When it comes to planning events, there are by nature a number of variables you can’t control no matter what you do. "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry," to quote that one line John Steinbeck never actually said (It was Robert Burns, for those nerdy enough to care). The usual variables were at play leading up to Boston Calling- weather, turnout, properly functioning equipment, etc.- but there were also some pretty big of factors left up in the air this year in particular. The upgrade from the original City Hall location to Harvard’s Athletic Complex in Cambridge not only meant more space, but also more stages, more acts, and of course, more tickets available than any Boston Callings previous.
This was unquestionably a big year for BC, as the big move to Harvard marked a major step towards becoming the next major North American festival, a la the Coachellas and Bonnaroos of the world. But of course, the problem with doing things for the first time is that you have nothing to base it on- you’re literally writing the rulebook in real time. A smooth weekend would set the precedent for years to come, so it probably didn’t help that less than a week before the big weekend, a major attack took place at a concert in Manchester, leaving 22 innocent concertgoers dead. The sudden security concern only added to the imposing amount of risks, to the point where rumors of postponement, or even cancellation, began to circulate. Nothing was delayed, which was probably the best choice, but there was a very clear security presence, as well as a general feeling of uncertainty throughout the weekend. No one probably expected anything bad to happen, but that’s the thing with variables: You just never know.
The big weekend at Harvard came and went, so how’d those gambles pan out? Pretty good, honestly, definitely well enough to justify doing it again next year. There were definitely some bumps along the way that reflected the festival’s growing pains, but overall, nothing bad enough to derail the entire weekend, which is probably the best festival organizers could’ve asked for given the circumstances.
Friday kicked off to wet weather, with showers pretty much the whole day, leaving the majority of the grassy fields muddy and wet. Granted, anyone who knows anything about festivals should know getting a little dirty is just part of the weekend, so it wasn’t a huge problem as long as you didn’t mind some dirt on your Birkenstocks.
What became very evident issues, though, were the lines: Lines for food, lines for bathrooms, and especially lines to get in, which isn’t necessary abnormal for festivals, but when you wait upwards of an hour for a toilet, you have to wonder if things could’ve been planned better. While the lines at the entrance were noticeably long, that gets a pass just because the heightened security was likely the reason for the wait, but the lines within the grounds looked like the result of underestimation. Perhaps festival organizers simply didn’t fully comprehend what it meant to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people, but honestly, how could anyone properly prepare for that with no prior experience? The turnout was essentially double the amount as previous years, so you have to cut them at least a little slack considering the trial by fire they endured. But granted, when you’re waiting over an hour for a burger or desperate to pee at the end of a long line, it’s hard to feel understanding in the moment.
Those were really the main grievances; so now that those are out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff. The music, like any proper music festival, was front and center, and it was more than good enough to look past the event's technical issues. Local Boston trio and full-time weirdoes Vundabar
kicked off the weekend with an energetic and wonderfully odd set, setting the tone for a pretty upbeat weekend. A major highlight was definitely singer/guitarist Brandon Hagen’s deadpan quip to the crowd: "Solange
was supposed to play, but she said So Longe." The rain was steadily coming down by the time Whitney
went onstage, but that didn’t stop them from bringing their signature guitar-centric summer vibes, making for one of the most laid-back sets of the weekend. The band went through the highlights of their hit record Light Upon The Lake, as well as some covers, a new song, and even a surprisingly good impromptu cover of The Golden Girls theme song.
killed it as expected, making for the first truly unskippable set of the weekend. Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn had more than enough chemistry to make two people jumping around on an empty stage absolutely electrifying, and it helped that they also had an explosive set list to boot. Feeling the bass rattle your chest during the frantic "Kick Jump Twist" and the rabidly intense "Radio" only made the songs that much better, and if the audience wasn’t already filled with loving fans, the duo definitely won over a few more by the final song. Solange was unfortunately switched out for Migos
at the last minute due to "production drama," which meant that people hoping for chill indie-soul instead got the less-than-soothing mumbles of "Bad and Boujee." Whether or not that is a good thing is up to the beholder, but personally, Solange’s presence was very much missed.
welcomed the evening with a beautifully emotional set that was enough to reduce grown men to tears, hence why at least two guys next to me were openly weeping. Sure, people were probably hammered, but it was hard to not feel something when it suddenly started raining during the middle of "Holocene." That was probably one of the most beautiful and spiritual things I’ve ever experienced at a concert, and I was as sober as a priest on Sunday.
Speaking of church, the first night was closed out with the soulful gospel of Chance the Rapper
, who brought his signature mix of hip-hop swagger, earnest humility, and unmatched joy to the main stage. With a set full of both explosive celebrations and gentle, understated moments, Chance proved he was more than qualified to be a festival headliner, which is good considering he’s got top billing at roughly bazillion festivals this summer. There were multiple instances where the pyro blasts or fireworks had a few people assume a running stance towards the exit, so including loud, gunshot-like noises was perhaps not the best choice given the heightened caution. That said, it was still a plenty enjoyable set with plenty of high points and many blessings to go around.
