Beyond the Gates: In an era where we’re getting used to seeing bands launch their own festivals and bigger events cancel out of the blue, Boston Calling feels like the anomalous success story. All told, it’s still a young event, only reaching full “Big Four” contention when it switched locations to the Harvard Athletic Complex last year. Coming into their sixth year/ninth incarnation, the fest’s momentum was clear. They announced one of the strongest lineups of the season, spread their reach deeper into the city with additional features like Natalie Portman’s three-day film festival at the iconic Brattle Theater, and created new, sponsored activations with bigwigs like IKEA.
But getting bigger is one thing; accomplishing it successfully is another. The move to Harvard in 2017 wasn’t a flawless one, and there were kinks that needed addressing. The demise of FYF proved that a solid music lineup does not a festival make, so how else was BC going to stand out? And would it still feel like Boston, even as fewer up-and-coming local bands graced the stages? Boston Calling has carved out an impressive reputation in a relatively short time; this year, they had to prove it wasn’t going to their heads while continuing to justify the praise. –Ben Kaye
Best Bites: The key to successful festival feasting options is a lineup as diverse as the music bill, and Boston Calling delivered on both fronts. Name one other North American fest where you can get perogies and freshly shucked oysters. Standing out among all the delicacies are the fresh rice and grain bowls at Whole Heart Provisions. Finding truly tasty, healthy veggie options in a sea of fried foods isn’t always the easiest task, but local eatery Whole Heart brings fresh, super tasty, good-for-you greens to the BC experience. With large portions and the best damn seared avocado you’ll ever taste (totally worth the $5 add-on), these bowls were a great way to fill up and fuel up. –Ben Kaye
Best of the Tiny Fonts: If there’s one thing Boston Calling has always been good at, it’s picking tiny fonts that actually matter. Friday saw the day begin with the sugar-coated energy of Charly Bliss, a band who set the tone off right for the festival: spirited, easygoing, and full of optimism. Instrumental rock fusion band Tauk livened Saturday up with an unlikely sound, injecting a bit of funk and heavy ambiance to the festival.
But the best early grab was Leikeli47, a New York rapper who has been quietly slaying the rap game despite a lack of major press coverage. On the surface, it’s the masked anonymity and punctuated flow that make her allure unending. She broke out a sing-along to “Killing Me Softly”, emphasized the bass-heavy beats on original numbers “Miss Me” and “Money”, and let her backup dancers flaunt theatrical moves that gave the feeling of a play performance.
Above all else, the biggest skill Leikeli47 brings is a genuine positivity in her work, starting the day off right so that every hyper-enunciated word and between-song banter created a vibe that would last all day. –Nina Corcoran
Festival Fashionista: Forget flower crowns; Boston Calling 2018 was all about bowler hats and bow ties. Old-timey dapper duds could be seen throughout the first two days, like this fine gent who happily obliged as Belly sang, “So take your hat off boy/ When you’re talking to me.” Maybe it’s because the fest’s Boston Terrier mascot is dressed the same way, but this dude fit right in. –Ben Kaye
Phones Up: BROCKHAMPTON were going to be the most filmed set of Boston Calling anyway. It just so happened that their performance marked much more than what they, the crowd, or the festival anticipated. Founded in 2015 by artist Kevin Abstract after meeting on a Kanye West forum, the rap collective has quickly risen in fame as a self-declared “boyband” sensation, forming a massive fanbase that obsesses over their self-sufficient and relentless output. That was until two weeks ago when several women accused Ameer Vann of sexual misconduct, alleging he was “mentally abusive” and had engaged in relations with a minor. Vann immediately refuted the claims on Twitter. Over a week later, Abstract defended his bandmate but said BROCKHAMPTON’s new album would be delayed.
At Boston Calling, BROCKHAMPTON came onstage one by one, dawning their signature Kevlar vests emblazoned with words like “faggot” and “Jay,” except for Vann. The group began rapping their way through the set. During Vann’s parts, they stood still, letting the beat play out without his contributions as a quiet but powerful statement that Vann likely wouldn’t be in the band anymore. Slowly, BROCKHAMPTON began to crack. By the time they reached “Bleach”, their second-to-last song, Joba began crying and Dom McLennon gave him a hug. Abstract covered his face, seemingly torn as well.
