Every time I write about Beck‘s live performances, it centers around him being cool. What does that mean? He’s cool the way your friend’s Dad is, the one who lends you his old CDs of David Bowie and rocks a vintage Beach Boys shirt from their 1972 tour. There’s a youth preserved in him that refuses to age, no matter how thin his frame is or how old his son grows. He does not brag. He does not boast. He loves music beyond the simple return to it for joy or escape. It’s how he lives. Live, it comes full force. He’s an entertainer who wins the hearts of those familiar and unfamiliar with his work.
Boston Calling is, in a lot of ways, the same. It’s a festival that’s cool if it wants to be. To outsiders, it carries itself with the awkward, oversized clothing of a boy mid-way through his freshman year of high school. There’s no set scheme, genre-rooted lineup, or even a unanimous #vibe. They haven’t yet worked out a catchy slogan or an iconic graphic (because yes, that bulldog still doesn’t feel natural). Through all of the genuine attempts to feign the structure of New York City’s Governors Ball, Boston Calling winds up becoming the chillest version of a festival. Two stages prevents any set overlaps, guaranteeing you see every band on the bill whether you like it or not. It’s a festival so devoid of wanting to be cool that it nestles into City Hall Plaza for a relaxed, content, patient environment that is cool with being itself, no bells or whistles needed.
Friday’s lineup may have only been three acts, but it packed more punch than the four hours would suggest. The eternally sweet Sharon Van Etten took to the stage with her band for a slow set of heartfelt and heartbroken songwriting. Despite a few hecklers, Etten kept calm onstage and sang her way through older cuts (“Don’t Do It”) and new material (“Taking Chances”, “Your Love Is Killing Me”). Her set, a quick 45 minute performance laced with dweeby giggles and charming innocence, came to fruition with “Doing It All Over Again”, a new song that has yet to be released. Upbeat, steady, and relatively poppy considering her other work, it brought more smiles out of her band and the audience than the rest, providing the founding cement for the acts to follow. This festival, unlike others, is about taking in music as it happens, not proving you already know it all.
Tame Impala followed up with an electronic version of their psych rock work. Maybe it’s because they’re Australian, maybe it’s because they’re no strangers to rising festival expectations, but Tame Impala owned the stage without even a hint of fear. It’s a tad unusual, especially given their upcoming album, Currents, has yet to drop. They dragged an already 8-minute “Let It Happen” into a longer dance number, employing more pedals and alternate equipment than their original riffs on Pink Floyd and Nazz usually call for. “Disciples” sat comfortably beside “Mind Mischief” and “Be Above It” during the set, calming fans who felt their new direction was too rooted in electronics. Kevin Parker, tangled up in a blue scarf with knotty hair he continuously tucked behind his ear, let his hips guide him throughout, snapping occasionally during songs for a look that appeared more joking than anything. But they’re perfectionists, and despite the uneven audio mixing from the fest, he snuck an evil laugh into “Elephant” and found their studio-ready sound on “Apocalypse Dreams”. The crowd began chanting for one more song, so enthralled with the Aussies’ undeniably cool demeanor that they failed to realize the closer had yet to end. When the band exploded with a reprise, the audience let out a shriek not too far off from the sound of their brain exploding. A solar system-like image burst on the screen behind Tame Impala to mirror the song’s volume, leaving everyone starry-eyed.
Then, of course, came Beck, the coolest of the three. Armed with his core band and holy knights, including melodramatic bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen and multi-talented keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., he set fire to the stage and refused to stop, charging through “Devi’ls Haircut”, “Black Tambourine”, “The New Pollution”, “Qué Onda Guero”, and “Gamma Ray”. The younger generation in the audience was expecting more acoustics than “Blue Moon” and his recent Grammy win suggested. Instead, he layed down some of his most contagious riffs. This is where it’s hard to describe. The structure of most parts isn’t technically too difficult. Beck’s real mastery comes in writing songs that sound “right”. He places notes in the proper succession to make your body move independently from your brain. Even the overplayed power of “Girl”, “Loser”, and “E-Pro” shine their brilliance live.
What sets Beck apart from simply being a good musician is his embrace of entertainment. He’s the white guy that can dance, flashing his coat out like bat wings during “Sexx Laws” and sliding his feet across the stage in invisible liquid jelly. He talked to a miniature robot named Short Circuit, pretended to speak into a banana as a phone, and laid down on the floor, relaxing, calling out random strangers in the crowd in a lackadaisical rumination on the importance of chilling. So when he wrapped with an extended jam of “Where It’s At”–stuffed with miniature covers of “Whip It”, “Taking It To the Streets”, “Running With the Devil”, “Blue Monday”, and more–that saw each member soloing in between bouncing off their equipment, he reclaimed his thrown as the king of cool. Boston Calling wasn’t just his temporary castle for the day; it’s the playing grounds for musicians to find their groove — and invite the audience to try it on for a size in the process.