From the moment the autumn Boston Calling Music Festival lineup was announced, I could not contain my excitement. With headlining acts by Lorde, Childish Gambino, The National, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Replacements, and Nas with instrumental accompaniment by The Roots, the festival promised to feature performances by some of the best musicians in the business. A three day semi-annual festival held in City Hall Plaza in Boston, Boston Calling began in the spring of 2013 with a bang. Rave reviews flooded in from countless news sites, and with each installment of the festival, the acts got bigger and the crowds grew thicker. So, you can imagine my absolute ecstasy when my positive application came back for press credentials! It was the event of the year, and I was officially a part of it.
At first, I was skeptical. Boston Calling was still a new name floating around the festival scene, and not many people that I knew had attended. While the names were larger than life, I was worried that the event in itself wouldn’t hold up to the massive hype. My entire perspective changed from the second I set foot inside the festival grounds (which, despite all of my concerns, was incredibly easy. Entry and re-entry- which was permitted- were a breeze!) on the first evening. To my right, atop the wide-spanning steps of the City Hall building, was a fake lawn, lawn chairs included, with countless three-foot towers of Jenga alongside a five-foot game of Connect Four that were being played by scattered groups of concertgoers enjoying the free wifi provided by Xfinity. To my left was a long row of food tents, hosted by local Boston businesses and fast food favorites alike, with delicious options you would never expect to come across at a music festival. Whether you were craving a gourmet sandwich from Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, chicken and fries from The Chicken and Rice Guys, or a fresh burger from Tasty Burger, it was readily available along with twenty-two other vendors. There were booths weaving and selling flower crowns, a couple of street artists creating beautiful murals beside City Hall, local art proudly on display, and water bottle refilling stations for those in need.
Turning around the corner of City Hall, the plaza lay before of me, an enormous, flat, brick area overlooked by the brightly-lit VIP section, which was perched within the City Hall building and led out to a concrete balcony for a beautiful view of the festival grounds, and created an incredible sense of class for those willing to spend the extra money for VIP amenities (which also included five-star catering service and a bar serving the finest brews Boston had to offer). The massive public grounds, which lay right in the center of town underneath the tremendous city skyline, had two stages on adjacent sides, with another lifted VIP bar in between the two, and massive screens on either side projecting the names of the band that was about to play and of each performance. To the right of the jetBlue stage, there was a long Samuel Adams-sponsored bar lined by trees, which had strings of small lightbulbs and red ribbons hanging from the branches, creating a peaceful ambience and providing plenty of seating among the hustle and bustle of the show. There were phone-charging stations as well, which, besides the musicians, were the biggest hit of the weekend. The event planners had truly gone above and beyond and their efforts were clear: the grounds were clean (no smoking or littering!) and spacious, with loads of room for people to walk around and copious amounts of seating for those whose legs grew tired throughout the day, something that is rare in the festival circuit.
The first evening, with gates opening at five o’clock pm, began with a performance by synthpop outfit Future Islands on the jetBlue stage. Their performance was upbeat, with vocalist Samuel T. Herring displaying no lack of energy as he let out grunts and yelps throughout the set, adding a unique element of severity to their music that I hadn’t seen before.
The next band up was Neutral Milk Hotel, who, despite vocalist Jeff Mangum being stricken with a cold, had almost the whole crowd singing and dancing along by mid-set, and took time to pause between songs to communicate with audience members that they pointed out, while encouraging flash photography for fans to get the best shots from the crowd.
The night was closed out by indie rockers The National, who had a beautiful screen backdrop with swirling neon shapes that cast a psychedelic glow on the crowd and had colorful light patterns projected on the front of City Hall, turning the entire plaza into a gorgeous rainbow in the dark. Their performance was strong and included a lot of impressive guitar-swinging, starting a few minutes early and playing straight through until the eleven o’clock curfew.
Saturday’s festivities began at 1 o’clock pm, directly beneath the unpredictable 90-degree Massachusetts heat. Samuel Adams hosted stein-hoisting competitions and gave out Octoberfest hats in true Boston fashion. The sun was glaring, and local talents St. Nothing and Clifflight both opened the show with great performances. Pianist/singer S. Carey provided symphonic ballads mid-afternoon as lingering fans drifted through the front gates in packs, and the crowds started to build.
Sky Ferreira took the stage to the largest crowd of the afternoon, belting her heart out to her biggest hits and pleasantly surprising those who didn’t expect to see a model and her band headbanging with no inhibition. Her strong vocals carried throughout the growing crowds and her haunting melodies sent shivers down everyone’s spines.
She was closely followed by Bleachers, the indie-pop brainchild of Fun.’s Jack Antonoff, in their first Boston show. Jack bounded through clouds of smoke and light and mirror accents, raising his guitar and allowing the crowd to shout the lyrics back to him as often as he sang them, even jumping up onto the barricade and intimately singing with some lucky fans.