The whole thing was exaggerated by the fact that fans continued to sing along in his absence. That was until the following morning when BROCKHAMPTON released a statement that Vann would no longer be in the band and the remainder of their US tour dates were cancelled. Genuine breakdown or intentionally timed press stunt? Who’s to say, but the emotional collapse of BROCKHAMPTON’s set felt like a surprise guest appearance because of the very lack of one. –Nina Corcoran
Pod Save the Festival: Podcasts are the next wave of comedy entertainment, and that was felt in a big way with both Lovett or Leave It and Pod Save America taking over the Arena Stage. The Pod Save crew (including Mass. natives Jon Favreau and Tommy Vietor) took shots at Harvard’s legacy (Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Mike Pompeo, and more are alums), answered questions from the crowd, played some “Ok, Stop”, and generally entertained while addressing our current exasperating political environment. Boston is a pretty politically-minded city, making these particular casts a great fit as diversions from the standard festival fare as well as a nice reprieve from the heat. –Ben Kaye
Don’t Believe the Hype: Hype is a finicky thing, and Internet hype is even moreso. Maggie Rogers rose to fame quickly after a video went viral of Pharrell Williams reacting positively to her song “Alaska” in a New York University masterclass, and she scored a sizable time slot on Friday because of it. It’s easy to root for her: a 24-year-old student who blends downtempo electronic loops and soaring falsettos like a chill Sylvan Esso, all earnestness and openness. But on the live stage, Rogers has a lot to learn.
Though she has technically wrote and released two albums already, one in 2012 and another in 2014, her success rides on the release of one EP and the Rostam-produced single “Fallingwater” — both of which sound pretty, but never really go anywhere. On the live stage, it’s impossible to avoid. Backed by multiple other singers and a live band, Rogers darted across the stage, doing her best to keep people engaged.
For a few songs, they were. But when each song came to its conclusion without much, if any, build-up, listeners — a handful of whom didn’t shy away from asking fellow audience members who she was or why she was performing so late in the day — were confused what it was they were waiting for. –Nina Corcoran
Alternative Entertainment: Booking ubiquity means festivals aren’t just about the music anymore. Boston Calling has been trying to stay ahead of the curve since moving to Harvard, and this year they went big with unique experiences. Natalie Portman finally got to hold her film festival in the days leading up to the main event, where she welcomed guest performers into the Arena to live-score female-directed short films.
The artsiness of St. Vincent slow-screeching and scratching her mic while 1933’s Verdict Not Guilty played or Portman’s spoken-word performance may not have been “cool,” but they were daring and different. For more “pure” entertainment, Leikeli47 kicked things up a notch with performances of “Attitude” and “Money” over a number of shorts.
Watching Portman read an unrelated play while 1930’s Hellbound Train screened may have confused many, but at least they got to see it, and that’s not something you’re going to get anywhere else. –Ben Kaye
That One Performance: Paramore have been redefining themselves ever since they formed in 2004. They burst onto the scene with their self-released debut as an emo-bent punk act, wiggled their way onto the radio with pop punk staple Riot!, tried their hand at melodic rock with Brand New Eyes, and embraced polished pop on Paramore. It was last year’s After Laughter, though, that showed casual listeners that Paramore are higher caliber songwriters than they’re often credited as. Nowhere was that more apparent than onstage at Boston Calling.
A year out from the release of After Laughter, Paramore have perfected the delivery of their new, studio-polished songs in a live setting and mastered the art of making those songs feel at home beside older, more guitar-driven numbers. A song like “Hard Times” fit beside the punctuated anger of “Ignorance” or cheery tone of “Still into You”. Anyone who went into Paramore’s set thinking they had outgrown the band or, perhaps even worse, never given them a chance, was flooded with consistently catchy material that lyrically addresses common, difficult, and complex situations.
The one thing that’s remained consistent throughout Paramore’s career is the emotionally transparent power of frontwoman Hayley Williams. Externally, she defined the set by flinging herself around the stage with enigmatic dance moves or sitting down on its edge to talk face-to-face with the audience. But it’s the way in which she sings that feels addicting with its integrity. Williams has noticeably worked at strengthening her voice, and hearing it tear through high falsettos (“Caught in the Middle”) or manic breakdowns (“Idle Worship”) made it feel like you were watching a tour-de-force in action.
