Thursday, September 11, 2014

Corey On: The Boston Calling Music Festival

By: Corey C.

They got a lotta lotta lotta great desks and chairs.

I went to Boston Calling last week and skipped out on an opportunity to see The Replacements and I’m OK with this decision. I couldn’t be less disappointed. And the Mats have been a popular discussion topic on the Internet this week, so I decided to add my fishgut perspective to that delicious, ill-informed and belligerent chum.

It all started a few months ago, when I foolishly purchased a $150 three-day pass to Boston Calling, under the assumption the festival was going to be over Labor Day weekend. Of course, silly me, I didn’t read that it would actually be the following weekend, a non-holiday weekend, so I’d have to suffer at work Monday after a three-day festival. 

Then I found out The Replacements were playing Sunday night, from 8-9pm. They were the only band I actually wanted to see, playing at the most inopportune time possible. Could I survive the weekend, see The Replacements, and make it to work Monday morning?

I drove up to Boston from Providence Friday night, through shockingly little traffic on 93. I parked in the Government Center Parking Garage, which was only $15, because I had bought a fancy festival pass and printed it off the Internet before I drove up. At 7pm, I walked over to City Hall Plaza, where the festival was being held.

After being tempted by the $30 Neutral Milk Hotel shirts at the merch tent, I walked over to the massive crowd that was already crammed in front one of the two stages. It was hot and muggy and gross. That is a crucial detail to this story.

Future Islands were first on the bill. I’d seen them a handful of times over the years and I wasn’t particularly excited to see them. At best, they’d been a great party band, like when they closed out Whartscape in 2010. At worst, their singer recalls of Jack Black singing karaoke.

Surprisingly, Future Islands have vastly improved, and were one of the top bands of the weekend. When I last saw them, I thought they had great energy and stage presence, but didn’t have the songs to back it up. I always feel uncomfortable when bands rock out to music that isn’t equivalent to their energy level. It reminds me of air guitar.

Yet Future Islands have truly developed a great, unique sound that was unlike anything else that I heard at the festival. Sam Herring, their wild lead man, jumps around stage like Freddie Mercury, sometimes singing, sometimes growling, sometimes beating his chest, and sometimes doing some weird dance moves that interconnect well with the song. As far as synth-pop goes, this is top notch, a compliment that can’t be given to many of the other bands I’d suffer through this weekend. 

After a series of ill communications with my friends who were at the festival, I found myself alone in a massive crowd of people, yet fairly close to the front of the stage for Neutral Milk Hotel. Since I was crammed in with a bunch of strangers, I figured I’d start making jokes in order to make friends. Unfortunately, only two of the dozen people around me laughed at my remarks. “I think this band is going to make it big, guys, they’ve really got some potential,” I yelled out. “Play the one about Anne Frank!” To me that was a certified gasser, but reasonable minds can disagree, I guess. Holocaust yuks among strangers are a risky proposition.

Anyways, Neutral Milk Hotel were disappointing this time around. Don’t get me wrong, I still got choked up during the title track to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” The line “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all,” always gets me, man. 

Unfortunately, the 15-minute-setup festival sound for Neutral Milk Hotel just wasn’t there, and they were not loud enough to drown out the people singing along. This was the same problem they had when I saw them at Prospect Park in Brooklyn last summer. They’re slowly turning into an emo version of the Shea Stadium Beatles. The Prospect Park show was memorable because there was a lightning storm and everyone had to evacuate The Bandshell and we weren’t sure if they were going to come back and finish their set and then, after a 45 minute delay, they came back out, and they played “Ghost” in the middle of a weird on-and-off rainstorm, and it was just the most beautiful moment. All the members of Neutral Milk Hotel were intently engaged, all at the same time, as if electrically charged by the storm, giving the audience a little extra for having sat through a fairly tense, and wet, situation. 

And that was always why I will always defend Neutral Milk Hotel: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Of course, I’d also seen Jeff Mangum play when he first started touring again. The first time, at the Jordan Hall Conservatory in Boston, was magical and the second made me uncomfortable because it was at the rather cavernous Lupo’s in Providence and the crowd only seemed to know the hits, and the mass sing-a-longs reminded me of a Dashboard Confessional concert. 

