When Boston Calling debuted in 2013, the editor in chief of the paper I worked at sat me down and asked how well I thought it would do. As with most things, I told him, it depends. Boston is a college city. Festival organizers certainly have a crowd; they just need to cater to them correctly. Even though the festival has gotten true festival-sized headliners–Lorde, Pixies, Beck–in past editions, it falls shy of being the whole, massive, blown-out package. To combat that, there’s two editions each year, one in the spring and one in the fall. Now in its sixth run, Boston Calling still finds itself surveying the city to see what attendees respond strongly to, and, yet again, they’re picking up the phone and making their voices heard. Based off Day 1 alone, Boston Calling’s curators are clearly doing something right.
Boston Calling’s Friday lineup was a cut and paste from Newport Folk Festival over the years. That’s not a bad thing. For starters, Gregory Alan Isakov was the first musician to play the festival this weekend. The South African singer-songwriter caught out eyes and ears at Newport this summer, so any chance to see him again is welcomed warmly, especially when he humbly shocks Government Center by twisting heartfelt lyricism in lush guitar strings, digging deep into his characters’ backstories in a way that almost suggests there’s a truth to it all.
Just before things got lil’ too eerie now that the fall is cools things considerable, Of Monsters and Men took the stage. The Icelandic troupe have been sailing the radio waves for a while, and as a result, every found themselves singing along, even if they don’t actively listen to them on their own. There’s a quaint comfort that comes with knowing someone’s music without listening to it often, a space which they fill neatly with “Little Talks” and “Six Weeks”.
Headlining was, of course, The Avett Brothers, one of Newport’s most beloved acts and, as last night proved, one of Boston Calling’s as well. North Carolina’s folk rock band turns 15 this year. That’s enough to slow your stomping cowboy boot feet to look at your watch, confused, before returning to the ragtime. But The Avett Brothers are timeless. Not only that, they’re no-dramatics fun. Folk pop turned full charm for nearly two hours as they played up the romance of Emotionalism, The Carpenter, and beyond, all at their own pace. “Bring Your Love To Me” and “Talk on Indolence” kicked things off the way headliners rarely do: slowly. Despite the massive onlooking crowd and flaring lights, The Avett Brothers capitalized on simplicity and homeyness throughout their set, from Scott Avett’s ears sticking out of his backwards cap while he played banjo to the raw bluegrass appeal of “Paranoia in Bb Major”. No matter how intense Jon Kwon headbanged while playing cello or how their comedic falsettos scratched, the group felt like your friends.
Just like Newport Folk Festival, folk acts sell. From the back, Friday night’s crowd appeared to be the largest one yet for their opening day events, clumping all the way back to the food court where the groups finally began to thin out. Even there, where listeners usually talk and catch up, guys rocked on their heels with their chins tipped to the sky, singing along, as the band played on in the distance. Before they started, a man behind me in line for the bathroom couldn’t contain his excitement (though maybe he just had to pee): “I swear to God, if The Avett Brothers go on while I’m in this line, y’all are gonna’ see a grown man cry.” He was already tearing up. Folk rock never goes out of style, and those hungry for its sounds turn up time and time again to hear it live. A modest crowd stood on the outskirts of the fence, too, pinched against the edge of Government Center’s buildings in hopes of catching a glimpse of the band.
Boston Calling is three years deep and six festivals in. By now, they’ve got a grasp on what the people want to hear, and they will continue to rotate through genre-leaning days. Folk rock may be the most dependable notch in the post. You can’t satisfy everyone at once, but you can satisfy them in turns, and it seems the quietest people speak the loudest with their wallets.