Pity the pedestrian simply looking to walk through Boston Common last weekend. With the area in front of the Parkman Bandstand already carved out for use by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” that opens this week, Outside the Box took over most of the rest of the remaining parkland. Four stages and two additional event areas hummed with activity Thursday through Sunday, in some cases from noon until 10 p.m.
But that was among the festival’s strengths — being expansive, centrally located, and, crucially, free made it an ideal event to stumble upon possibly unawares. In its third iteration (the festival debuted in 2013 but sat out 2014), it made a compelling argument for the value of becoming an annual Boston tradition along with Shakespeare and (fingers crossed) the Pops on July 4.
Sunday was the festival’s final night, but there was plenty of activity even as the sun began dropping and attendees’ thoughts turned to the next day’s work. The Poets’ Theatre attracted a solid audience to its tent; not far away the Valerie Stephens Group paid tribute to Nina Simone. Stephens may have lacked Simone’s authority – who doesn’t? – but brought a ragged defiance to “Sinnerman” and especially the simmering gospel fire of “Mississippi Goddam,” in which she let loose emotions that were building up inside her over the last two weeks.
The spotlight acts were on the Main Stage, the one that could be heard, however dimly, from everywhere else on the Common. Like the festival lineup — with such disparate nightly headliners as Smash Mouth, Daughtry, Michael Franti & Spearhead, and Lea DeLaria — Brooklyn’s Red Baraat seemed like a crazy quilt that shouldn’t have held together, combining rock drive, hip-hop swagger, and a pan-ethnic, polyrhythmic musical palette. With horns playing swooping, unified lines, the band was driving and fiercely rhythmic without resorting to hippie-dippy drum-circling, Energy rose from Red Baraat like steam.
Zap Mama closed out the festival with its own combination of multicultural musical influences, putting the summer’s day and the festival to bed with a warm embrace. Perhaps that was deliberate: Belgian/Congolese frontwoman Marie Daulne managed to time the widescreen, golden-hour “Africa Sunset” so that her heart was still pouring out at the precise moment the sun dipped below the horizon.
A few songs benefited from quickened pulses, like the Afro-funk of “Show Me the Way” and the Lauryn Hill bounce of “Yelling Away“; an extended groove built around clavinet and chicken-scratch guitar was one of the night’s hottest, despite merely backing band-member intros. But much of the performance had the smooth, slow-boil sultriness of Sade, although Daulne sang with a full throat, not a sigh. Rather than laying out a seduction, Zap Mama was all about putting love out into the world, radiating in all directions.
OUTSIDE THE BOX
At Boston Common, July 17Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.