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Boston Calling: The Juice Bar of Music Festivals

Electric Forest takes place in a woodland of thousands of years old. Bonnaroo features craftsmen and artisans vending their wares. Coachella is... Coachella. Aspiring to some bohemian or rustic ideal (whether achieved or not), each of these events has its idiosyncratic personality. But Boston Calling is the corporate-sponsored, licensed-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life, capitalist cousin of these festivals. It’s as if it was designed in a boardroom at McKinsey—at the 2019 edition of Boston Calling, everything ran smoothly, but after the music ended, the revelers departed without a single distinctive memory of the festival organization itself.


Fortunately, Boston Calling gets its music right. This year’s cast was studded in gold—the lineup included indie sweethearts Mitski and Tame Impala; hip-hop superstars Travis Scott and Anderson .Paak; the likes of Odesza and King Princess to fill out the in-between; EDM crowd-pleasers like Mura Masa, house music wonder-girl Yaeji… the list goes on. With only a few missteps (looking at you, Twenty One Pilots) the organizers ensured that at pretty much any given moment, there was someone worth seeing, making the festival worthwhile for music lovers of nearly every variety. They even took the probably unnecessary yet thoughtful step of including performances by the Boston Ballet and several stand-up comedians. Advo writers Sean and Jovi took in the sights and sounds of the well-curated weekend.  



DAY 1: First Impressions

Sean: The Festival kicked off Friday, May 24th, which of the three days was the least crowded but perhaps the most diverse in the genres it included and the age groups they attracted. There were twenty-somethings at Mura Masa, thirty-somethings at Lord Huron, and forty-somethings chaperoning their ten-somethings at Twenty One Pilots. My first show was Mura Masa, who brought a fantastic energy to his set and, unlike what seems to be typical of most DJs these days, even played a few instruments. After that, I undertook the twenty-second hike to the directly adjacent stage to watch Lord Huron, who looked exactly like the hipsterish outdoorsy-adjacent man I pictured him to be, expensive cowboy hat and all. His was a set of the “good vibes” variety and one of the few where it felt kosher to roll out a blanket and sit down.


Jovi: Meanwhile, on the largest Green Stage, Christine and the Queens were such a treat to watch. Chris and her incredibly well-practiced crew of dancers managed to fill the performance with their movement and their presence. The occasional pyro was well timed, the spectacle was impeccably rehearsed. In her softer moments, Chris made the occasional French-accented joke, and the audience was with her all the way.


Just after this performance, at the adjacent Red Stage, Greta Van Fleet prepped to go on. I am not, in general, a huge fan of 20-somethings who borrow the classic rock aesthetic of the ‘70s. Greta Van Fleet’s spirited but ultimately uninspired performance reminded me exactly why I am so put off by this brand of mic-shrieking. At his best, lead vocalist Joshua Kiszka can, admittedly, command a crowd with his voice. Yet his best is often buried underneath cringe-worthy lyrics and kitschy melodies that imitate the retro feel of arena rock heroes but contain none of their grit. The crowd around me consisted mainly of older white guys, beer in hand, who have probably all seen better days. Mid-performance, one of them yelled to no one in particular: “Yes! This is real music! Fuck soundcloud rappers! This is real rock-and-roll!” then stumbled up to another guy to congratulate him for his faded Led Zeppelin t-shirt. But of course, Greta Van Fleet is not Led Zeppelin. While the band might adopt the cosmetics of classic rock icons, their repetitive shrieking lacks any of the creativity that makes the greats great.


Sean: Chvrches played later that evening on the Delta Stage, and though they underwhelmed somewhat in my opinion, the crowd was enthused, throwing glow-sticks up like batons and synchronizing handclaps during the choruses. The lead singer supplied the usual gush about how much they loved playing in Boston, and then “Clearest Blue” came on, a revelatory song that had even the Boston sports bros pushing their way to the front to dance out their demons. If you don’t know the song, I would advise putting in your headphones and blasting it immediately.


Toward the end of Chvrches’ set, Twenty One Pilots started on the main stage, which was my cue to get as far away from there as possible. In a festival-saving move, the organizers had scheduled the brilliant Yaeji to play at the same time in the hockey arena, sparing many of us from having to listen to “Blurryface” one more time. Yaeji sang her classic vocals, like whispers turned up to max volume, creating a magnetic effect. She also had an unexpected and infectious energy for a house DJ—I don’t think I saw her stop smiling once. Though the perimeter lights killed the dark anonymity in which club music tends to thrive, it didn’t matter; by the end of her set, Yaeji had turned the entire crowd into believers.


Jovi: Twenty One Pilots. This addition to the lineup was a confusing one. Perhaps it was a money-grabbing move to cater to the angsty pre-teen crowd, a decision which might have been acceptable if the music lived up to the hype. Unfortunately, the reality was more noise than finesse. Yes, it was pretty cool that they had a burning car on stage for most of the act. No, this stunt could not make up for the over-loudness that sounded even worse as I made my disappointed way back home across the river.



DAY 2: The Peak

Sean: Saturday was a perfect day, with perfect weather, by far the most stacked lineup, and the biggest crowd. I kicked off the day with Superorganism, a band who—and I mean this without sarcasm—is the very definition of good vibes. With what seemed like twenty young twenty-year-olds onstage (three of them simply hit tambourines with ribbons attached to them), the act gave an impression of ceaseless moving and bouncing, bringing the crowd along in pursuit of a good time.


Mitski, the critically-acclaimed album-of-the-year darling, came on right after. In my mind Mitski is a true “artiste,” conducting herself with poise and a seriousness that belies her relative youth. Her only props were a white chair and table, but that was all she needed to impress.


