I was already creeping towards six feet before I was out of middle school, so I know a thing or two about growing pains. I wasn’t just a tall kid either, as I was gangly and awkward to boot. Getting bigger brings with it all sorts of clumsy issues, and not all of us are able to handle it with the utmost grace. For all its hiccups and missteps, however, Boston Calling Music Festival pulled off its transition from tiny city-center festival to major open-field event with laudable success.
In years past, BC was situated in City Hall Plaza, an unattractive square of brick right outside City Hall. Moving to the Harvard Athletic Complex technically put the festival in Allston but also provided room to add a third stage and a dedicated comedy facility. It also presented a bunch of new issues to deal with, despite having had the previous location down to a relative science. Audiences let the festival organizers know it, too, taking to social media to complain about any number of “failings.” Lines were too long for food and bathrooms, cell service was sporadic, egresses in and out of certain areas were too limited, and dammit there was mud on the ground.
It’s true food was an overall issue (vendors consistently ran out of food over the first two days and use of credit cards was hampered by poor connectivity), but frankly all those other issues are standard practice at big festivals. Mud? Really? It rained Thursday and Friday; what did you expect? Besides, more than half the grounds were actually astroturf, including the entire field in front of the Blue Stage, so that just seems nitpicky. As for the bathroom and egress issues, it seemed to me this was a lack of familiarity with the grounds by patrons more than a shortcoming of festival organization. For the first two days, it appeared that most folks were unaware of the pathway on the far side of the festival, the one lined with a row of porta potties for which there was never more than a three-minute wait.
I’m not arguing this new Boston Calling was perfect. Still, the crew was getting used to a brand-new venue, and they did their best to work things out on the fly. By day three, food seemed less of an issue, crowds understood how to flow through the grounds better, and adjustments were made to speed up entry into the festival and certain VIP areas. Could there have been more activations and activities to keep the crowd entertained between acts they wanted to see? Sure. Does the GA space between the Red Stage and nearby main Green Stage need to be rearranged to avoid congestion? Absolutely. But should Boston Calling return to its former, smaller self? Not a chance.
First off, that’s just a bad business strategy. More importantly, from a fan’s perspective, a lineup like the one put together for 2017 could not occur at City Hall Plaza. There were enough major acts to headline three festivals this size (Bon Iver, The xx, Mumford and Sons, Chance the Rapper, Tool, Weezer). Local acts were represented in almost every genre and era (Vundabar, Cousin Stizz, Converge, Buffalo Tom). Of course, scheduling conflicts are bound to arise with a fest this size, and I can appreciate the sentiment of those who miss the ability in years past to catch every single act on the bill. At the same time, it’s like complaining about the mud again. This is a major festival; what did you expect?
Boston Calling is simply bigger than that now. So much so that it isn’t even contained to one location or one schedule any longer. There are after-parties all over the city, from The Sinclair in Cambridge to Allston’s beloved Great Scott. I even found myself inside the members-only Harvard Lampoon house dancing to a DJ set from Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner, surrounded by secret society members and industry insiders.
I’ve personally been a supporter of Boston Calling since its inception and frankly found myself nervous the day before I set foot on the new grounds. I worried the expansion would cause it to have its first major stumble, and in the modern festival market, there’s always the risk it wouldn’t survive even one failure. With an unparalleled lineup, a willingness to listen to attendees’ concerns, and an assured and capable team behind the scenes, however, I’m happily still able to stand behind the event with complete confidence. There were issues with the first few incarnations of BC, so the fact that there were some miscues as they entered a new phase shouldn’t be surprising. But by the time I was 14, the pains in my joints subsided, I figured out how to control my lanky limbs a little better, and I grew more confident. Boston Calling will do the same, and it will be better for it.
Besides, aren’t these things all about the music anyway? You can’t even begin to say Boston Calling didn’t knock it out of the park on that front, so read on for more on the best sets of the weekend and an exclusive photo gallery.
