Residents have long bemoaned the architectural wasteland that is City Hall Plaza, but as we learned this past May at the first Boston Calling music festival, all it needed was a few dozen bands and thousands of fans to spruce up the joint. That success prompted the organizers to go even bigger this time around with 20 acts that ran the gamut of hip-hop, R&B, electronic dance music, indie rock, and punk.
Rotating set times on two stages at either end of the plaza, with often instant overlap, made for an efficient turnover time between acts, something more festivals should consider. A relatively laid-back authority presence and optional festival reentry also made for refreshing changes of pace for fans who were rewarded with a panoply of the year’s notable standouts, from the gorgeous R&B crooning and effortless cool of Solange, the spine-tingling harpsichord mysteries of Bat For Lashes, the outsider-indie folk of Okkervil River, and a welcome selection of homegrown talent from the electro disco of Bearstronaut to the gritty blues punk of Viva Viva.
On Saturday evening, Los Angeles’s Local Natives performed selections from their recent hit album “Hummingbird” with Taylor Rice’s high tenor leading their off-kilter, pastoral indie. Songs like “Heavy Feet” built a broad sense of space while busy percussionists hammered and delayed guitars meandered. “Airplanes” featured three-part harmony and dynamic shifts between the rousing choruses and reserved verses.
New Jersey’s The Gaslight Anthem plied a sort of John Mellencamp-camp or Bryan Adams-core with their brawny-harmonica meat-and-potatoes folk-punk helmed by Brian Fallon’s grating melodicism. “We don’t get along in sports but I like you for everything else,” he said, introducing the Tom Petty-referencing “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” Speaking of sports, their set was a musical home run derby, each hook a big, fat, dangling meatball down the center of the plate begging to be jacked out of the park; seeing it take off was no less thrilling, at least for the first eight variations on the theme.
Inexplicably popular headliners Vampire Weekend twinkle-toed their way through a toothless set of Model United Nations tracks like “Diane Young” and “Holiday,” with rambling piano and up-stroked guitar that sparkled with all the brilliance of plastic stars affixed to a tween’s bedroom ceiling.
Any reservations about Saturday’s lack of “edge” were remedied Sunday with a more electronic and hip-hop oriented lineup that drew a considerably younger crowd. Chicago DJ duo Flosstradamus had a massive crowd bouncing along to their bass-heavy trap selections, while Major Lazer, the electronic project helmed by producer extraordinaire Diplo and his incessantly hectoring hypemen, played a set of bounce, moombahton, dancehall, and party-rocking numbers. An original, “Bubble Butt,” was dedicated “to everyone who came to twerk tonight.” Cue the parents on the fringes fainting.
Compton’s Kendrick Lamar, one of the hottest acts in hip-hop this year, beefed up his live set with a band that gave an added immediacy to paranoia tracks like “M.A.A.D. City” and fan-favorite “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” over which Lamar flipped between a hard-spun cadence and a languorously, pitch-shifted chorus.
Passion Pit, the Boston heroes, closed out the weekend, alternating between an electro dance-party on “The Reeling” and the blissed synth-pop of “Carried Away.” The real headliner, however, was the festival itself. Here’s to many more.