Chance The Rapper:
With blue skies and warm sunlight, Saturday’s weather was a complete 180 from Friday's, which gave festivalgoers a chance to actually feel like they were at a summer festival. The day kicked off on a loud note right out the gate, with rocker upstart Kevin Morby
plugging in his signature red Jaguar and offering the first highlight performance of the day. With an unassuming songwriting wit akin to rock greats like Tom Petty or Lou Reed, Morby started things off right with some quick and likable garage rock, plus the closing cover of the Velvet Underground’s "Rock and Roll" was a welcome surprise. Strand Of Oaks
were all smiles as they tore the stage apart with ripping guitar solos and powerful tales of love and redemption over plenty of overdrive. Between these two acts alone, rock music was well represented on day two, and things were only getting started.
Strand Of Oaks:
London duo Oh Wonder
brought a quick and fun set to mark the middle of the day, and their upbeat brand of indie-pop was honestly a perfect soundtrack for the sunny weather. Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West’s chemistry onstage was an absolute blast to watch, and their bubbly anthems easily had everyone jumping and dancing with them by the show's end.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
got the crowd plenty hyped with their tight country-soul jams, and there were definitely a few drinks chucked in the air as the crowd passionately belted along to "S.O.B." Those weren’t the only things tossed around, either: At one point, Rateliff himself threw his tambourine to the side of the stage, only for it to hit the ground and literally shatter into pieces. Whether or not that was intentional is up to debate (he even seemed surprised by his strength), but it at least worked at making the crowd go absolutely nuts.
Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats:
If the Night Sweats brought the hype wave to its peak The xx
helped even it out with their tranquil, new-wave jams, and even while there weren’t any explosive moments, it was nice to relax and take a breather to soothing music. Besides, the band’s peaceful vibes got the crowd loosened up for Mumford & Sons
, whose divided set between their electric and folksy tracks gave a nice balance between intense rock jams and lighthearted acoustic ballads. The band even debuted a couple new tracks, which found a nice medium between their old and new sound (aka a full drum kit and a banjo in the same track), and they closed out the night with a one-time jam on "With A Little Help From My Friends," featuring some of there’s: Rateliff, Kevin Garrett, the National’s Aaron Dessner, and the always-amazing Brandi Carlile
(side-note: I’ll never forgive myself for missing her set. DAMN YOU, LONG FOOD LINES!!!).
Mumford & Sons:
After two overall successful days, there was one more to go. Even though Sunday ended up being the day I caught the least amount of acts, it might have been my favorite in terms of how consistently fun it was from start to finish. Indie-punk upstart Mondo Cozmo
kicked off the day in style, waking up the crowd with catchy, anthemic rock jams as well as a stunning cover of The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony." Mitski
mesmerized with her bitingly sarcastic, and occasionally darkly funny lyricism, bringing a little bit of a 90s underground sound to the morning. Even if you had never heard Mitski’s music before, you learned everything you needed to know when she remarked about the overcast: "I love the weather, it is very much my aesthetic." Witty and dark, what’s not to love?
Run the Jewels
kept the energy at max levels during their set, which undoubtedly succeeded in getting people to go absolutely nuts. El-P and Killer Mike were both hard and lovable at the same time, preaching about love and respect while also waving middle fingers high in the air. It was a nice dose of old-school, no-BS hip-hop, which was a saving grace for those wanting less mumble rap and more verbal acrobatics.
Run The Jewels:
The most surprising set for me personally, and quite possibly my favorite set overall, was Cage the Elephant,
who had always been on my radar but never an active favorite. In seemingly one last hoorah to wrap up the weekend, people went insane during the band’s blistering set, literally throwing themselves onto the stage like it was a sweaty basement show. Singer Matt Shultz channeled both his inner Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop as he strutted up and down and grimaced for the cameras, and the band kept the crowd riled up from the first track to the final moments when they trashed their instruments. It was the only set I caught where people actually crowd-surfed, so that alone says a lot about the sheer insanity of the hour. It was definitely a high note to close out the weekend, and the Kentucky-born band definitely changed my status as "casual fan" to "active follower."
Cage The Elephant:
So with that, I wrapped up my weekend at Boston Calling (didn’t stay for Tool, mostly because I passed out in the press tent out of sheer exhaustion) feeling like it really proved itself to be a solid, big-time festival by the end. As mentioned, there are plenty of logistical things to work out for next year, but at least they now have an experience to refer to when planning from here on out. All the issues I encountered seem to be easy fixes, so at the rate the festival’s going, people might consider it a major national player in the summer festival season real soon. It’s good that the weekend was such a success, even as lingering concerns over recent events remained present. But that’s the thing about good music: no matter the circumstances, a song has a knack for bringing people together even when other things may not be the best they could be. It’s nice that even on the heels of tragedy, the music kept playing, and hopefully it’ll be playing in Boston for many summers more.