It feels wrong to say this year of Boston Calling is more authentic than past editions, but there’s something noticeably different about it this year’s festival that borders on exactly that. The artists that have been performing so far are giving a more honest, emotional, and transparent look into their lives. Of course, who’s to say what’s real and what’s a facade when it comes to music. Yet the way in which artists are handling themselves this year draws a very clear line in the sand: artists who perform earnestly, not necessarily by being emotional, have a powerful effect on those watching them live.
Saturday saw a slew of high-energy acts deliver rock to the masses. There was the garage psych mania of Thee Oh Sees, the sports-adopted hits of Jack White, the British appeal of duo Royal Blood, and even the eager excitement of the recently reunited Boston band Belly. But what separated enjoyable sets from memorable ones was the way in which an artist told their stories. The songs didn’t have to have a real cinematic arc or a devastating backstory. They just needed to be delivered with an earnest, emotional tone. Compare a set like St. Vincent, which was rife with semi-grotesque imagery and stoic onstage stances, to that of Manchester Orchestra, a set simple in presence but powerful in execution. Of course, St. Vincent’s set was enjoyable, unexpected, and talent-ridden in reexamining how their newest album, Masseduction, could sound as a full-band effort. Instead of performing exclusively from their new album, Manchester Orchestra organized a setlist that played into their heaviest moments, using songs off Mean Everything to Nothing that shake with fear and trepidation. Each thundering stack of guitars felt like the band warning us of a storm on the horizon. Though the majority of the alt-rock group’s members are at a point of content and stability in their lives, the set felt full of desperation and sadness, the type that feels frantic in its hopelessness but eager to push on anyway. Under the blazing sunlight of a midday hour, Manchester Orchestra offered a dark set that felt gripping and dramatic despite never playing into dramatics.
The real turn in emotional delivery came from the hip-hop acts scheduled for Saturday. Early on in the day, New York rapper Leikeli47 was a burst of relentless, optimistic fun. The notoriously masked rapper who hides behind a bandana for all of her performances has a generally combative look. It’s a vibe saying she’s protecting herself from the world while also suggesting you don’t deserve to know the real her. Yesterday, she topped off that visual vibe by sporting a head-to-toe camouflage bodysuit. But immediately upon taking the stage, Leikeli47 radiated nothing but open positivity. Oftentimes, rap performances hinge on the narrative of a person’s unjust struggle and the actions they took to overcome it. Instead of playing into that, Leikeli47 gave her songs a spin by putting them in everyday context: overcoming heartbreak, learning to love yourself, having a bad day. Simple in word count but intense in delivery, her songs rocketed out through the speakers like a jolt of espresso intent on waking you up before the sunshine burned you out. And as she rapped her way through an uplifting and memorable set, she intentionally injected her performance—and, really, what felt like herself separate from the music—with a type of genuine honesty, as if she believed every word she was preaching. So when she bookended original songs with a miniature karaoke session to songs like “Killing Me Softly,” the crowd joined in, starting the day off with a lesson in unending resilience and a reminder of how communal joy benefits everybody.
On the opposite end of that spectrum is Tyler, the Creator. With a successful solo career after the dissolve of rap collective Odd Future, Tyler has been strengthening his fandom one record at a time despite an erratic path in terms of content, opinion, and delivery. Seeing him switch from shock factor one-liners to self-aware singles has been a welcome surprise over the years. Any doubt people had of his authenticity now that he puts his heart on his sleeve should have been put to rest after last night. There, he showed the strength of material that rears a brutally honest emotionalism. Picking songs mostly from Flower Boy, Tyler squeezed 17 songs into his performance and turned it into a proper story thanks to a gorgeous set design. Atop a hill-like structure, he whirled around the platform onto which images of fields and trees were projected. Behind him, scenes of blue skies or intense lightening flashed. It sounds cheesy, but the nature-driven set paired with songs about kissing boys as a preteen and falling in love made it impossible not to root for Tyler, or, in the case of numerous fans, not to relate to him at large. Seeing a modern day rap icon do a special shout out to LGBTQ kids in the crowd without turning it into an ordeal feels like a welcome support system. He turned his set, and in turn the entire area, into a safe place for outliers and the emotionally tangled, no matter how often he guards those sentiments with abrasive swears or graphic language.