10. Sylvan Esso
Schedule was one of the gripes a lot of people had with the festival this year, but the transition from Francis and the Lights to Sylvan Esso was a masterstroke of timing. Both trade in different versions of modern dance pop, which worked wonders on the damp crowd as they transitioned towards evening. Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn’s brand of electronic music, however, was delivered with such unbridled joy that it easily won out in comparison.
And that jubilation is actually one of the duo’s neatest tricks. Their music is quite a bit darker and heavier than I think people realize — take “Die Young” or “Coffee”, songs that don’t exactly have the cheeriest of themes. Even Sanborn’s mixes are moored in trudging, hefty beats. But dammit if they didn’t make it all enjoyable as hell. Meath especially gave people reason enough to move, her smile as infectious as her dancing. She unironically mugged for the photographers during “Kick Jump Twist”, clearly enjoying being the center of this party. The crowd couldn’t resist the good times, raising their hands in the air without instructions for the first time and bringing out the beach balls and balloons. It all added up to just the sort of energetic boost needed to get you over the hump as you headed into the nighttime performances.
The instant you started heading toward the Harvard Athletic Complex on day three, it was clear how many people had bought tickets just for Tool. It’s been years since the metal outfit have played in Boston, and they brought out one of the most diverse crowds of any headliner all weekend, transcending gender, race, and age. Many undoubtedly had been itching for a chance to finally catch their beloved rock gods live, and they were rewarded with one hell of a visual experience. It’s true that the quartet don’t provide much in the way of pure stage presence; Danny Carey is a beast behind his elaborate drum kit, but also hidden, and Adam Jones and Justin Chancellor bring intensity to their instruments, but not much movement. Maynard James Keenan is the most fascinating to watch, garbed in his riot gear and stomping about at the rear of the stage, but stuck in back, he didn’t exactly hold your eye.
Still, if you were looking for something to watch, there were all the crazy CGI animations and lights going on behind the band (that skeleton creature with the eyes in its hands and fetus in its head during “Vicarious” is still seared in my brain). Odds are, though, if you were there for Tool, you were there to hear them deliver storming renditions of “Schism”, “Ænema”, and “Parabola” live. If that was you, you no doubt left with a concert memory for a lifetime.
08. Frightened Rabbit
I’ve long loved Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit, but after catching them live three times, I’d yet to be utterly impressed with their live shows. It seems I was just finding them in the wrong city, however, as they brought their absolute A game to Boston. “Boston is sort of like coming home,” Scott Hutchison stated. “It’s the closest thing we can get to Scotland in this country.” He even gave a shoutout to one of his favorite local beverages, Downeast Cider, wearing a hat from the craft cider company the entire set. Maybe it was sipping on that beverage that made tracks like “I Wish I Was Sober” and “Modern Leper” sound better than ever, or maybe it was just their love of the city in which they were being played. Whatever it was, it worked, as the band seemed to be enjoying themselves more than at any time I’d seen them in the past, and that feeling spread throughout the entire audience.
The Boston music scene has long been one of peaks and valleys, but the city has always been kind to hardcore and punk fans. So when a Canadian act rolls into town screaming, “I spent a long time down in the basement/ Instead of rolling with the riff-raff” (“Familiar Patterns”), it shouldn’t be surprising to find them embraced as warmly as PUP were. The crowd created undoubtedly the most spirited mosh pits of the weekend, sending crowdsurfer after crowdsurfer into the air — much to security’s chagrin. The band earned the response, delivering surprisingly strong gang harmonies as they ripped through relatively dark material (“The Coast”, “Sleep in the Heat”, “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You I Will”) with furious, good vibes. Yet, true to their home country, they were as humble a punk band as you’ll ever see, thanking security and the festival crew for keeping everyone safe and shouting out local favorites The Hotelier, who’d played earlier in the day, after the crowd chanted “PUP! PUP! PUP!” during a break between songs. The hometown boys were surely great, but there’s no better way to warm up on a cool Sunday morning in May than in a PUP mosh pit.