If only one image captured the spirit of the inaugural Boston Calling Music Festival, it happened toward the end of Sunday night. Matt Berninger, frontman for the National, was in the middle of a blistering set with his bandmates, when suddenly he walked out into the sea of cheering fans, estimated at 19,500 people, on City Hall Plaza.
Here was this nattily dressed New York indie rocker in a suit and jacket snaking his way through a crowd dotted with Red Sox caps and wide smiles that made it obvious: A two-day rock festival in the heart of Boston is an excellent idea for this city.
The event was such a success that organizers made a big announcement just before the National closed out Sunday: Another installment of the festival will take over City Hall Plaza again on Sept. 7-8, with headliners including Passion Pit, Vampire Weekend, Kendrick Lamar, and more. (Tickets go on sale Friday at 10 a.m.)
Particularly for an inaugural event, which ran Saturday and Sunday from early afternoon until around 10:30 p.m., Boston Calling was a well-oiled machine. True, the long lines and disarray about how to enter the festival grounds were confusing to some, but mostly the event ran smoothly. Bands played on two adjacent stages, one at a time, ensuring that you could experience every artist in the lineup. The sound was routinely good, even though the gusts of wind often distorted what was coming from the stage.
And the weather? Well, you had to deal with it. A relentless drizzle coated most of Saturday, which drew 19,000 people, with fans huddled close together in a cluster of colored hoodies, raincoats, and clear plastic ponchos. A beer garden offered shelter from the rain, along with cans of Harpoon and Carlsberg.
If jackets were soggy on Saturday, the music was anything but. Bad Rabbits, a rising band from Boston whose propulsive songs touch on R&B, funk, and punk, warmed up the arriving crowds with a short but potent set. Lead singer Fredua “Dua” Boakye liked what he saw: “Shout-out to the guy who tried to crowd surf. Try it again, bro!” (It was only 1:30 in the afternoon, after all.)
St. Lucia’s electropop roared out of the speakers on the City Hall Plaza stage, as buoyant as the umbrellas that bobbed up and down in the audience. Similarly, Marina and the Diamonds, led by unsinkable singer Marina Diamandis, slinked through a set of tough-but-tender dance pop. Matt & Kim rallied hard in the rain, the day’s most exuberant act doubling as cheerleaders for those cold and wet. Meanwhile, the Shins were sharp and spirited, reflecting frontman James Mercer’s observation from his vantage point: “Even the cold can’t keep you down.”
Fun., still riding a wave of success after its big Grammy wins in February, headlined on Saturday. The singalongs during “We Are Young” and “Some Nights” were so loud that they ricocheted off the brick buildings in the back of the plaza, for an incredible surround-sound experience.
Under mostly clear skies, Sunday’s roster was even more eclectic, ranging from Dirty Projectors’ experimental leanings to the Walkmen’s sophisticated indie rock to the polyrhythmic melodies and grace (and whistling) of Andrew Bird’s midday set. Young the Giant’s muscular rock initially electrified but felt oddly numbing after 20 minutes.
From Iceland, Of Monsters and Men seemed to arrive in synch with a burst of late-afternoon sunshine. The indie-pop band’s songs were infectious, like giddy nursery rhymes for adults. They were the perfect soundtrack for dancing as candy-colored beach balls pogoed over the audience.
The crowd, by the way, was mostly young, no doubt drawing on the city’s vast number of college students who decided to stay in town for the holiday weekend. They eyed a 35-year-old reporter suspiciously, as if he were about to bust them for that joint they were trying to conceal in between tokes.
By the time the National went on around 9 p.m. Sunday, the main stage had been mobbed. Considering how great the band’s new album, “Trouble Will Find Me,” is, the set list leaned a little too heavily on older material, and Berninger at times seemed like he was still revving up. He noted it was the first show of the National’s new tour, which might have explained why he flubbed a few lines throughout the night. “I don’t know what they’re putting in their Perrier here,” he joked as he took a swig of water (and then corrected himself: It was Pellegrino).
The festival ended the way it should have begun, finally granting Bad Rabbits the wish it had made on Saturday. As the National’s last song rang out, a handful of crowd-surfers sailed over outstretched hands.