The Magic Tapes, Julian Koster’s solo project, opened for Mangum at Lupo’s, much to the confusion of most of the crowd, and Koster later came out to play singing saw on a couple of Magnum’s tunes. 

This gave me the impression that Mangum was ready to get the band back together, which was a moment I’d waited for since I was an angsty 17-year old suburban nerd senior in high school, when the tragic exquisiteness of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” made me realize that all of popular culture was predicated on arbitrary corporate tastes and controlled by boring dummies and how music that actually contained substance and creativity was largely ignored by most people.

Basically, that album flipped my world upside-down and made me kind of an asshole during my senior year, like when I rooted against my own shitty class during spirit week, but intimate knowledge of Aeroplane and my newfound insistence on its cultural inheritance made college a helluva a lot more fun that it would have been, and I appreciated all the cool kids I met.

When, ten years later, Neutral Milk Hotel finally got back together and announced they were playing at the Orpheum in Boston, I scored front-row balcony tickets. I’d seen many shows over the years at this charming little theater and this was the best one of them all. The band was tight, having fun, and overall sounded superb, loud and crisp, and drowned out any singing from the crowd. I danced my fucking ass off, much to the chagrin of the people behind me. I didn’t care. I was finally seeing Neutral Milk Hotel, motherfuckers! 

The Elephant 6 Collective always struck me as a bunch of weirdos who had bonded over Beach Boy records and decided to make music because they had nothing better to do and weren’t really accepted anywhere else and otherwise just wanted to have a good time and not get harassed. I used to watch old shitty-sounding YouTube clips of Neutral Milk Hotel shows, and it always seemed like they were having a ton of fun and I was always jealous of the person who was taping them because I wasn’t there jumping around. It’s really as shame the “Jeff Mangum: recluse” narrative over-shadowed the greatness of the group as a whole.

The National played next and they were the only group of the weekend who seemed to have ever played a festival before. Yes, they are one of the ultimate Dad Rock bands, and only roughly 70% of their songs are worthwhile, but you can’t deny the intensity of their lead man, Matt Berninger. During that night, I realized that he is a master of standing at the precipice of some daring, primitive rock and roll gesture, and, right when you think he’s about to let it rip, he comes back at the last moment. He knows how to use tension and anticipation to his theatrical advantage. 

At the end of the night, he finally unleashed the aggression he’d been hinting at, culminating in him running through most of the crowd with microphone in hand while singing “Terrible Love.” People in the crowd promptly ruined the moment by whipping out their phones and taking selfies, and it made me hate America. 

Have you ever seen a person standing in front of you at a concert or other event hoist their phone above the crowd and take a 360-degree video while grinning stupidly and unconsciously, as if they could only view the world through their phone? This happened to me dozens of times at this festival as well as many other concerts over the past year. It’s a hideous, despicable practice, proving that people cannot and will not live in the moment, and have already let the robots take over. They just prefer to live in a digitally separated bubble, experiencing life as a walking Twitter account. My impulse to smash people’s phones at concerts grows stronger by the day.

OK. Glad I got that off my chest. Besides almost getting into fight a drunk bro, that was my Friday night in a nutshell!

On Saturday, we arrived in time to see the tail end of S. Carey’s set. This was a little before 3 o’clock and it was still hotter than Hades. Of course I didn’t know who the fuck this was, and I was informed S. Carey was a member of Bon Iver. Of all bands in the history of the Earth, I have made more jokes about Bon Iver than any other band.  “Q: How many members of Bon Iver does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” “A: Bon Iver can’t screw anything, they’re too busy sucking.” S. Carey sounded like Sufjan Stevens with synths.   

Sky Ferreira saved me from a certain festival-induced nervous breakdown. I’d just watched Blondie’s “VH1: Behind the Music” and was quick to point out Ferreira sounded like Debbie Harry. Her band did a cool kraut-rock number at one point and someone behind me complained because they “were just playing the same chord, over and over.” I had just seen a Phish shirt in the vicinity and knew I was in trouble.

The next group was Bleachers, or, better known as Lena Dunham’s boyfriend’s side-project. I couldn’t help but imagine her, naked, diving off the stage and attempting to crowd surf, naked, and having the people in the crowd decide not to help her do that. Lena Dunham, in my imagination, is always naked.

