Humans love to use base ten as a function of assigning milestones- is it because we’ve got ten fingers? As such, the 10th anniversary of any particular event carries some additional weight, earned or not. And here we are at the tenth rendition of Boston Calling. Has it delivered on its promise?
That’s a very difficult question to answer, as it really depends on what you are looking for from a music festival. This edition leaned pretty hard into the hip-hop/electro pop spectrum, enough to turn off the baby boomer/rockist demographic to a significant extent. This isn’t the first time that BC has swung the lineup towards this direction, but given the larger capacity of the Harvard Athletic grounds, it was pretty obvious during Friday that a big chunk of people were missing. Even that night’s headliners Twenty One Pilots questioned their night-closing duties from the stage, amid their dizzying array of a flaming car and impromptu recruitment of stage security guards into the performance. Not that Spotify playcounts are the golden rule for judging the overall pull of any particular band, but some of the bands on the bill were admittedly nearly completely unknown to me and pulling big numbers.
Who knew that Sheck Wes had a song that has 450 million plays and counting? Logic closed the Red Stage but 800 million plays of 1-800-273-8255? News to me… all I know is that I wasn’t included in that total until last week. The best known rock band on the bill (and currently billed as rock’s savior by vast swaths of former WBCN listeners) was Greta Van Fleet, who at only ~50 million plays of “Highway Tune” isn’t really in the same circles. Even the smaller font size artist Mura Masa hit over 200 million listens with “Love$ick,” though guest Charlie XCX didn’t show up to sing her part. Was part of the talent booking just looking at what the kids are currently digging? Or is it a function of the small cabal of powerful agencies and promoters who are creating increasingly homogeneous festival lineups across the nation? It’s hard to say.
Saturday and Sunday were more lively from a ‘let’s dodge the humans while traversing from the red to the blue stage’ and as this is the third edition held at the grounds, the team has dialed in the event to ensure that complaints about lines for food/drink, entry lines to the festival and access to toilets were pretty minimal. The arena was also reworked to fit more people by moving the stage from the center ice line to the far end of the rink, and added musical performances in addition to the comedians, a definite improvement from previous years. Beer and food choices were ramped up (double-fried chicken katsu and a passion fruit sour? Sign me up), and free water stations were definitely welcome, though not a new addition. Overall I didn’t see any fans not having a great time, and the inclusion of the Imogen Heap interactive discussion and Boston Ballet segments were a nice touch, but Boston Calling needs a bit more to differentiate themselves from the pack and make their own mark.
Some random musings:
Is Tame Impala really a big festival headliner? I mean, I guess the answer is yes given their placement here and at Coachella, Primavera Sound and a bunch of other big events. But as they continue their downward slide from interesting guitar-based psychedelia into dance-pop lite, their star keeps ascending. Go figure.
Let’s talk about the substitutions of Janelle Monaé, Black Star and Young Fathers. Every festival has a ton of moving parts and lineup changes are an unfortunate fact of life. Shit happens! But for these artists to pull out brought a lot of angst to ticket buyers after their credit charge had gone through. I don’t know the inside facts, but Black Star tweeted their take. Looking at Monaé’s activity, in April she claimed that a “scheduling conflict” necessitated her pulling out from the event, yet it’s not like her touring schedule was even close to anything near frenetic, and she played two Coachella shows in April and then Primavera a week after Boston Calling. Replacing Monaé was BC alum Scottish electropop trio Chvrches, with front woman Lauren Mayberry demurely claiming that they were not worthy substitutes and wisely skipping their JM cover. What gives? Some mysteries are meant to be taken to the grave.
Shame brought their pasty white English skin into the blazing sunlight and electrified the Blue Stage crowd. Definitely the surprise band of the weekend for me, and while it’s easy to bring a high dose of energy on stage (cf. bass player Josh Finerty who played and/or fought with his instrument like he was wrestling an electrified anaconda, and singer Charlie Steen decided to take a quick ride on the outstretched hands of the crowd), they also brought smart and catchy songs along with them. Check out “One Rizla” if you are curious.
The changes to the Arena Stage was probably best tweak to the event. The reconfiguration meant it could accommodate more people, coming and leaving was unobtrusive to the audience, and the programming of music and dance along with the comedians really broadened the spectrum and offered additional choices to an already stacked pile of options. The only downside was the venue acoustics during certain times, and overall crowd noise during Imogen Heap’s talk/performance made it really difficult to hear what she was saying, especially if you weren’t up close.
The festival undercard featured some pretty inspired performances, specifically the hard to categorize and super versatile Cautious Clay, the retro-90s noise rock of local heros Pile, the exhuberant inclusive message and whipsmart choreography of Christine and the Queens, the studied ennui and methodically languid Mitski, and the layered guitar work of Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, recalling the halcyon days of Aus/NZ guitar rock. Among the headliners, has anyone ever seen Brandi Carlile flash anything less than a thousand watt smile? She’s infectiously happy, and welcomed all the rock and roll fans to the Blue Stage to close out Sunday. Travis Scott was a commanding act to close out, with just a DJ on an elevated riser to leave him plenty of real estate to prowl, jump and stalk as he slashed out sharp rhymes amid cannon blasts of subwoofer shredding bass.
Has there been a more polarizing rock band in the last 18 months than Greta Van Fleet? Can these kids even keep a straight face when they claim there are no Led Zep similarities? Hey can I copy your homework? Sure but change it a little so it looks different. Dad rockers who last bought a CD in 1999 claim them as the quartet that will save music from the onslaught of hip-hop and electronic music, people who think it can’t be music if there’s no guitar. Meanwhile, the naysayers have some pretty funny opinions of their own – skip down to the comment from M&S Lewer. The whole premise is totally ridiculous, from the tossing of white roses out to the crowd as they got onstage, to their stage wear, but I will say this: if you are gonna lean into every rock cliché possible, at least lean into it as hard as possible, and they don’t fail in that regard.
If there was a medal to be handed out over the weekend, Anderson. Paak would be on one the podiums, probably the tallest. He and the Free Nationals put on an electrifying set, from his entrance on a rising pillar while playing drums, surrounded by a full band in sky blue outfits and flames shooting to the sky. He’s taken the lessons of Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Gil-Scott Heron and others to make his own intoxicating brew of soul/R&B/hip-hop/ecstatic jazz. A bit of manufactured hype came midset when last minute special guest Lil Nas X came on to sing his fifteen seconds of fame, but I won’t hold that against Paak. His drumming, singing and command of the band and the stage was remarkable, and if something like “King James” is indicative of where he’s going, I look forward to his next move.
Click on the lead photo of each gallery to see more photos of the event:
Primarily based in Boston, Massachusetts, Tim Bugbee is no stranger to traveling throughout the country or overseas to capture the best live music photos.