It’s Monday morning, the rain has stopped, and, if you’re lucky, so has the ringing in your ears. The 2018 edition of Boston Calling is officially over. And yet despite all of the artists we saw, comedians we laughed at, and outlier events we swung by, it still doesn’t feel like there was a big fanfare to cap off the festival. Though that sounds like a negative, I know. But that observation does require a proper evaluation: was the lack of a singular fanfare at Boston Calling a good thing?
For one, Sunday started off better than the other two days because it was the only day to feature local talent as openers. Over the past several years, Boston Calling has made it a habit to include rising local talent from the Boston area. In the past, we’ve seen artists like indie rock trio Krill, rapper Michael Christmas, and folk rock favorites the Ballroom Thieves take the stage to kick off the festival. For whatever reason, this year saw not only a decline in that, but a grouping of said local talent on Sunday. Rap group STL GLD started the day off with the upbeat samples and positive outlook, getting crowd participation to work first thing in the afternoon. Alt-rock group Weakened Friends, who recently won a Boston Music Award, came out strong as the guitar-driven act intent on slinging hooks like pros. Apart from that, the only other Boston-based artists was Cousin Stizz, as a replacement for Stormzy, who delivered a classic beat-heavy set fresh off his latest (and somewhat star-studded) release, One Night Only. The only other Boston-based artist to perform over the course of the festival was Belly.
What Sunday brought to the table though was a handful of adored indie rock acts, both mid-aught staples and rising newcomers. Tame Impala offshoot Pond played into the weirder side of psych rock thanks to their ever-curious frontman Nick Allbrook. Opposite them, art rock group Dirty Projectors took the stage. Though most everyone originally in the band has left (in part thanks to a breakup between frontman David Longstreth and his then-girlfriend Amber Coffman), Longstreth’s new iteration of the Dirty Projectors slowly found their voice. Joined by three new vocalists—Ava Luna member Felicia Douglass on percussion, Maia Friedman on guitar, and Kristin Slipp on keys—the band overcame a short technical difficulty to regain their off-kilter sound, letting hits like “” and “” wow onlookers and, in turn, rake in significant applause. Even a considerably veteran act like the Decemberists made the most of their time onstage. As the rain poured down around them, every in the crowd began to dance to songs like “O Valencia!” or laughed along as frontman Colin Meloy led them through a call-and-response section of “Everything Is Awful.” At once point, Meloy leaned into it to a meta degree, which only managed to make people more enamored with them despite their constant rotation as a festival act. “You’ve got a straight white male telling you everything is awful,” he said with a laugh, “which is pretty awful in its own right.”
The other chunk of indie rock acts felt dialed in at time. Was that because of the rain? Honestly, it’s pretty likely. An artist like Julien Baker hands out heartfelt songs with ease, but her material felt somewhat lacking, as if distracted. The sunny mood Alvvays churns out with easy felt dampened. Few of the members onstage seemed to be having a good time, but their songs floated out to a crowd who seemed to be feeling similar. Eventually, everyone landed on the same page, though, with fans and the band dancing together in tune to “Next of Kin.” Fleet Foxes barely had an audience for a late evening act, going through the motions with a crowd who stuck around to hearing the magical glean of their folk material. Even Thundercat, who often gets lumped in with indie rock acts via his collaborations, did the same. Though rife with talent, his set felt particularly laid back, as if he knew he could dial it in and didn’t see the harm in doing so. To be fair, though, it’s hard to find a day where Thundercat isn’t perpetually chilled out.
Even the comedy tent felt like it had high points only to be capped by a mediocre set by David Cross. Host Martin Urbano tried out various forms of experimental or meta jokes while offering usual jokes that would land. Shoed into small five minute increments, he didn’t have much time to make an impression, and yet he pulled it off. Urbano felt like the exact type of host needed to segue between acts while giving onlookers an idea of the type of his humor. By far the best set of the night came from Cameron Esposito. She cracked jokes about playing into lesbian stereotypes and how her place in the Harvard Arena as a Boston College graduate felt like the ultimate victory. At one point, an unamused heckler and apparent Trump support got eviscerated by Esposito, all without actually laying into the person too hard. It was deft and nimble, the type of composure that’s to be expected of a national touring comedian. And yet when the evening’s headliner arrived, David Cross, things went downhill. He muttered a few observations about the Arena, tossed out some incredibly in-poor-taste jokes about babies, and then stumbled through an awkward joke about the potential struggle of being attracted to your own child. It was hard not to cringe at his material—or, in the case of everyone standing up to leave, hard not to bail altogether—because of it. Or who knows, maybe Cross’ set was just tainted by his middling answers in the infamous Arrested Development interview in the New York Times.
Perhaps the biggest lack of fanfare that paid off was the IKEA tent. Part exhibit, part club, and part scientific cafeteria, the booth was the best secret thing at Boston Calling. You could walk into it and eat pickled vegetables, discover that a liquid fruit spray actually tastes pretty good despite looking toxic, be handed a free sample of froyo, lounge in a hammock, or dance in a cube-like stage that featured secret guests like Swedish rappers and electronic DJs. It was the Boiler Room of Boston Calling, and it managed to deliver some of the most fun, carefree, and bizarre moments of the festival — all without ever being an initial destination point for anyone attending the fest.
The one thing that would help turn the chill vibe of Boston Calling into a truly relaxed experience is making the pre-planning process easier. For starters, it’s hard as hell to find the map on their website (surprise, it’s single hyperlink buried in the info section). It’s hard to find the set times on the website, too, for that matter (I never found them, so I resorted to Googling and taking screenshots on Vanyaland). As previously discussed, the lack of details about events like Natalie Portman & Friends left people unsure of what it was they were waiting in line for — or even watching. Sure, a lack of clarity incentivizes wandering around and exploring, which is fun and lends itself an element of discovery. It makes finding something better than if that same thing was given to you directly. And yet I can’t help feeling like it would be fun to just, you know, be able to find set times in advance of the festival with ease.
Overall, though, Boston Calling felt very chill. It didn’t try to overextend itself. The ability to float from one set to the other without getting stuck in a human gridlock felt freeing. Even the excited but within reason sets were welcome as they matched most attendees moods. In an age of festival saturation, there’s something nice about having a stacked lineup that doesn’t feel overwhelming in execution—meaning, there’s no temptation to dart across the festival in a frenzy, trying to see 15 minutes of every performance—because of when and how events were scheduled. Instead, it gives you time to breath. There’s a reason to explore. At no point did you feel a deep sense of FOMO for missing anything, yet could leave each night feeling like you saw something worthwile.
All of this is to say there’s something nice about a festival that ends calmly. As nice as a big finale is, being given the choice to saunter out or lay in the grass watching a headliner like Eminem call women sluts is a welcome choice. The lack of viewing obligations made for an easy-going time. Stronger headliners are always welcome, of course, and for that we’re looking forward to next year. Hopefully the Boston Calling curators figure out who the festival is really for by 2019. At the very least, lets hope 2019 is the year of Boston Calling where we finally, finally, finally don’t get hit with a rainstorm. We can all agree on that, at least.