After that was The Hold Steady, who danced and rocked onstage as well as a band half their age. Vocalist Craig Finn was unstoppable, waving his arms around erratically to the music while photos of the band and their logo flashed behind them onscreen.
The festival was in full gear: next up was Volcano Choir, and then Girl Talk. The winds were picking up, but the heat was just as strong. Festival-goers prepared themselves for five more hours of awesome music and gorgeous light shows amidst the buzz of the city streets.
Suddenly, a man named Bill took the mic. “Folks, I have something important to say, listen up!” he yelled a few times, finally grabbing the full attention of the crowds. “The National Weather Association has told us that we have a severe tornado warning.” He pointed to a black mass of clouds swiftly moving across the sky. “We have been told to have a mandatory evacuation. Please find somewhere to go; a restaurant, your cars, just not City Hall. We will be moving most of you to a parking garage down the street to await further updates on the state of the festival. Hold in there!” Thousands of people were suddenly loose in the streets of the city, some having taken full advantage of the alcoholic amenities. I hopped on a bus as the rain started and rode to where I had parked my car in the South Shore. Here, I waited out the storm and kept myself updated on Twitter with what was going on. I watched as huge bolts of lightning lit up the whole street and listened to the deep rumble of the thunder as rain poured overhead. One of the stages was being torn apart by wind back at the venue. It looked like all hope was lost by the time eight o’clock came around.
At half past eight, the Boston Calling officials announced that the stage had been repaired and the equipment was safe, so the gates were reopened, with Volcano Choir and Girl Talk canceling their sets due to the lost time. We all scrambled back to catch Lorde at nine o’clock. The New Zealand-born pop queen came out in a sea of smoke and sharp spotlights. The crowd erupted in cheers for her, the bass immediately picked up and everyone in the audience went wild. She danced in aquamarine floodlights and tossed her signature mane in front of golden backlighting. She shed a few tears thanking the fans profusely for waiting through the storm for her, stating how touched she was that she was able to play for such dedicated people in the middle of their capital city. Before performing her hit “Royals”, she ducked backstage and reappeared in a flowing red cape and solid gold Meadowlark crown, creating the most regal of imagery to accompany the Grammy-winning single.
Immediately after she had finished her set, rapper Childish Gambino kicked off an incredible performance, leaping and sprinting from each side of the stage, beaming widely between verses. His backdrop included intricate symbolism, and changed in scenery according to a certain song or verse. The bass shook the whole city to its core, the bricks of the plaza rumbling beneath your feet, and a spinning light show illuminated City Hall through the night once again.
The final day began at one o’clock pm again, but due to an incredibly long, and incredibly vibrant, and yet incredibly confusing street parade happening right outside of the city, I couldn’t make it to the venue until five, missing opening acts Gentleman Hall, San Fermin, White Denim, The War on Drugs, and Lake Street Dive. I arrived to catch Twenty One Pilots, who had drum kits up on eight foot risers that the vocalist, Tyler Joseph, leapt from. Held up by a flat, sturdy surface, drummer Josh Dun crowd surfed with his entire drum kit, supported by screaming fans.
The screaming didn’t stop, either, because next up was The 1975, who wooed the (mostly female) crowd with a nonchalant performance and attitude, with spontaneous moments of musical fury and hair-flipping sprinkled in for good measure between sips of hard liquor.
Spoon followed up next with hazy blue lights and excited guitarists, while vocalist/guitarist Britt Daniels crooned hit after hit from their twenty-year career center stage, and lend his hand to keyboardist Eric Harvey for a brief duet.
Headliners The Replacements performed for the first time in Boston since 1991, and gave off strong old-school punk vibes while rocking out to their own hits and performing a variety of covers, as they are known to do. Despite their infamous drunken Saturday Night Live performance in the 1970’s, at Boston Calling they stayed true to the music and you could almost see the sheer electricity and exuberance radiating off of each member.
The festival ended with a stellar collaboration between rapper Nas, who opened the set with a few songs from his album Illmatic in honor of its twenty year anniversary, and the hip hop band The Roots. While Nas began solo, the set gave way halfway through to a wonderful meeting of the minds; The Roots playing their soulful beats while Nas spit verses left and right.
The lights illuminated off of City Hall and throughout the whole city. And with one final bow and group hug, the musicians left the stage and the crowds filtered down to a few solitary pedestrians. Boston Calling was over.
While I was initially wary as to what to expect from a fledgling festival in the center of town, Boston Calling surpassed every expectation I ever had for musical events. Festival organizers had an incredible eye for detail, making everything from the bars to the VIP area, to the food perfect, and totally Boston. The performances were mind-blowing, and the stages and lights were immaculately designed. Here’s hoping Boston Calling is here for years to come, because it is the most riveting, upstanding thing that Boston has produced in a long, long time.
See more photos from Boston Calling Music Festival here.