Future Islands, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The National at Boston Calling Day 1
The National via Boston Calling 2014
Boston, Massachusetts -- Boston Calling returned Friday night to a packed City Hall Plaza as crowds gathered for Future Islands, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The National. That roster is enough to make any serious music fan drool, displaying an appreciation for established, nostalgic acts as well as a look towards the future of indie rock. All three bands more than delivered, so read through to get a full picture of the festivities at Boston Calling's first night.
Considering Future Islands' meteoric rise to fame over the course of the last year (due in no small part to their highly-publicized Letterman performance), it's sometimes difficult to remember they've been at it for almost nine years, garnering four total albums. While most audience-members probably expected a set full of tracks from their 2014 release Singles, the Baltimore natives pulled out some deep cuts spanning their entire career in the band's short, opening set. Gerrit Welmers' heavenly synth tones contrast quite nicely with William Cashion's punchy basslines and Michael Lowry's upbeat grooves, so even those unfamiliar with the act seemed to take in the catchy synthpop.
But it's no secret the real star of this show is lead-singer Samuel T. Herring. In between several different types of crabwalks, Cookie Monster-esque growling, and sweat-splashing chest pounds, the man had the audience entirely captivated. This onslaught of energy would be downright silly if he wasn't so damned sincere. I honestly can't remember being this impressed by a frontman since Julian Casablancas brought apathy to punk rock. As the band blew through recent hits like the ever-popular "Seasons (Waitin' on You)" and "Spirit" as well as hidden gems like "Tin Man," Herring managed to find a oneness with his audience through this heart-on-sleeve stage presence. I wouldn't mind seeing such brazen vulnerability find its way into more frontmen in the indie rock scene.
Neutral Milk Hotel
This most recent tour from Neutral Milk Hotel has an air of tense anticipation to it, mostly because it's probably the last time these guys will perform under this moniker and no one's really sure when it's going to end. Since April 2013, the band extended what originally looked like a short string shows about six times and will continue into November of this year with no breaks along the way. There's something remarkably exciting about seeing a probable deathbed performance from the band that made In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.
The set at Boston Calling was something of a blur that both delivered the wanted tracks from Aeroplane while nodding towards lesser-known songs from On Avery Island plus a few from NMH's debut EP Everything Is. A raucous "Holland, 1945" followed the Jeff Mangum solo-opener "I Will Bury You in Time" before the band launched into the "King of Carrot Flowers" suite. It's hard not to envision the vast influence drawn from this band while you're watching them. Arcade Fire's chamber rock, Titus Andronicus' conceptual punk, Bon Iver's folk-infused, expansive indie - all of it can easily be traced back to this group. Hell, Colin Meloy's vocal style toes the line of theft.
As Mangum and company closed the night with the Aeroplane-ending medley of "Ghost," "[untitled]," and "Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two," it was apparent something special is in this group of performers - not just because they're essentially our generation's Velvet Underground, but because they actually still got it. Mangum can still hold a note out for fifteen seconds, Scott Spillane still belts the songs to himself when he's not filling out abrasive horn sections, Julian Koster is still a saw-wielding weirdo. Perhaps the motivation behind expanding a few dates into an epic world tour lies in the fact that Neutral Milk Hotel is still fucking awesome.
When one thinks about the history of The National, there's an air of looming maturity that sticks out due to a couple factors: the band took a long time to get famous, and by the time they did, they were too old for the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll thing. While I'm not saying they're live show is boring (quite the contrary, actually), there is a meticulous method to their madness. The setlist for the band's Boston Calling performance read almost like a greatest hits track-listing with a few winks for hardcore fans. This could have to do with the band's sixteen year track, or the fact The National has hit the road so hard since the May 2013 release of Trouble Will Find Me that the boys from Ohio are content to give the crowd what they want at this point.
You would think they would stick more to Trouble tracks as bands with a recent release often do, but surprisingly the historic 2007 album Boxer was the most heavily featured work Friday night. A particular highlight came at the end of "Ada" when the group went into the horn melody from "Chicago" by frequent The National-collaborator Sufjan Stevens. We also saw a few tracks from High Violet like "Afraid of Everyone" and "Bloodbuzz Ohio."
While this has been a clear fan-favorite for a while, it might be time for frontman Matt Berninger to retire the push-through-the-crowd move on "Mr. November." If you were to ask attendees of pretty much any concert from The National in the last five years, they'll usually cite this as the highlight of the show. It's fun, but now extremely expected, so, yes, I'm ready for an upgrade.
Luckily, the man made his way back to the stage through for "Terrible Love" and a particularly riveting acoustic version of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks." The band stripped themselves of electric instruments and stood a few feet away from three microphones to create more of a singalong experience, bringing the crowd into the fold. It was a daring, but effective way of closing an already solid show.
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