The setup of Boston Calling—three days of sets, progressing from lesser-known artists in the afternoon to big names and headliners at night—means it always starts almost unnoticeably. The opening of this May’s instance of the festival was no different: When Sharon Van Etten took the stage at 6:20 p.m. on Friday, audience members were still filtering into City Hall Plaza, and the modestly sized group waiting before the jetBlue stage seemed comprised mostly of early arrivers who wanted to ensure front-row spots for Beck at 9:20 p.m. Van Etten, however, managed to attract a substantial crowd before the end of her 40-minute set. She opened with “Serpents,” the highlight off of 2012’s “The Tramp,” and quite quickly drew in an audience from across the plaza. Her set pulled in a variety of material from her discography, all impressively performed—particularly with the support of her skilled guitarist—and she even introduced a new track, “All Over Again,” which was met with substantial applause. And she wisely saved the best for last: Her performance of “Don’t Do It,” from 2010’s “Epic,” was positively radiant. A strong representation of the indie-folk side of Boston Calling’s largely indie offerings, Van Etten proved resoundingly that the festival’s afternoon performers are not to be ignored.
Almost as soon as Van Etten left the stage, a cloud of pungent smoke began percolating over the audience, announcing Australian psychedelic outfit Tame Impala’s imminent arrival. Their set, which heavily featured 2012’s Grammy-nominated “Lonerism,” was aurally impressive—their mesmerizing, atmospheric tracks were even better than the album versions when heard live from within an enraptured crowd. And, as is only natural for such a group, the visuals that played behind the band were hypnotizing: dancing lines in colors on a red-to-blue spectrum that rhythmically accompanied the music—the solid rhythm of “Elephant,” for example, was represented visually by a series of colorful concentric circles. Whether from the music or the visuals or the secondhand smoke, the crowd received Tame Impala with cheering adoration, which their performance absolutely merited.
The hour-long delay that preceded festival headliner and 2015 Grammy-winner Beck’s performance was perhaps at that point needed. In that interim, a prodigious crowd gathered—by the time Beck took the stage, the entirety of City Hall Plaza seemed filled. The area in front of the Red Stage, which was not used on Friday, was hardly less densely filled than that in front of the jetBlue Stage, on which Beck performed. This is perhaps unsurprising, as acquiring Beck as festival headliner was certainly the greatest triumph of Boston Calling’s planning committee, at least from an objective standpoint. Not only did he win Album of the Year at the most recent Grammy Awards, but he—as well as fellow headliners The Pixies—released a couple of singles in the 90s that are more or less universally known.
For this reason, Beck needed to do very little to put on a great show. The utter enthusiasm with which the crowd met 1994’s “Loser” and 1996’s “Where It's At”—the latter of which Beck used to close his set—produced some of the most enjoyable moments of the entire weekend. This is not to say, however, that Beck did not otherwise put on a good performance; rather the opposite, as he allowed his personality and humor to shine alongside his music onstage. From moments when he lay down onstage, stating himself to be comfortable enough with the audience to do so, to an entirely needless costume change before his encore, Beck established a rapport with the audience that entirely made up for any technical issues in his performance. Beck’s two decades of popularity put him uniquely in a position to generate excitement from every member of the diverse Boston Calling audience, and their enthusiastic reaction indicated that he succeeded.
Boston Calling certainly operates at a smaller scale than more famous festivals with longer pedigrees—it only ever brings in a couple of artists as big as Beck—but it has a great deal to recommend it beyond its convenience for locals. As Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker observed during his performance. there is something particularly epic about music performed in the heart of the city, under buildings dozens of stories high.
—Staff writer Grace E. Huckins can be reached at email@example.com.