Festival Report: Boston Calling

For decades, the city of Boston has been shafted from the short list of elite music cities in America. With a bustling culture of college students, crate diggers, and indie heads, this city has become a breeding ground for the young and talented. The biggest hindrance to the Boston music scene is that so many of these artists end up leaving. Once these students have been handed their diplomas, they flock to the cultural meccas of New York and Los Angeles to reach a broader audience and be closer to the industry. The Boston Calling music and comedy festival aims to break this vicious cycle and bring more attention to this underrated music hub.

Crash Line Productions, a Boston-based entertainment production company which also produces Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, brought the festival to life in 2013. With the help of The National’s Aaron Dessner, Crash Line has invited hundreds of musicians to perform in Boston’s historic City Hall Plaza. In the past, attendees have had the chance to see acts like Kendrick Lamar, Vampire Weekend, Sia Tame Impala, Childish Gambino and many more. Over the last five years the festival has made a fantastic name for itself and continues to attract concert goers from around the world. To match this increasing demand, Crash Line has expanded the lineup for 2017 and brought the festival to a much larger location.

This years Boston Calling Festival featured a mix of local and imported talent performing on three stages at Harvard University’s spacious athletic complex. The three-day concert boasted huge acts like Chance the Rapper, Bon Iver, Tool, Mumford & Sons, The XX, and Major Lazer. In addition to an absolutely stacked line up of musicians, there was also a number of stand up comedians in attendance, hand-picked by Hannibal Buress.

As a local to this beautiful city for the past 5 years, it only seemed right to send off my collegiate glory days with one last jam-packed weekend of musical indulgence.

DAY ONE

I arrived to the crimson campus an hour before doors opened and joined the masses of eager festival goers. As we waited in the rain, a chorus of groans and cheers broke from the crowd as a news alert pinged our phones; Solange would no longer be performing and Migos would be taking her time slot. It was later revealed that the cancellation was due to production delays, not because her sister was in labor (as many fans hopefully speculated). Despite my personal disdain with the change, I joined the many happy Migos fans and prepared to get down with the ATL trio later that day.

At 2:00 the festival opened and there was a mad dash to the first shows… unfortunately I was still waiting in line for what would be the next hour and a half. Alas, I made it through the pearly gates and made my way to see Whitney. Despite a rocky and rainy start to this day, the Chicago duo and their band of country misfits brought out the sunshine and the best in this Boston crowd. Julian Ehrlich sat front and center on a vintage drum kit with a mic drooped in front of his face. His signature falsetto belted a barrage of songs from their debut record, Light Upon The Lake, while leading the band with intricate percussion. The band closed out their set with a rendition of the Golden Girls theme song and their trumpet-backed lead single “No Woman.”

Adjacent to the red stage where Whitney just performed, Francis and the Lights was standing alone in a burgundy bomber jacket on the green stage. As the clouds rolled back in, the sharp dressed man began his set with a ripping synth solo that transitioned into “See Her Out (That’s Just Life).” He continued the set with a series of crooning tracks from last year’s Farewell, Starlite! project, showing off some impeccable dance moves at the front of the stage. Suddenly, a sea of cellphones raise into the air as Francis is joined by his friend and collaborator, Chance the Rapper. The two performed an almost ritualistic choreographed dance to their recent single, “May I Have This Dance.” The track closes, the two share a loving embrace, and Francis hits the floor with a majestic, earth-shattering split. The crowd and I absolutely lost our minds.

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After a quick beer break I made my way back to the red stage where the genre-blending dynamic duo, Sylvan Esso were already in fifth gear. Amelia Meath, a former Boston resident, uses her smokey vocals and fluid choreography to lure the crowd into their 2017 single, “Kick Jump Twist.” Nick Sanborn’s minimalist production suddenly shifts into a throbbing bass line and the festival grounds quickly turn to mud. The duo proceeded with a mix of songs from their two records and the crowd continued to feed off of their contagious energy. It is nearly impossible to watch these two perform without a smile on your face.

