Boston Calling Review: Alabama Shakes, Avett Brothers Remind Us Why We Love Live Music

FRIDAY (DAY ONE)

By the time the gates opened at 6:00 p.m. Friday night in Boston, it appeared the sidewalks that lined the industrialist City Hall Plaza were about to burst and flood the streets of downtown with eager Avett Brothers fangirls. The lines wrapped all the way around Congress St. Anxious festival-goers huddled together like Emperor penguins, attempting to stave off fall's wind as it whipped down of the stark, concrete angles of City Hall.

Tori Fisher / Gavel Media

Tori Fisher / Gavel Media

Like kindergarteners fleeing from school to freedom of recess they poured into the unadorned City Plaza, filling the cold brick and concrete space with a buzzing vibrance in a matter of seconds. Various stands selling their wares and confections went up in lights, exchanging the blue-grey city night sky for a warm, carnival midway vibe, complete with the smell of fried dough and fresh french fries to entertain your nose.

The stage lights were coming up too, as the hordes continued to filter in through security, and South African singer/songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov eased the eager crowd into the weekend. He and his folky, americana clad band brought a welcome autumnal coffeehouse vibe to sunset in the North End as people were shifting past each other, still unsure about whether pushing forward through the lulled crowd would be worth it or not.

Isakov's set proved to be entertaining, with a subdued but soulful performance reminiscent of The Band. Unfortunately for the acts that followed, they set a tone that might have been better enjoyed seated, fire crackling not too far in the distance, perhaps enjoying a cup of tea (or pumpkin spiced latte, for the BC Basic in all of us).

That tone proved hard to shake, even for infectious Icelandic Indie-folk outlet Of Monsters and Men. Coming on stage with three high-energy hits, voices crooning and trumpets blaring, they did make some leeway in getting the chilled-out crowd to thaw, with their 2013 instant sing-along "Little Talks" prompting the crowd to produce a few hundred white tubes. When activated, what appeared to be an army of those florescent blue, glowing cave worms you only see on Planet Earth brought the plaza to life. However, the little glow worms didn't stick around for too long. Shortly after each peak of OMAM's performance, the crowd's arms returned promptly back to their sides. While their songs had the appropriate energy, the same could not be said for their stage presence. The Icelanders hardly interacted with the crowd, sticking to the setlist, making little time for all the little human things we love about live performances.

Thankfully, this wasn't The Avett Brothers' first rodeo. Seth and Scott Avett released their first EP all the way back in 2000, when our closing day headliner The Alabama Shakes' lead singer Brittany Howard wasn't quite 13 years old. Their experience on the road made the brothers and their merry band just what the doctor ordered to cure a fickle crowd.

For every drop of authenticity OMAM lacked, the Avetts poured it on; with one of the best moments of the night coming as Scott helped Seth down into the photo pit, where the guitarist proceeded to melt the faces of the front-row faithful with a solo to end their rabble rousing "Kick Drum Heart." Scott beamed on, shaking the guitarist's shoulders in what seemed like genuine brotherly love. The crowd ate it up, even the glow worms were back.

SATURDAY (DAY TWO)

The day came and went with the same briskness of the night before, although with sunshine to soak the cold plaza, acts like Stephen Malkmus (Former lead singer of famed syncopated jam-rock outlet Pavement) and folky Sturgill Simpson made for easy listening before nightfall.

Tori Fisher / Gavel Media

Tori Fisher / Gavel Media

Other than that, daytime passed by in a relaxed blur, with the highlight of the day coming as Father John Misty took the stage, clad in black, and commanded it with a fervor reminiscent of Freddy Mercury, twirling the mic stand around and around like a baton, and sliding down it like he may or may not have taken a pole-dancing class once or twice. Walk the Moon took the stage as the sun began to set. It seemed like people were materializing out of thin air, and suddenly we had a crowd, with face paint and neon and everything. There even was a guy walking around in the crowd, covered in a technicolor coating of paint, providing face paint to anyone that wanted to let out their inner flower child. Their set, while peppy, seemed quiet and subdued for such a high energy group.

Tori Fisher / Gavel Media

Tori Fisher / Gavel Media

Especially when contrasted with the blaring post-disco brand of electric funk that Chromeo burst onto stage with. Hitting the crowd hard with hits like "Sexy Socialite" and "Somethingood", the uneven brick of the plaza was put to good use as the Montreal duo's infectious beats and shrill hooks provided the highest energy of the night. CHVRCHES had a new album debut last week, and their new music was a treat, with their affected crooning voices and powerful synth beats keeping the energy alive until our headliner, Alt-J finally took the stage.

