Boston’s City Hall and its surrounding plaza have taken plenty of grief over the years, dismissed as unfortunate relics of the aptly named “brutalist” architectural movement. A half-century after the original development of the space, it may have found its calling.
The inaugural Boston Calling two-day music festival wrapped last night with the surprise news that it would return in September, with an impressive lineup including Vampire Weekend, Kendrick Lamar, Passion Pit, Local Natives, Gaslight Anthem and many more. Given the success of the first weekend – in spite of miserable drizzle on Saturday and blustery 50-degree weather Sunday – the downtown festival might be here to stay.
The National’s Aaron Dessner, who has taken on a second vocation as an event curator (Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, All Tomorrow’s Parties, and now Boston Calling), led his band onstage to close the festival under the lights of the city skyline at night. “Everything I love is on the table,” crooned Matt Berninger, kicking off the band’s first major date in support of their new album, Trouble Will Find Me. That’s Dessner’s enthusiastic approach to booking.
Though Berninger’s morose lyrics and the band’s dour post-punk sound might seem an unlikely payoff for a good-natured indie festival highlighted by Fun.’s closing set on Saturday, the band had the crowd enraptured. “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out,” they sang along with Berninger on “Afraid of Everyone,” and it was a communal celebration.
The band singled out their friends in the Walkmen, who’d played the main stage earlier in the day. “The Walkmen in many ways kicked our ass and made us a better band,” said Berninger, and that band’s solid set shifted the all-day festival into another gear. “It’s finally turning into a lovely day,” said singer Hamilton Leithauser, launching into “The Rat.” “Let’s rock.”
The cheerful, easygoing vibe of the event was tailor-made for whistling. Leithauser puckered up and blew at the end of “On the Water,” and champion whistler Andrew Bird showcased his prowess during his set that followed on the side stage. “This next song is a whistling song,” explained the relentlessly chipper Of Monsters and Men an hour later.
City Hall’s terraced brick plaza proved to be an ideal space for a festival crowd, with almost 20,000 mostly college-age fans having ample room to roam (except when they overcrowded the wedged-in dogleg in front of the second stage for sets by Bird, Young the Giant and Ra Ra Riot). A fenced beer garden ran the length of one side of the plaza; VIP ticketholders had access to City Hall’s unique maze of outdoor ramps and stairways, one story above the plaza.
The crowd tended toward hipster wholesome, with plenty of jackets and sweatshirts noting their lacrosse and swim teams. (At least a few of them, though, had the drugs to sort it out, with the sweet smell of weed wafting intermittently around the grounds.) “Big shout-out to Southbury, Connecticut!” said Dirty Projectors guitarist David Longstreth. “You gotta be from somewhere.”
His band, playing a well-received mid-afternoon set on the main stage, was about as outré as the Boston Calling lineup would get (or at least until Berninger repeatedly shredded the title words of “Squalor Victoria”).
Mostly, though, it was angst-free. “Can we try the wave?” asked Young the Giant singer Sameer Gadhia at one point. “I know it’s really stupid, but let’s try.” And the audience gladly obliged.