As our generation’s Beatles began to take the spotlight, I quickly cuffed my jeans and booked it across the festival to see Mac Demarco on the blue stage. In the wake of his 2017 record, This Old Dog, Demarco beefed up his live outfit with a new group of very talented dudes. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the Canadian lover boy a few times and this was by far the tightest show I’ve seen from him. Their set list was jam packed with a series of lo-fi tracks from his entire catalog of music. Amongst the newer songs my favorite performance was the synth-ladened love song, “For The First Time.”  Despite playing 12 songs in an hour the band still found time for plenty of debauchery. Mac and his boys ended up covering “A Thousand Miles,” inviting a high school fan onstage for an impromptu prom dance, tossing a pair of Mac’s used socks into the mosh pit, and of course, crowd surfing.

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I trudged through the mud on my way back to the main stages just in time to hear the anthem that launched Migos into stardom. The crowd was going bonkers as the boys got bad and boujee, and I watched from next door while nestling my way into the mass of Bon Iver fans.

 Justin Vernon took the red stage as the night began to creep over the once immaculate athletic fields. Joining him was a full band consisting of a guitarist, a pianist, a bassist, two drummers, and five saxophone players. They opened the show by performing their latest critically acclaimed record, 22, A Million, in its (almost) entirety. The uninterrupted play through featured swooning arrangements accompanied by an immersive light show and a barrage of projected symbols and images. Bon Iver brought this complex record and its broad spectrum of themes to life in a way that I didn’t think was possible.

 After wrapping up the last song on the record, Justin delivered a moving speech about having gratitude for your experiences while reminding yourself of those who don’t get to enjoy the same privileges. The band continued on to play six songs from their other two records and,  with a little help from mother nature, this immaculate concert got even better. Right as they began performing “Holocene” it started down pouring (which was awesome because no one could tell that I was crying). I took a moment to absorb the experience I’d just had, snapped a few mental pictures, and battled through the crowd for the final show of the night.

Thousands of soggy Chance the Rapper fans packed like sardines in front of the green stage, patiently waiting. The self-made Chicago superstar stormed onto the stage with an explosive performance of “Mixtape,” backed by pyrotechnics and the original Social Experiment band.  Chance took his time as he performed some of the greatest hits from each of his three projects, pointing the mic out as he repeated some of his most thought provoking verses over and over again. He even played a few of the songs he co-wrote with Kanye West for TLOP. As his set began to wind down Chance suddenly disappeared from the main stage and reappeared on a platform halfway through the crowd. He intimately performed stripped down versions of “Finish Line / Drown” and “Same Drugs” for the thousands of people who were unable to force their way to the front of stage. This gesture reiterated the messages that he preached throughout his entire set; to break down the barriers that we build between each other and to keep fighting for equality in the world.

 

DAY TWO

Day two of Boston Calling was #blessed with absolutely gorgeous weather to accompany the (less stacked but still) awesome line up. Over night the production team had corrected many of their mistakes from the first day on the new grounds, including a more stream lined entry and way better sound. I arrived around 4:00 and made my way over to the blue stage for my first act of the day; Detroit rapper Danny Brown.

As he always does, Danny came out swinging with his signature nasally and demonic flow. He played a mix of tracks from his three studio albums, flowing over the bass heavy beats from XXX and Old and the droopy instrumentals from Atrocity Exhibition. He closed out his set with the bad-trip inducing, “Pneumonia,” and his 2014 Rustie collaboration.

 Next up on the blue stage was the Toronto R&B duo, Majid Jordan. Despite not knowing much of their music I wanted to see what the Drake collaborators had to offer. Under a layer of fog and blue light Jordan laid down vibey keys and drums for Majid’s smooth vocals. The two delivered one of the best shows of the day, performing a series of sultry tracks from their self-titled album and their latest single, “Phases.”

Back over at the main stages, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats were tearing into their drunken frat-boy anthem, “S.O.B,” while the final touches were being put on the red stage for The XX. I nestled into the somber crowd as the sun started to lower over the Harvard fields.

Jamie, Romy, and Oliver took the chrome covered stage with their groovy 2017 single, “Say Something Loving.” I’d heard quite a few negative reviews about their robotic stage presence, but the success of their latest record, I See You, must’ve upped their confidence. A spectrum of lights poured over the stage while the band tore through their catalog of music with ease. Jamie’s upbeat production brought many of their more somber tracks to life, while Romy and Oliver blissfully conversed in front of the crowd. They closed out their set with a high-energy cover of Jamie XX’s solo track, “Loud Places,” before diving into a three song encore to end the night.