The most striking (and depressing) instance of emotional transparency came from rising Los Angeles rap collective BROCKHAMPTON. The self-proclaimed “boyband” took the stage one by one, sporting what seemed to be bullet-proof vests emblazoned with neon words like “Wakanda,” “faggot,” and “fiend.” As to be expected, the crowd swelled in size and eager fans pushed forward, rapping along to songs about self-love and struggles. They worked their way through “SUMMER,” “BOOGIE,” and “ZIPPER” up top, a three-song punch that energized the crowd and delivered on their anticipation. The set felt like a sensation at the start, and in reality it would become one by its end.
BROCKHAMPTON’s Boston Calling set was their first performance without core member Ameer Vann. Earlier this month, Vann was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, ranging from “abusing women” to having sexual relations with a minor. Building up to the performance, BROCKHAMPTON had not issued a formal statement. Instead, Vann took to Twitter to state he “never criminally harmed anyone or disrespected their boundaries.” Fellow member Kevin Abstract addressed the allegations by saying the group may delay their next album. It seemed like a strangely slow and misguided response to the claims, especially in an era where allegations carry dire and immediate weight. So when BROCKHAMPTON performed at the festival, it became increasingly evident that the absence of Vann may be a long-term thing. Every member stood in place, silent, during the verses Vann would normally rap during their songs. The members began hugging one another. Multiple began to cry. It was an emotional performance for members and fans alike, aware of what the struggle was and what would come of it. Come Sunday morning, BROCKHAMPTON finally issued a proper statement: “Ameer is no longer in BROCKHAMPTON,” it reads. “We are going to cancel the remaining dates of our current US tour to go home and regroup.”
For those that needed a break from straightforward emotional performances, there was the special, art-bent film curation by Natalie Portman in the Arena. As part of her film event on festival grounds, Portman organized a special three-day series billed as “Natalie Portman & Friends.” On her Instagram, Portman elaborated on what attendees could expect: “Excited to show you the special arena programming we’ve been working on – experimenting with elements of music, film, monologue and poetry.” Vague, but intriguing nonetheless, especially due to surprise celebrity appeal.
Whereas Friday saw Clarice Jensen and ACME perform an original string composition to score the first ever Surrealist film, The Seashell and the Clergyman by Germaine Dulac, which was projected behind them, Saturday brought out the big names for back-to-back projects. Portman welcomed Annie Clark from St. Vincent to the stage to perform an original composition to soundtrack a short, silent, black-and-white film from the 1930s. After turning to the sound board and calling out, “Maestro?” Clark began singing open-ended notes to a harsh and eerie guitar-driven piece filtered through all sorts of electronic effects. When the short film ended, Portman returned to read several plays onstage while footage of Malcolm X screened above her. Then, Leikeli47 was welcomed to the stage, backed by her dancers, to perform her uptempo hip-hop tracks to more vintage silent films. It was a powerful punch of female-driven artwork and racial commentary, each carefully chosen and rehearsed specifically for this event.
But no matter who took the stage, about five minutes into their performance, audience members began shuffling around, leaving their seats to go catch a show or turning around to talk with friends about what was happening onstage, confused. The shape and structure of the Arena—technically Harvard’s hockey arena, an enclosed, thick-walled, spacious room—dramatized the noise those people generated, giving the effect that everyone was talking over the miniature art performances. This is the first year the festival has arranged this type of film program, so naturally there are kinks to be worked out. It was hard to hear the name of the films being screened or who directed them. No pamphlets were handed out with information, no details shared on Boston Calling’s social media, and no titles projected on the film screen or printed on poster board. So much work went into the film curation, and yet some of the most key details were left fuzzy and under-highlighted, leaving onlookers oblivious to the overarching takeaways of the work.
The most common issue seemed to stem from a lack of transparency about what the events would detail. It’s tempting to believe that had Portman and the festival taken a move from the aforementioned artists’ playbooks and explained themselves clearly, the events would have been highly anticipated and coveted to see. Attendees would know what it is they’re waiting in line to watch. If the event were billed as a silent film screening or dramatic reading of plays, chances are the people who wandered into the Arena curious about what it would be like wouldn’t feel as shafted — or as likely to leave mid-performance. It’s worth considering for the next year. Because if there was one thing Saturday made clear, it’s that honesty, both in music and in conversation, go a long way for making an impact on the audiences who paid to be there.
Read our recap of Boston Calling Day 1 here.