapping and screams.  

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From “Tin Man,” the raspy, building track with pounding drums to the fragile, cryptic “Back in the Tall Grass,” Future Islands showed their depth and the crowd responded. By the time the apropos “Seasons (Waiting On You)” came on, and Herring passionately sang “Seasons change / And I tried hard just to soften you,” the crowd waiting for Neutral Milk Hotel may have just found a new favorite.

Neutral Milk Hotel have been relentlessly touring since a decade hiatus post-“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” and while the tracks from their critically acclaimed and fan-revered masterpiece hold up quite well over time, Mangum and his orchestral crew had the misfortune of sound issues last night. Mangum, with his ragged grey beard and plaid shirt, plays the part of folk vagabond well, fervently bearing his soul alongside an endearing crowd singing along. Focusing on “Aeroplane,” cuts included “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 and 3” (the lyrics “I love you Jesus Christ” included), “Holland, 1945” and our personal favorite, “Two Headed Boy.” They’re the sort of band that can have an accordionist/guitarist enthusiastically jump around onstage, feature singing saws, harmonica and a flautist, all without seem overbearing. As they were strictly against photos (even turning off the large-screen displays during the set), we were unable to capture them for you by photo. 

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Last, but not nearly least, were The National, whose guitarist/keyboardist Aaron Dessner co-curates the festival. The five piece made up of two sets of brothers relied on crescendos and Matt Berninger’s distinctive, soft-but-powerful voice to coax people from leaving early into the Boston night. Those who stayed — and honestly, the crowd may have swelled to the night’s largest in the beginning of their set — were serenaded with gliding alt rock, intense lyrics on the human experience and lots of on-stage fog. 

Highlights included cuts off of their latter three albums, including “I Need My Girl,” “England” and “Fake Empire.” By the last two songs before an acoustic finale of “Vandelay,” Matt Berninger could be found not onstage but cruising clad in a black suit through the front of the crowd. We heard “he touched me!” nearby. He touched us too, and we’re not complaining. Accompanying the Grammy-nominated act’s set was avant garde video (and The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” as entrance music), but these additions were simply that — additions to the set of a formidable rock band. 

 

All photos: Chris Leo Palermino