       

DAY THREE

With the new and improved logistics of day two in mind, I decided that I would actually try showing up on time to the third and final day of the festival. Boston Calling’s swan song was packed with local bands, a metric f**k-ton of Tool t-shirts, and the best forecast of the weekend.

The doors opened at 1:00 and I made my way over to the blue stage to see the Massachusetts hardcore band, The Hotelier. I grew up going to metal shows in their hometown of Worcester and was amped to unearth my closeted love for emo music. They opened their set with a series of heavy tracks from their atmospheric 2016 record, Goodness. The audience screamed the lyrics back to the band as they tore through technical breakdowns and emotional choruses. The band’s lead singer, Christian Holden, thanked the familiar faces in the crowd and closed out their set with a series of tracks from their incredibly personal and well-received album, Home, Like No Place is There.

I made my way back to the main stages as the clouds rolled in over the crowded festival grounds. The gloomy weather set a perfect scene for one of indie rocks’s most prominent up-and-comers, Mitski. Although Mitski is barely any taller than the electric bass she plays, her raw vocals and distorted arrangements deliver a gut-busting punch. The moody Japanese-American powerhouse played a series of tracks from her two most recent records, including her ballad of love and nationalist exclusivity, “Your Best American Girl.”

I grabbed some much-needed nourishment (two un-cracked beers and some UNREAL grilled cheese) before jogging back to the red stage to settle in for a two set stretch of rap bangers. First up, the New York trip-hop group, Flatbush Zombies. The smoked-out crowd was going absolutely nuts while the Zombies jumped across the stage, sprinting through complex bars and inciting multiple mosh pits. They played a ton of new music but continued to keep the crowd’s energy high as we pretended to know the tracks. They closed out their set with the A$AP Mob beast coast anthem, “Bath Salt.”

Two massive inflatable hands suddenly dropped down over the red stage, one in the shape of the gun and the other closed in a fist. Killer Mike and EL-P of Run the Jewels ran on stage, backed by thousands of hyped fans chanting “R-T-J.” The woke-rap duo brought out the best energy of the weekend, keeping the crowd hyped and happy all set. They mostly played tracks from last years RTJ3, including the unabashed Trump diss-track, “Talk to Me.” This high energy set from the hip-hop super group was perfect for a festival setting.

After standing and jumping for about two hours straight, my old man knee’s forced me to sit and watch Cage the Elephant from the back of the green stage. After about 20 minutes of watching the 33-year-old Matt Shultz contort his body across stage, I decided to suck it up and get a bit closer. Luckily for me, the band started one of my favorite tracks, “Trouble,” right as I got past the sea of eager Tool fans. The entire crowd was feeding off the energy of the Kentucky-bred rock band as they thrashed through songs from their past four studio albums. Shultz spent half of his set flailing through the crowd and the other half leaping across the stage without skipping a beat.

One of the few festival overlaps that put me in a real pickle was Weezer and Major Lazer. I had seen Weezer at a festival two years ago and they were really fun to nostalgically watch, but I was promised that Major Lazer would put on an insane performance. I decided to go with the latter and my decision was confirmed when Diplo came bouncing across the crowd in a giant hamster ball. As the lone EDM show nestled between a variety of rock and rap, Major Lazer held their own. They got the Boston crowd moving with their classic dance hall sound and a series of ridiculous stage-side party tricks. Along with their fan favorites, they revealed a couple of tracks from their recently released EP, Know No Better.

Like a true millennial, I left before Tool because it was way too crowded and I honestly don’t know much of their music. But, I heard that their lead singer performed in a riot suit and that many of their fans were just happy that they were able to find a sitter for the night.

TL,DR: Boston Calling 2017 was bigger and better, delivering top-tier talent despite shitty weather and quite a few logistic hiccups. Friday was maybe the greatest day of my life, and Saturday and Sunday provided a lot of pleasant surprises. I cannot wait to see what this festival will bring to my city for years to come.