“Who is that?” screamed the little boy from atop his father’s shoulders as the sun set over the audience at the DCR Memorial Hatch Shell late on Saturday afternoon. He, among countless other families, college students, and dogs were part of the thousands-large crowd watching Boston’s annual MIXFest, free for the first time this year. The masses were the most laid-back and appreciative seen in a long time; children played football between sets and babies were seen munching on cotton candy and caramel apples. The vibe of the day was overwhelmingly positive and relaxed.
The first to take the stage was arguably 2011’s most popular reality show winner, Javier Colon of The Voice. Though alone, Colon passionately ripped through his songs with fervor uncharacteristic of the early hour. His heartfelt take on “Time After Time” was mesmerizing thanks to his use of an acoustic guitar, magically sweeping over the massive audience. “I can’t thank you guys enough for voting for me and supporting my endeavors,” he said before breaking into a cover of “Stitch by Stitch.” His was the most pleasantly surprising performance of the afternoon.
Fans took to their feet as Michelle Branch skipped onto the stage as the opening chords of “Everywhere” rang out. Sadly, her performance was lacking in soul, and at times felt weak and listless. It was a thrill to rediscover some of her hits, like “Are You Happy Now?” and “Goodbye to You,” but the audience did much of the heavy lifting, chanting the choruses as Branch looked on with a goofy smile. It could be that Branch’s voice was overworked, as evidenced by her confession that she was in the middle of a three-day promotional mega-tour of the country. Fans didn’t seem to mind when her voice stalled, filling in the gaps for her quite ably.
Surprisingly, Sara Bareilles was third to perform. Of the bill, her star shines brightest, and her fan base is the most ardent of the bunch. Headliner or not, Bareilles blew the crowd away with her surprisingly cheerful demeanor and stellar showmanship. She briskly breezed through both hits and lesser-known cuts. Her “Many the Miles” gained a new sense of urgency as Bareilles plunked away at her piano keys, inviting the audience to join her in clapping. A dog howled his approval during the piano intro of “Love Song,” as did nearly every member of the crowd. Bareilles closed her set with her most elegant song, “Gravity,” a number that brought with it sweeping waves of silence among concertgoers. Bareilles possesses a quietly commanding presence, one that was felt in abundance on the quickly cooling Saturday afternoon. It was the perfect ending to her concise but enjoyable set.
It become quickly apparent that Bareilles had pull over the audience; As soon as she exited the stage, throngs of people swarmed the exits, clearly unaware of the spectacle that was about to unfold. The remaining audience, which still numbered in the thousands, was largely unfamiliar with the next act, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. “Boston’s the biggest city near my home,” said Potter in a preshow interview backstage, pointing out that, “It’s basically my home away from home!”
Following an afternoon of soft rock, Potter and her band was the perfect antidote to a quickly tiring crowd. As she entered to the fiery “Hot Summer Night,” unfamiliar audience members cocked their heads. Potter’s blistering guitar playing was a jolt to the mellow crowd, but quickly most people were on their feet, thrashing about like they were at the original Woodstock. During her last song, the blond-haired vixen disappeared and emerged quickly with a giant stuffed tiger that she flung into the audience as she ran about the screaming spectators. A slinky number, “Paris (Ooh La La)” pulsed with life with Potter’s inconceivable howls that never strayed off key. Potter and her Nocturnals have been touring for the greater part of two years now, but they still manage to bring an unbridled enthusiasm to all of their performances. It is abundantly obvious that this tight-knit bunch of musicians loves the band, loves the experience, and loves the fans.
Lifehouse, a Nickleback-esque group that has its established hits but is widely ridiculed, took the stage last, performing to a widely empty audience. The set was as chilly as the temperature, the sun now as absent as the crowd. It was an unfulfilling end to an otherwise nostalgic and rollicking afternoon filled with singalongs and chocolate covered strawberry snacks. Luckily, the impact of the first four performers far outweighed that of the “headliner,” had the promoters chosen to end with the “Happy Birthday” ode to Boston, the memories would have been far grander