Tori Fisher / Gavel Media

Tori Fisher / Gavel Media

Their music is undeniably a fan favorite, with an entire catalogue of hits to choose from, a chill vibe with catchy instrumentals, and a very unique, nearly mumbling vocal sound, they were a safe bet for a crowd-pleasing day two closer. However, even with their catalogue of hits, their loyal fans and their unique sound, the band is young, and just coming to grips with their new status as Headliners. They had the cool lights, the shiny instruments, the hallucinatory screen visuals, and loud sound that all typically come with a headliner, and their performance even rocked out a bit; with drummer Thom Green coming down on a solo that would make Phil Collins proud, and driving each song, refusing to let his presence go forgotten. His drive and passion powered the concert forward, and he was my overall favorite performer on the day, giving me the opportunity to hear their music in an entirely new way, as any great concert should.

BY Ian Patterson

SUNDAY (Day Three)

Comfortably sized crowds started to swell at City Hall Plaza as Nate Ruess took the stage around 7 p.m., and by the time the night had run its course – after Hozier had stolen the crowd’s collective soul with “Take Me to Church” and The Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard had belted her last righteous note – that same crowd felt sorry under a moon-eclipsed night sky. Boston Calling had capped its three-day stand as the region’s best musical festival, and there was a hanging feeling that more music was needed. There was a distinct yearning for more. The authenticity of The Avett Brothers Friday and Alt-J's psychedelic performance Saturday seemingly caused the anticipation for the final acts to grow, bringing the festival to a thunderous, and worthy conclusion under the celestial event of a decade. 

Nate Ruess fiddled with a pop legend’s masterpiece, boldly adding his vocal twist to Elton John’s “Rocket Man” with upbeat eloquence and a blunt refusal to get off his piano. He screamed to the crowd with joy, calling Boston a favorite city of his. He delivered the power-pop that gave the homestretch of artists a bar to surpass, and even after Ruess had long left the stage, the energy remained; even the mellow Ben Howard found the juice to electrify the growing crowd.

Tommy Sullivan / Gavel Media

Tommy Sullivan / Gavel Media

Hozier (Andrew Hozier-Byrne’s pseudonym) was as brilliant as his string of award nominations in recent months suggest. “Like Real People Do” combined the best of his intriguing elements: That folksy, soothing sound blended with a powerful, thundering chorus. “Honey / Just put your sweet lips on my lips / We should just kiss like real people do” was a direct, personal plea to the crowd offered by Hozier’s own mouth, and boy, it was answered with booming cheers from the thousands growing around the emerging star’s stage. He wrapped up his performance with “Take Me to Church” – a Billboard favorite – and it was one of those transcendental moments at a concert where you’ll always remember where you were and how you felt as he crooned the final, “Amen… / Amen…”

Tommy Sullivan / Gavel Media

Tommy Sullivan / Gavel Media

The Alabama Shakes, though, were the raging party that was the perfect cap to the night. Lead singer Brittany Howard, the spunky, self-dubbed “brown” Southern blues-rocker who’s described herself “everything and nothing,” brought the band’s 2015 album “Sound & Color” to the center of attention. “Hold On,” which helped launched the band to fame in 2012, was left out of the set. Intentionally or not, it sent the spectator a message that the Shakes are constantly evolving, and always seeking a new melody – a new rhythm to keep your head swaying. The anthem “Miss You” carried resemblances of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Emotional ramblings in the beginning of the song culminated to a rock chorus of Howard's Janis Joplin belting, and this pattern repeated itself over and over until the crowd, and the band (Howard needed a towel on-stage to wipe the sweat off her tired brow after this piece), delightfully approved.

Boston Calling, ending with a funky air of soul and rock and an even funkier sky, was a festival to be reckoned with. Incredible vocalists, face-melting solos, and stage-owning entertainers had crowds dancing well into the night all weekend long in the middle of our great city. With it's sixth edition, the festival focused its gaze, moving from eclectic genre mash-up to a cohesive, yet diverse rock showcase, something we as a city can be proud of, and excited about in the years to come.

BY Teddy Kolva

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