Jovi: Mitski was a powerhouse. Our best American girl pranced energetically around a stage with nothing but a table and chair on it, exuding both sex appeal and rebellious energy. Between bouts of energetic prancing, she sometimes struggled to sustain her vocals—but Mitski was with her audience the whole time, almost staring them down. She even played “First Love / Late Spring”!! So good!!


Sean: I then made my way over to the polar opposite of Mitski: Denzel Curry. He was, for lack of a better phrase, dumb lit. Yeet. He does one thing and does it very well: mosh pits. Denzel’s singular goal seems to be to get drunk people to throw their limbs at one another while roaring his raps at the top of their lungs. An endless supply of crushed beer cans and testosterone filled the air as Denzel shouted, “I wanna see y’all motherfuckers go crazy—make a big circle… no, that’s not big enough… my fucking god, y’all know what a circle is? Okay, that’s fine, you’re fine; now get ready. Okay, 3, 2, 1... NOW, MOSH,” before flinging himself off the stage into the crowd.


Jovi: King Princess was charismatic as hell. Her crooning voice on “1950” sounded just like the track—vulnerable, yearning. Sporting a classic nonchalant slouch and a snapback, Mikaela Straus is the lesbian streetwear icon we never knew we needed. As I pushed to the front of the crowd, I began to appreciate just how many pre-20s white lesbians are her die-hard fans. And why not? Sustained, whispy vocals and the occasional guitar riff—King Princess was talent. As proof of her charisma, fanatics’ bras flew toward the stage while she sang.


Sean: I started King Princess's set standing at the back, mostly unaware of who she was, and came out following her profile on Spotify.


Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals were up next, and they got the crowd feeling funky fresh. I saw them once before at Sasquatch music festival, and though I thought he was perhaps a bit more energetic there, that was nothing compared to what happened during his set at Boston Calling. Halfway through his performance, they brought out Lil Nas X to perform “Old Town Road,” and the festival lost it. In a sparkled-up, black-and-white cowboy outfit, Lil Nas X had the crowd screaming in ecstasy. Millions of Instagram stories memorialized the moment. I saw Odesza next, which the organizers put at the same time as Hozier, as if love of EDM and soul music are mutually exclusive. But too many good artists is a good problem to have.


Jovi: Meanwhile, Hozier was unimpressive—he’s got a great voice and when it lands, the effect is chilling. Yet the majority of his performance was subdued—and there are only so many times you can watch a guy wail longingly into the mic. More importantly, it seemed as if the crowd was just waiting for the fella to play “Take Me To Church” before they felt okay leaving.


Sean: Tame Impala was a spectacular closing act. No one else’s visual effects came close—their display coupled with their sound was a psychedelic bliss. The following bits I overheard in the crowd say it all:


“Dude, bro, I would literally marry anyone who asked me to right now.”


“Should I take another tab right now? I think I might!”


“He looks like Jesus. Is he Jesus?”


After they finished their set, a lightning storm kicked up, sending the buckets of confetti that littered the ground twirling into the sky. Watching those pieces of paper tumble and disappear from view, only to be lit up again by the next bolt, was one of those serendipitous moments that can only happen at a music festival.



DAY 3: Finale

Sean: With its lineup heavy on rappers, the final day of the festival attracted the older high school crowd—the type that knows every word to “Sicko Mode” and wears high cut Adidas socks and Supreme t-shirts—and with it, an especially potent smell of weed. I started off my day with Rainbow Kitten Surprise—a blast, complete with a dancing crowd and energetic insertions of rocking guitar licks into almost every song.


Jovi: Here’s a hot tip. If you get a little bit (very) blazed and lie down on the artificial turf facing Delta stage, the energy from RKS actually seeps through the floor and into your body. The mellow evening sun caresses you with its warmth. The reverb cradles you from the ground up. When you finally decide it’s time to see what’s on stage: a mix of psychedelic color. RKS doesn’t let you rest—song after song, lick after lick. You’re just happy to be there, a part of the sound.


Sean: Sheck Wes, by contrast with RKS, was a disappointment. While his visuals complimented the understated gravity of his lyrics (for instance, he projected mugshots of people from his home neighborhood), his sound consisted largely of yelling into the mic without variation, which quickly grew tiring. Besides during “Mo Bamba,” no one moved to his beats.


Next was Logic, whom I’ve come to think of as the favorite artist of people who equate fast rapping with good rapping. He was similarly milquetoast in person. “I represent one thing — what is that thing? Peace, love and positivity,” he announced. Never mind that those are three things.


I left soon after to see Brandi Carlile, a Grammy-nominated folk singer with the voice of an angel. Her style of music isn’t for everyone, but her technical competence and ability to connect with the crowd were obvious. She made the wise decision to pare down the visuals and props and focus solely on her sound. At times, she explained the stories behind her songs, revealing details about her life and her struggles as a mother who is a part of the LGBT+ community. In conclusion, we stan.


       Travis Scott closed the night and the festival, leaving me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the beats and music were fire, but on the other, it was basically just Travis screaming every fifth word over a vocal track which remained virtually unchanged from the recordings. However, when he finally did drop the backing track of himself and sung the words to “Love Galore,” with surprisingly creative autotuning, I found myself swaying along with everyone else.



ALL IN ALL?


        Boston Calling is like the gentrified juice bar that’s recently moved into town yet you’re not super angry about because it tastes just so damn good. There were a lot of highs and lows this year, with one or two boring headliners and more than a few transcendent underdogs. Fortunately, the emphasis was on the latter, and for all their corporate sponsorships, the organizers still know how to pick a good lineup. And in the end, that’s all that really matters. Everyone from the tatted drunk hipster to the soon-to-be influencer teenager to the old parent seemed to be enjoying themselves in the summer sun. Boston was calling and it was a pleasure to answer.