Williams, guitarist Taylor York, drummer Zac Farro, and the rest of their live band delivered a nonstop flood of high energy during their Boston Calling set without ever taking themselves too seriously in the process. So when they took subtle risks, like refraining from playing “Misery Business” or letting Halfnoise, Farro’s synthpop side-project, play a song mid-set, it felt like Paramore had found a way to do whatever they wanted while still doing everything you could have hoped for. –Nina Corcoran
Why Can’t We Be Friends?: Guest appearances were slim — Natalie Portman introduced The National, if that counts, and they did bring out Maggie Rogers for “I Need My Girl”, but there wasn’t much else. Even though it’s their shtick, The Killers had the best guest by default when they brought a local guy named Nick up to play drums during “For Reasons Unknown”. Nick did admirably, though his most baller moment was holding up his fingers in a knowing four when Brandon Flowers said, “These people paid good money to be here, we gotta give ’em what they want,” before dropping that four-on-the-floor beat. –Ben Kaye
Why Not Both? Coachella tried to prove rock is dead and rap has risen, but Boston Calling proved both are alive and well. Manchester Orchestra offered the most genuine proof of why guitar-based rock is thriving, and they weren’t even trying to. Now in their 14th year as a band, the Georgia rock act have evolved from an indie rock obscurity into a radio hit act. Onstage, they touched on all five albums by keeping everything centered around heavy riffs and the massive, scratchy yell of frontman Andy Hull. Their stage presence was bare, their banter little, but they owned the main stage space with an undeniably knotted and captivating catalog.
Elsewhere, Portugal. the Man showed off the catchy side of rock, playing into their jam-band tendencies while giving the audience a good laugh with a handful of covers (Metallica! Pink Floyd! T. Rex!). The crowd continued to swell for Thee Oh Sees, unfamiliar onlookers coming closer to watch the sheer stamina of the band propel forward.
Yet the appeal of rap never faltered either. Tyler, the Creator gave a mesmerizing set atop a man-made hill onstage, onto which flowers, trees, and fields were projected. His embrace of the LGBTQ community and other traditionally ostracized fans of rap reformed his notoriously offensive one-liners into welcome messages of truth. Cousin Stizz preached the importance of hometown strength while flexing his rap skills. Even Noname, who has been doing the festival circuit fairly well, stepped up her game, bringing a brighter confidence to the stage with a side of humor as well. –Nina Corcoran
Chained to the Rhythm: BC doesn’t have a strong reputation for dance music; the lone DJ this year, Mike D, was only added as a replacement for Bryson Tiller. For those looking to get sweaty from body-moving and not just the heat, there was the new IKEA Food and Music Labs. Inside, you could chow down on the Swedish furniture company’s new veggie dog (ain’t that a sentence?), get some rest on rope hammocks, and most importantly, dance to your heart’s desire while a number of constantly rotating DJs hit the decks. Leave it to the folks behind the Arkelstorp to come up with a festival activation in which you can both get off your feet and get down. –Ben Kaye
Conclusion: In its ninth festival and second edition at the new Harvard Athletic Complex location, Boston Calling is closer than ever to understanding what type of festival it wants to be. But in the meantime, at least they know they want to be chill. The overall vibe of this year’s festival was low-key, an appealing lineup that was unhurried in execution. In an age of middling lineups and underwhelming festivals, Boston Calling felt like a welcome retreat in that it didn’t give you festival burnout while still offering festivalgoers a stacked experience, be it onstage with its musical artists or holed up in the comedy, film, and podcast offerings of the Arena.
Curators have found a way to cater to different music fans without segregating genres on a day-by-day schedule. The mix of rock, rap, electronica, folk, and more are what gives Boston Calling a leg up on its competitors, and the easygoing nature of the festival ground structure and its staff secures a simple time for attendees. While there are things the festival could improve on, like reviving the focus on local acts to start the day or updating a poorly laid-out website, this year lived up to its promise while reminding attendees that a festival is worth your money, especially when the option of showing up late or dipping out early on the final day isn’t even tempting. –Nina Corcoran