After catching 26 bands at the rainy/sunny/chilly/cloudy/muddy Boston Calling music festival over the long weekend, I’ve barely got enough energy left to write this review. But inspired by a great variety of excellent acts, I’m going to power through.
As a veteran of every Boston Calling event since the series started at Government Center in 2013, I looked forward to this spring’s larger version at Harvard University’s athletic fields but was wary that it might lose its charm by no longer being held in the middle of the city. And indeed, having the event spread out across the turf and grass fields in the shadow of Harvard Stadium wasn’t quite as charming, and logistically, the food/restroom/entrance lines were a major drag depending on when you tried to hit them (in addition, trash piled up around garbage cans and across the fields, toilet paper ran out, and so did higher end beers and certain foods). Extracting yourself from the crowd at any of the larger shows at Boston Calling proved near impossible, particularly after dark.
But the new set-up did have its own allures for the tens of thousands in attendance, most of whom fell into the target demographic that I’ve been no part of for quite a few years now. These attractions included room for a third stage, a ferris wheel smack in the middle of the space and bleachers to the right of the Blue Stage that provided weary show goers with an option to rest their feet, as hundreds did for the Weezer show on Sunday night. Plus, the festival hosted about twice as many acts as in the past, and it was the music that really mattered.
A largely young crowd flocked to Friday’s flashy headliner, Chance the Rapper, while plenty of more middle-aged patrons showed up on Saturday to catch acts such as the guitar & banjo-fueled Mumford & Sons, tamborine-smashing Nathaniel Rateliffe and way-more-rocking-than-I-expected Brandi Carlile. Sunday night’s finale by hard rockers Tool drew a massive following of dudes in black t-shirts bearing the band’s name and album titles, and they were rewarded with a propulsive show featuring a lead singer who stayed in the background as a silhouette against some of the creepiest and most twisted videos of the human anatomy you could ever see. Lead singer Maynard James Keenan took a brief break from the music early on in the set to urge all of us “snowflakes” to be thankful for those in military and first responders who defend our right to be whiny babies (speaking of which, show security was vigilant but respectful from what I saw).
Other performers also got political. Noted Bernie Sanders backer Killer Mike from Run the Jewels, who likened himself to Big Papi as he stood on stage before a sea of hip-hop enthusiasts, pleaded with fans to keep fighting for change. Brandi Carlile plugged an organization that helps kids around the world whose lives are affected by war. Numerous musicians encouraged attendees to be nice to one another, and from what we saw, people generally were respectful of each other in what was often tight quarters. In fact, there was quite a lot of sharing of certain stuff that until recently wasn’t legal around these parts.
Performers throughout the event brought their A games musically, though we could have used a few more surprises. Mumford & Sons finished their show on a high note by inviting event curator Aaron Dessner (guitarist for The National, an excellent band that has performed at past Boston Callings), Brandi Carlile and Nathaniel Rateliffe on stage for a rendition of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from my Friends.” Weezer pleased the crowd by covering Outcast’s “Hey Ya!”
You had to make choices at Boston Calling this time around, as bands’ sets often overlapped and it wasn’t always practical to make the trek between the Blue Stage and the Green & Red ones, which were right next to each other and never used simultaneously. I regretted missing Wolf Parade and Major Lazer, both of whom reportedly put on good shows.
You also had to work pretty darn hard to get up close for the bigger acts. My compatriot and I nestled along the front railing during Cage the Elephant’s energetic Sunday show, which concluded with lead singer Matt Shultz — per usual — ditching his shirt and walking atop the faithful in the crowd. He channeled his best Mick Jagger as he strutted our way near the end of the set as well.
While the headliners were all fun, lesser-known acts like Mitski, The Hoteliers, Deerhoof, Lucy Dacus and Car Seat Headrest were more to my liking, especially since you could get up close and really see what was going on. In Mitski’s case, that included alternating looks of faux disdain and authentic appreciation from the singer, and a killer rendition of “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” to finish her set. She didn’t say much between songs, but did observe that the cloudy weather was in line with her “aesthetic.”
You have to know what you’re getting into if you head to a music festival like Boston Calling, and the show’s aesthetic suited me just fine despite — or because of — its rough edges.