“Switch!,” shouted one audience member as Belly finished up on the Red Stage on Saturday and the throng shifted just a hair toward the Green Stage immediately to its right, where Manchester Orchestra was set to begin. That was the spirit of Boston Calling on its second day, a combination of eagerness to explore combined with a desire to do so with a minimum of effort. Unfortunately, it also took a PR problem dogging the festival and created a logistical situation that only made it worse.
With side-by-side stages and five-minute gaps between performers, the focal area of the festival grounds (at the Harvard Athletic Complex for the second year) was designed to keep attendees in one place. That’s fine as far as it goes, but far removed from those stages, the midway, and the Ferris wheel was a third, Blue stage that featured Tauk’s jazz fusion, the easygoing but focused trap of Leikeli47, Daniel Caesar’s quiet-storm R&B, boy-band rappers Brockhampton, and Tyler, The Creator’s emo-colored hip-hop.
For an event facing increasingly vocal criticism about the whiteness of its slate and especially its headliners, shunting all but one of the day’s black performers (rappers Westside Gunn & Conway’s day-opening performance on the Red Stage was over before most people even arrived) to a single stage isolated from the rest of the festival wasn’t a good look. And it would have been a kick for the same audience to switch gears from Leikeli47 to the Oh Sees’ freakbeat psychedelia or the heavy, bluesy power rock of the two-man Royal Blood.
As it was, the main stages solidly represented three generations of alternative rock. Belly largely focused on its first album in 23 years, bubbly with joy on “Mine” while Tanya Donelly chewed off words in the spiky dirge “Army of Clay.” The heady “Shiny One” translated nicely to the open air, as did Manchester Orchestra’s howling anthems, which were not just loud but epic-sounding, from the gargantuan chordage of “Cope” to the dramatic up-and-downshifts of “I’ve Got Friends.”
The electronic wibble and throb undergirding St. Vincent — and her cold, mechanical demeanor — only foregrounded the crash and slash of her songs, and she was unafraid to rework material both old (“Cheerleader” was ominous, with grindingly low bass notes) and new (the kick-drum pulse of “New York”). Queens of the Stone Age also combined chaos and sensual chop in relentless songs like “No One Knows” and the snarly, hip-swiveling “The Way You Used To Do.”
Like St. Vincent, Jack White eagerly fiddled with his own material. But adding bass and organ often muddled the impact of White Stripes songs like “Black Math.” Still, drummer Carla Azar was terrific, on attack at all times and keeping the material frenetically afloat. And White was able to explore new textures, from the cosmic blues of “Connected By Love” and the airy swinging “Blunderbuss.” With the crowd shouting out the “Seven Nation Army” riff for him to sing his final verse over, it was a solid end to a day made up of bad optics and missed opportunities.
At Harvard Athletic Complex, Allston, SaturdayMarc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc