Boston itself served as the common thread running through the first Wicked Good Festival, held Saturday on the Boston Common. Five of the six acts in the daylong free concert call Boston home. And bicoastal pop maestro Jack Antonoff, leader of festival headliner Bleachers, often dropped Boston references in his stage patter, part of his obsessive and desperately earnest bid to offer an all-embracing emotional connection in every element of his brazen show.
After Jahriffe & Jah-N-I Roots Movement opened with a dose of old school reggae, Anjimile followed with the day’s most intriguing performance. The 25-year-old trans-and-queer-identified Northeastern student at first seemed reminiscent of Tracy Chapman. But quickly this child of Malawian immigrants started shifting markers of gender, ethnicity, and emotional intent like generations of Harvard Square folkies past never imagined. A pair of backup singers in yellow dresses, one playing a miniature handheld keyboard, completed the performance’s arresting blend of traditional folk prettiness and lyrical discomfort with social strictures..
By contrast, Air Traffic Controller rarely found a groove between straight rock and whimsical country to convincingly call its own. The bar was reset first by Juliana Hatfield and then by Buffalo Tom, two ’90s-rock veterans whose musical identities sounded even stronger for defying time’s ravages. With cries of “We are professionals!” Buffalo Tom also gamely defied malfunctioning equipment and a downpour that started in the middle of its set.
“I find that when things are less than ideal, we come together,” Jack Antonoff said in praise of the rain that lifted as Bleachers took the stage. That defines Antonoff’s message with this solo project, which the Fun guitarist and Taylor Swift producer brought to pounding life with two drummers and two multi-instrumentalists adding pulsing synthesizers, wailing sax, and booming backup vocals.
Dressed in white from baseball cap to sneakers, the 34-year-old singer and guitarist looked like a buff young Paul Simon and moved like a slightly-less-buff young Bruce Springsteen, leaping around and exhorting the crowd incessantly, from the opening “Goodmorning” to the inevitable closers, “I Wanna Get Better” and “Don’t Take the Money.” Twice Antonoff stopped his band for imperceptible musical reasons, and once because the audience wasn’t pumped enough. He ordered the fans onto each other’s shoulders, and many happily complied as the rain held off and all the feelings poured down.
WICKED GOOD FESTIVAL
With Bleachers, Buffalo Tom, Juliana Hatfield, Anjimile, and others
At Boston Common, Aug. 18