Samuel T. Herring, for the lead singer of an indie rock band, is refreshingly unpretentious. His festival-opening set with his Future Islands bandmates on Friday at Boston Calling, while by no means a clean performance, was humble, raw and honest.
Future Islands are perhaps the masters of don’t-give-a-damn indie pop-rock. The boundaries in music are already quite a bit out there, and Herring is unafraid to move even further past those rules. Friday’s performance was full of Herring’s signature flailing dance moves, nearly violent gesticulations and screams and yelps that made your own throat hurt just to listen to.
At times, it was questionable whether there were even notes mixed in with those Cookie Monster-esque growls. For those unfamiliar with Future Islands, the set likely came across as intimidating. But Future Islands’ records are already experimental, and they don’t shy away from experimenting even more. Herring isn’t the type to be embarrassed — his jeans split mid-performance, which barely fazed him.
And man, Herring has to be the sweetest person ever. Repeatedly throughout the show, he thanked the audience and had a dedication behind just about every song. “Balance” was dedicated to the young people in the audience: “We’ll make it through this together,” he said.
Music-wise, as mentioned before, the set lacked quite a bit of finesse. But if you want perfection, listen to a record and don’t bother buying tickets to a festival. Live music doesn’t need to be refined — it needs to be fun. Future Islands has mastered that concept. — Kirkpatrick
Neutral Milk Hotel
At a festival, it’s tough to find an audience of fans. The environment limits the intimacy of any given performance. Nonetheless, looking around City Hall Plaza before Neutral Milk Hotel’s set, anyone could sense the collective anticipation throughout the crowd. Forty-year-old mothers straightened their In the Aeroplane Over the Sea t-shirts as roadies placed saws, banjos, French horns and accordions around the stage. When frontman Jeff Mangum emerged, it wasn’t just a minority of gate-grabbers screaming – it was everyone.
NMH has had time to develop a fanbase. With a 15-year hiatus behind them, the musicians returned with a gift of the most holistic set they could possibly perform. Mangum began the set alone with his guitar – a quiet introduction – until his band ran onstage for a loud and sloppy “Holland, 1945.” Accordionist Julian Koster bounced in circles around the stage while horn-player Scott Spillane beamed through In the Aeroplane and On Avery Island classics.
The audience sang along to hits like “The King of Carrot Flowers” and “Two-Headed Boy,” and Mangum showed his appreciation by quieting the band – these songs were for the fans, just us, a moment of nostalgia for time we never spent together.
In his 1998 Rolling Stone review, Ben Ratliff said Neutral Milk Hotel’s “clattering drums, trombones and impasto of underwater guitar fuzz mask the absence of a decent melody.” Yet, the uncut nature of Neutral Milk Hotel is what helped the band’s sound endure. Yes, the drums clatter, but when you close your eyes, those clattering drums sound like crashing waves. Horns sound triumphant. “Underwater guitar” wafts from somewhere foreign, somewhere uncharted. It is cacophony, but the lyrics are distinct – the imagery, the characters and the story guide the listener when the music gets too “out there.”
And yet, the music isn’t too “out there,” really. Neutral Milk Hotel evokes antique melodies, musical caravans, musky parlors. The execution is distorted, but the familiarity of the refrains grounds each song.
Neutral Milk Hotel was that bottle of cheap peach schnapps in the back of your parent’s liquor cabinet you sneaked sips from when you were thirteen: It tastes hot and sweet, you’re not quite sure if you like it, but you keep sneaking capfuls. It’s doing something that’s kind of bad, but not really – and you feel that warmth in your chest and even though you couldn’t possibly intoxicate yourself of caps of cheap schnapps, you’re still drunk on the feeling of being young, on the image of your parents drinking when they were your age, and their parents before that.
At the end of the set, Mangum sat and listened to Koster play his saw. When his friend and partner left, Mangum picked up his guitar and played “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two.”
“God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life,” he sang. Even after the set, we were still waiting. — Jackson-Glidden
The last time I saw The National — in May, at Sasquatch Music Festival in Washington — I fell asleep. Part of that could have been festival-related fatigue and dehydration, but the popular rock band couldn’t put on an engaging show.
At Boston Calling Friday night, it wasn’t a whole lot different. I didn’t fall asleep this time, but I was pretty bored. They came on stage performing a cover of The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm,” but ended abruptly mid-song. What looked to be a surprisingly promising set lost its luster after two minutes.
At both shows, an informal survey of the crowd resulted in a hefty handful of “I’m so excited for the National!”s. Yet, both performances also produced bored audiences, often texting, rarely singing along, occasionally bouncing along to a hit or two. The band and the audience simply appeared listless.
It’s disappointing, really — The National certainly has the monetary resources to put on a terrific show. But they really can’t. Lead singer Matt Berninger has an incredible baritone voice, but he kept going flat. Again, live shows don’t have to perfect note-wise. But they do need to be fun. And this, most certainly, was not. — Kirkpatrick