The dry heat makes the grass yellow outside the Harvard athletic complex, but the AstroTurf remains green for Boston Calling. As Boston’s festival goers descend upon the complex, the smell of fried food, sweat, and just a whiff of the ganja permeates the air. But why do people come to music festivals? For the star-studded line up or for those strange moments of community found in the ever-pushing crowd? For the Insta/snap story or for the time with friends? For the likes or for what they like? And perhaps more importantly, what makes music festivals special? Are they like a lunch buffet special that is only appealing in combining everything for one, reasonable package-price? Or is a music festival greater than the sum of its events?
On Friday afternoon, Noname performed on the green stage. In her set, she was visibly intoxicated, apologizing many times for her drunkenness. Yet her set was one of the true highlights of the festival, as it offered an uncommon portrait of an artist. Everything that was lost to slurred speech was more than made up for in seeing the artist as the artist is not often seen. As Noname performed fan favorites such as, “Diddy Bop” and “Shadow Man,” the audience got to hear them as they had not heard them before, drunkenly slurred in the most endearing of ways. While many were sure to ‘story’ the moment on their various apps, it is the indelible memory of the drunken Noname that will remain in my mind. It is at this point that I would like to give a special mention to Noname’s band, who did an absolute bang-up job of keeping up with her intoxication and managing to match her meandering vocals throughout the turbulent set.
Portugal. The Man was next on the red stage and brought many questions with their performance. While they performed their hits, and surely pleased the crowd, their on-screen visuals brought to question the very nature of the quintessential festival performance. While the typical festival headliner will offer platitudes in favor of the host city, “I love Boston” and the like, Portugal. The Man performed their entire set without once properly addressing the audience. In lieu of in-person engagement, their set featured giant text laid over colorful graphics. The text divorced the band from the audience by doing their job for them. One particularly memorable message ran, “We love you, [Insert city name here].” This was one of many moments which lead me to question the nature of festivals themselves. Do they exist for convenience sake, merely the amalgamation of several shows, or is a festival more than the sum of its concerts?
During Saturday’s headlining performance by The Killers, another such unique moment struck. Near halfway through their set, The Killers’ drummer, Ronnie Vanucci Jr. was tired. So tired was he, that a member of the audience was invited on-stage to take over for the next song. Nick, as our savior was known, killed it. He even did a drum solo. It was a powerful thing to see the entire audience of thousands hold their collective breath in anticipation of some teenager of whom they did not know five minutes prior. As Nick hit those drums, every member of the audience felt closer to The Killers. For that one song, one of us was one of them, and we were all one thing together.
The degree of separation between audience and artist is a difficult thing to analyze. While many media-consumers feel closer than ever to their musical idols through official snapchat and Instagram stories, the increasingly “Truman Show”-esque fascination with which fans look into musicians’ lives can have the effect of separating audiences and artists even further. In a world of increasing participation in social media, it is easy to view festivals as vapid searches for likes, views, and general clout. Festivals can be a place to be seen as much as to see. Yet at the same time, it is through festivals that many people are attempting to close the distance between those artists that inspire them and themselves. At Boston Calling, we saw artists debut new material, perform drunk, and ultimately engage with their fans in novel ways. These are often unique aspects of festival performances and can be difficult to replicate on solo tours. While modern music festivals can seem like maddening searches to see and be seen, they can be so much more. The modern music festival has the power to bring together audience and artist, fan and figure. The modern music festival is more than the sum of its sets.