After last year’s chaotic but ultimately successful return of Boston Calling following two years of pandemic shutdown — characterized by repeated headliner replacements, lineup-shuffling COVID dropouts, and a massive storm that required complete evacuation of the Harvard Athletic Complex grounds for several hours — this year’s festival probably seemed like a breeze. Add the long-delayed appearance by Foo Fighters, who were scheduled to headline the canceled 2020 festival and then dropped out of the 2022 event after drummer Taylor Hawkins’s untimely death, and organizers may have thought the bad juju was behind them.
That, of course, is when Yeah Yeah Yeahs had to drop out of Friday’s prime pre-headlining slot due to illness and Dropkick Murphys swooped in to cover for them less than 24 hours before the gates opened. (“We’re just going to block this weekend off every year and hope somebody gets sick,” quipped frontman Ken Casey.) Whether thanks to contingency plans galore or mere dumb luck, day one of this year’s festival ran about as smoothly and triumphantly as anyone could hope.
Friday opened with Boston artist and NPR Tiny Desk Contest winner Alisa Amador, who applied a warm, conversational alto to singsong adult pop with nods to Lake Street Dive, Ingrid Michaelson, and her own Latina heritage. She headed up a local contingent that included Chelsea Cutler, the Murphys’ reliably rousing Celtic roar, and the loose and good-natured blues-rock of GA-20. Little Fuss delivered appealingly chewy and spiky indie pop, Blue Light Bandits were Li’l Coldplay, and Brandie Blaze’s dizzying range incorporated Rage Against the Machine riffage, quiet-storm defiance, and guest Amanda Shea’s whispery spoken word.
Elsewhere, a badly-mixed Zolita offered Kelly Clarkson pop minus the power and Razor Braids mixed strummy mope-rock swirl with fuzzed-out scuzz-garage pop. Celisse, meanwhile, whipped up a sharp, gleeful fury with the sort of bluesy, gospelly electric music that Sister Rosetta Tharpe was playing decades before anyone thought to call it rock ‘n’ roll.
For Canadian representation, Toronto’s the Beaches were a kicky delight, joyous and on just the right side of bratty with the strutting dance-rock of “Want What You Got” and hints of Wild Flag and Sahara Hotnights elsewhere. And Ottawa’s TALK took a burly voice akin to Luke Combs and pointed it toward the cosmos.
Teddy Swims’s tight and slippery tenor would have also fit nicely in country if he weren’t slopping around in soul music, but he couldn’t overcome a wearying, defiant, and celebratory focus on self-destructive relationships. The deep, sad-sack baritone of The National’s Matt Berninger, on the other hand, should have made the band little more than mopes, but they brought a depth and spark that elevated songs like “Abel,” which took off with a screaming momentum. And if Niall Horan’s shift from One Direction’s boy-bandery to adult contemporary recalled the Script, his charm carried solid material like the fingerpicked “This Town” and vaguely glammy, vaguely stompy “On a Night Like Tonight.”
Three years and one in-house tragedy after originally scheduled, Foo Fighters took the Boston Calling stage at long last and delivered a two-hour roar of catharsis, togetherness, and joy. “A lot of them will mean something different now,” Dave Grohl had said about the songs. “So let’s sing for tonight.” With Grohl’s hollowed-out howl a little ragged around the edges, the band was charged and in lockstep, whether on the directed mania of “The Pretender,” the growling insinuation of “Shame, Shame,” or the anthemic roll of “Times Like These.”
New drummer Josh Freese, whose T-shirt read “fingers crossed for the new guy,” showed that he was the man for the job by the third song (the rockabilly thrash metal of “No Son of Mine”), though the furious “I’ll Stick Around” was drummed by Hawkins’s teenage son Shane, who exploded behind the kit. And before closing with “Everlong,” the band delivered the ever-brightening liquid dawn of “Aurora.” It was Hawkins’s favorite Foo Fighters song.
At Harvard Athletic Complex, Friday (continues Saturday and Sunday)