Bleachers are a synth-pop group. Dunham’s boyfriend wore short-shorts and danced about. I think he played a keyboard or a synth of some kind. He might have just danced around and not played anything and simply jabbered into the mic. I usually block out the details of these sorts of memories.

I escaped mid-way through and snagged some mediocre-yet-not-totally expensive concession stand food.  

The Hold Steady played next, and they rocked and played a tight set and avoided their pretty rough last album. Sorry guys, it sounds like you recorded your guitars in a shoe. Yet they were crucial to my sanity that day, and washed out much of the mediocrity that I had suffered through.

Right after they got off stage, a man made an announcement that, due to an incoming severe lightning storm, we would have to all evacuate. “This again,” I thought to myself. Luckily, after The Hold Steady, we’d gone to get more food, and were close to an exit. 

We sheltered at a local bar and I kept updating Twitter, hoping we’d be let back in soon, or at least that something notable had occurred, like a riot breaking out or something. At least college football was on, which is secretly so much more entertaining than the NFL because there are way less commercials and the games are a lot more unpredictable and hilarious and the rampant corruption seems sweetly quaint compared to the downright disturbing nature of the monolithic NFL.

At this point in the day, I started melting down a little. My energy just wasn’t there. The heat had gotten to me.

I also didn’t care about anyone else performing that day. Truthfully, I kept updating my Twitter secretly hoping the rest of the night would be canceled so we could just stay at the bar and watch college football the rest of the night. At this point, my luck ran out, and the next part of this long-winded story explains why I didn’t see The Replacements.

Since I kept updating my Twitter, I drained all the power from my phone.  It eventually died, and I was staying with friends, so I had to stick by them the rest of the night. My car was unreachable. The crowd was so big that I couldn’t even go sit somewhere, like down the street, without losing my crew. And to boot: they wanted to see Lorde and Childish Gambino. I didn’t want to see Lorde and Childish Gambino.

The screams of joy emanating from the crowd revealed that Lorde was the biggest act of the weekend, which is a head scratcher until you remember how often she’s been on the radio this year. I’ll give her this: she kept my attention for most of her performance. I understand her appeal, and there’s no denying “Royals” as a pop gem. I won’t complain if she ever comes on at a wedding or if someone decides to put her on in the car, but I’ll never try to listen to her again on purpose.

Danny Glover, better known as Childish Gambino, on the other hand, needs to stick with his day job: acting in Lethal Weapon movies. Glover’s got the energy and 6-pack of a rock star, but none of the talent. He can’t decide what to sound like and instead throws shit at the wall and nothing sticks. Glover would bust into a bad D’angelo or R. Kelly impression mid-song, then start rapping like a JV Kanye. He had a backing band AND a backing track, but no turntables.

At this point in the night, I’d just about had enough. I kept jumping up and down on my feet and crouching because my legs were so sore from standing. I was fighting off exhaustion. Mid-way through Childish Gambino, I knew Boston Calling had beaten me into submission. I already knew I would not make it to The Replacements the next day.

But I’ve made amends with this decision, based on the fact that the main appeal of The Replacements is still alive in many of the great bands that are around today.  I’ll be seeing Ty Segall at the tiny Great Scott next week. White Fence and King Tuff are coming through in October. Parquet Courts are touring with Thurston Moore. Ian Svenonius still brings it with Chain and the Gang. They revived my interest in live music two summers ago and were even better this past summer. Dinosaur Jr. are still ear-bleedingly extant. I saw Black Pus, the drummer from Lightning Bolt, perform under a bridge near the Samuel Slater mill in Pawtucket. It was magnificent. Bad Sports played at the VFW Elks Lodge in Cambridge and sounded like The Exploding Hearts and The Buzzcocks. I saw Guided by Voices at the historic Toad’s Place in New Haven, Conneticut. They were surprisingly and undeniably the best show of the year. “I’m 56 and I’m still kicking all of your asses,” Robert Pollard sneered at one point. He wasn’t kidding.

Liquor Store played two nights in a row in Providence and they’re the best pure rock group around, in the most classic sense. They blew their tour mates, Titus Andronicus, out of the water. Their most recent record, “In the Garden,” will be declared a lost classic twenty years from now, when revisionist history comes around and, hopefully, when they headline a festival it won’t be on a goddamn Sunday night.