To paraphrase a song played by the Beastie Boys’ Mike D in his early-evening DJ set at the Harvard Athletic Complex on Sunday, you can plan a music festival but you can't predict the weather. The final day of Boston Calling had a literal cloud overhead, spitting rain down from late afternoon on. But for all the grumbling to be heard about the cold, there was none to be had about the variety and strength of the day’s lineup.
Before so much as a drizzle started, Zola Jesus combined electronic beats, processed guitar and viola, and throaty, held notes as she crept and twitched around the Blue Stage (where indie rock had largely been banished for the day). Her good-natured gripe about the “moat” between her and the audience underlined her aim of a connection, something she shared with affable rapper Taylor Bennett (on the Red Stage at the same time), with his emphasis on acceptance and brotherhood.
Mixing the Flaming Lips minus the foregrounded quirk and Muse minus the self-consciousness, the delightfully bent Pond were disarmingly casual in their proggy oddness, and their songs were expansive and beaming. Alvvays followed with an updated model of the propulsive New Wave pop that valued guitars and keyboards equally, with an immediate-gratification bounce that remained even when they turned soft and tender.
Nothing was as soft as Julien Baker, though. With a delicate, feather-light approach, the soft-spoken, open-hearted singer/songwriter pushed through the bass pounding from a nearby party tent, and the audience remained by her side. Elsewhere, the busy, overcomplicated jazz/prog-funk of Thundercat held court, her polar opposite.
“Cold and wet and miserable” was the Decemberists’ acknowledged sweet spot, so it was ironic when the band's first few songs drew from sun-dappled Laurel Canyon mellow gold. But the mining songs and accordion-fueled sea shanties about being eaten by a whale came soon enough. And they stretched nicely with the thumping glam-rock bounce of “We All Die Young” and the synth pulse of “Severed,” all corners and (metaphorical) strobe lights.
Despite the light rain that had settled in hours earlier, the crowds waiting in front of the tandem stages for Khalid and Eminem were huge, so tightly packed in that there was barely room to raise an arm. Khalid’s sleepy, languid vocals contrasted with his sleek, electrified R&B, and while “8TEEN” and “Young Dumb & Broke” were head-bobbing celebrations of high-school boredom, he was no fun when he was no fun, vanishing when he turned more introspective.
Eminem didn’t have the same problem; his familiar breathless adenoidal bark was sharp enough to wield as a mirror as well as a weapon. The rapper reckoned that he hadn't played Boston in 14 years and made up for lost time, bringing a string section for unexpected dimension, spitting out “Rap God” like the lyrics were rapid-fire percussion and letting Skylar Grey anchor him to the gravity of “Love The Way You Lie.” And as the festival closed with the chugging glare of “Lose Yourself,” the rain finally stopped.Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc.