In its inaugural kickoff at Harvard’s Athletic Complex, Boston Calling has gone from Boston’s best known little festival to a massive event. This year’s festivities took on a new life and a totally new vibe due to the location switch—which is what we’ll be focusing on for the majority of the review. Because come on, you already know the music is amazing. You’ve seen the lineup. But more on that later.
The walk from Harvard Sq to the festival grounds (about 15 min to actually get inside) isn’t bad, but it is a little slow with the swarms of attendees coming off the red line and scurrying down the sidewalks. But what do you expect, when the festival pulled in an estimated 40,000 attendees? Nearly double what it’s done in previous years. This is of course where many of the complaints centered around long wait times came in. I was fortunate not to suffer through those, thanks to my media band, however having seen many of the lines first hand I can certainly sympathize.
Still, you have to hand it to the festival for always listening to their audience and working to improve. I noticed on Saturday that once inside a volunteer asked me how long I waited, and then apologized that it took as long as it did (10 minutes). Honestly, 10 minutes wasn’t anything to be sorry about when they’re welcoming in so many people, so I appreciated the gesture and that they were making an honest effort to improve.
Inside the Festival
As I made my way through those Bonnaroo-esq inflatable gates that read “You Are Our People” (a nice touch), it’s instantly clear that this isn’t the same Boston Calling that I’ve attended in previous years. The vibe is very different—with 10 more acres to play with, the festival is much more spread out, easily housing tens of thousands more attendees than previous years, many of whom were lounged out on the turf, and whose trash spilled onto Harvard’s once pristine athletic fields. I appreciate that there’s space to lay and hang out, as this was something I really missed when it was in the center of the city, but I wonder if designated areas might have been better than the entire grounds. The closer you got to the action, the more it became a kind of Human Frogger to get around everyone.
This combination of tens of thousands of people flowing to and from, laying on the turf, and waiting in line, made it oftentimes impossible to move freely or briskly. I expect that a festival of this size be crowded, and at times slow-moving, and from a business standpoint I understand wanting to sell as many tickets as possible, but at best it was horribly inconvenient, and at worst, I have to imagine in an emergency of any kind you’re going to be in trouble.
Comparing to previous years
I don’t like to compare, but with Boston Calling making such a leap with a new location, double the artists and space, and a whole new look and vibe, it’s sort of impossible not to. The space itself has a much more generic festival feel than in years past. With the festival in City Hall Plaza, it was impossible to forget where you were. Watching your favorite band play and having Boston as the backdrop was something incredibly special, and is easily the thing I miss most.
Then there’s the issue of performance intimacy. With the old space being much smaller, there was a much more intimate feel to each performance. Even if you were in the far back of the crowd, it still felt like you were pretty close. The whole thing had very community, “we’re in this together” kind of vibe that I loved.
The new space, while accommodating tens of thousands more and perhaps far more practical from a business standpoint, takes away what was for me, a much-loved element of local pride, flavor, and community. It’s what made Boston Calling so special. So Boston.
There are more artsy additions to this year’s festival, including a graffitied mini-Bunker Hill, that is, I assume meant to tell folks “hey, we are still Boston Calling after all!”, as well as plenty of funky installations with performing artist’s lyrics on them, and of course the ferris wheel. Still, the space feels very empty. There’s a certain something missing, that I can only chalk up to that intimacy mentioned before. The installations are fun, but they’re scarce, and the non-food vendors seemed to be almost lost in the crowd. I actually didn’t realize that many from previous years (the screen printed banners, the photo booth, etc) were there until halfway through my first day.
So the vibe is different, and I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if that’s their personal preference or not, but when you get to the crux of the festival it’s all about the music, and this year, the comedy. With the addition of a full on comedy building (which is massive by the way!) it adds a little diversity for something to do in between sets, and for that it’s brilliant. I loved having the option to duck out of the sun or the wind and experience something totally different.
This year’s lineup was perhaps the festival’s most ambitious, and it didn’t disappoint. With headliners like Tool, Mumford and Sons, Chance the Rapper, Bon Iver, The 1975, and of course, Weezer, it was a seriously stacked lineup, and there was something for everyone.
Each artist I saw was giving it their absolute all, and the crowd was loving it. There’s just no denying that when it comes down to it, the music is what matters, and one of my favorite things about Boston Calling is that since day one it’s been a place to discover new music. The first time I fell in love with Marina and the Diamonds was on the Boston Calling stages, in their very first installment, and it’s never left me. That is what I love so much about this festival. They do an incredible job at mixing local talent with emerging non-Boston acts, and throwing in heavy hitting headliners to pull people in. It’s a brilliant strategy, and one that this year led me to discover Oh Wonder, who put on an incredible performance Saturday.
The overlapping set times have been touched on enough by other outlets, so I won’t harp on that, but it’s true that there were some instances where that was pretty inconvenient. With such a large lineup, it is to be expected, but there were some instances that it became more of a problem than others. For instance, The XX and The 1975 are similar enough that you have to assume they have an overlapping audience, and having to choose between the two is kind of a bummer.
So, overall, the festival has a new face, and it’s going to be up to each individual attendee to decide if that’s their vibe or not. There’s no denying that this isn’t the same Boston Calling that we’ve had since 2013, but for some, that might be preferable. And sure, there were some hiccups, but considering how massive a change they’ve undergone this year, I’d say that’s to be expected. One thing I’ve always appreciated about the festival is that they listen to their audience, take it all in, and then move forward accordingly.
In the end, if it really is all about the music (and let’s be honest, it is), Boston Calling delivered, and they delivered with flying colors. Do I personally long for the days of City Hall Plaza or at least, a smaller, more manageable and central space? Yes. But I also appreciate and admire the growth of the festival and have no doubt that with a little tweaking and creativity, they’ll continue to make each year their best, and put Boston on the map with what has been, and remains, one of my favorite festivals to attend.
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