Walking into new music festivals can be scary. It can also be adventurous. In the case of Boston Calling, it was a combination of the two. Traveling from the “Harvard of the West” (the University) to the actual Harvard, I packed up my bags and prepared to survive a few days in foreign territory.
After surviving a rather rough “Emo Night” at the Sinclair in Cambridge the night before (I literally almost lost my voice when "Came Out Swinging" came on), I made my way to Harvard’s Athletic Complex around midday on Friday to see Vundabar open the festival.
My friends and I made our way to some barricade spots as fans sprinted into the festival to join the crowd. It was quite a culture shock to see Vundabar — who I recently saw perform in the basement of local DIY space, Lincoln House — take the comparatively massive stage in front of exponentially more people. Yet, the band didn’t disappoint in the drastically different setting, maintaining the charisma, charm and humor that marked their performance in Ann Arbor. With their set full of rocking jams, Boston Calling was off to a great start, clearly noted in the smiling faces of those walking away from the stage.
Later that day — staying true to my brand by staying with the rock acts — I caught Car Seat Headrest’s set, consisting of their typically long songs and a Devo cover. The band pleased the hefty crowd by sticking to fan favorites like “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “Destroyed by Hippie Powers,” and during “Fill in the Blank,” the entire crowd enthusiastically echoed the chorus, “You have no right to be depressed / you haven’t tried hard enough to like it.” Frontman Will Toledo crooned every note well enough to distract from the band's rather bland indie rock, transforming their boring recorded tunes into fun-filled sing-alongs live.
Next up was Mac Demarco, whose usual dreamy set was smoothly accentuated with material off his recent album This Old Dog. The crowd sang and swayed as Mac smoked and grooved, at one point even pulling a fan onstage to dance due to the fan's “I skipped my prom today” sign. During his hour long set, I watched Mac Demarco sing, crowd surf and be showered with packs of cigarettes from his adoring fans to the delight of the crowd. Neither stunning nor stagnant, Mac delivered a neutral, pleasant set to the festival goers.
Unfortunately, my time listening to Bon Iver’s gorgeous set was cut short by the drunken (and incredibly loud) masses piling up to the neighboring stage to prepare for Chance The Rapper. Chance, however, made up for this misfortune by riding — yes, I said riding — out on a motorcycle. Despite his Coloring Book-heavy set (I’m partial to Acid Rap, but I digress), he has an infectious stage presence. To no surprise, Francis (of Francis and the Lights) came out to perform “May I Have This Dance,” and his synchronized choreography with Chance was a fantastic highlight to polish off the first day of the festival.
Saturday was a much more relaxed day in the lineup, although I started my festival activities watching Detroit’s very own hip-hop phenom Danny Brown in a rowdy crowd. The pit exploded in a hilarious mix of frat bros in Vineyard Vines and punk kids in band tees, all jamming to Brown’s infectious brand of rap. The crowd responded in full force when Brown began the deep cut (and arguably his best song) “Ain’t it Funny” from his most recent record Atrocity Exhibition as deep bass and piercing notes pulsated over the attendees.
An hour later, I decided to check out the “Comedy Arena” of the festival, located inside Harvard’s hockey rink. I watched a string of comedians deliver some funny bits, leading up to Hannibal Buress’s time on stage. Phoebe Robinson had the crowd either cracking up or appalled with a story about vomiting during a sexual encounter. Unfortunately, most of the crowd was more concerned with sitting down and chatting indoors than the comedy itself, but Buress produced some hysterical segments, especially one concerning the planning of his own funeral.
To round out the music for the evening, I opted to go see The 1975 (one of my favorite bands to hate) over The xx due to the fact that I saw them earlier this month. To my dismay, The 1975 deliver in performance, and the crowd around me lacked the stereotypical intensity (or better yet, insanity) of the band’s fans to my delight. They carried a lovely ambiance — even during their dull music — and they had the crowd jumping to the beat during their best hits, like “Sex” and “The Sound."
Sunday was the most taxing day for the punk and rock fans — especially while trying to weave through the crowds of metalheads only attending Sunday for the almighty Tool. The Hotelier and PUP opened up the last day of the festival, and both gave fantastic performances considering their usual concert dwellings are intimate clubs. The Hotelier — whose lengthy tracks are far better experienced when they have more than 30 minutes to impress — made their way through a mix of their old and new material to the delight of the noticeably punker crowd before giving way to PUP.
PUP absolutely crushed their set, slamming through 10 songs in barely over half an hour. The crowd in the pit threw each other and surfed over bodies embodying the frenzy of the band’s tunes. Others smiled and sang along to the anthemic punk rock, and I couldn’t find a single member of the audience who wasn’t loving the performance.
In an interview, the band and I talked about what it means to move from basements and clubs to festival stages and playing festivals with diverse artists and crowds.
“Festivals are a different beast for sure. You get to play to a lot more people than you normally would, and you kind of get to play to a bunch of people who don’t know you — so that’s cool. There’s definitely a sort of spark that comes with playing in a dirty, packed basement. It’s just a different show. It’s a different vibe… It’s kind of nice to get to do both,” said Stefan Babcock, guitarist and lead singer of the group.
According to Babcock, the crowds have been showing them the passion they’ve grown to expect from their basement roots as they’ve acclimated to the big stages at summer festivals.
“It’s cool. It’s been surprisingly rad… as things have progressed for us, they’ve become more and more fun. So we’ve definitely warmed up to the sort of festival atmosphere,” he said.
The band also talked about the welcome diversity of artists seen at a festival, especially one as rounded as Boston Calling. The band clearly pulls influence and inspiration from a wide range of acts spanning multiple genres.
“Selfishly, I feel like festivals are fun because you get to see a lot of bands that you otherwise would be paying a lot of money to see. There’s a big collection of stuff that goes across genres,” said guitarist Steve Sladkowski.
The band listed Weezer, Hotelier, Tool and Run The Jewels as some of the artists they were most excited about seeing that day, and they even mentioned looking forward to Hannibal Buress’s continued comedy performance later in the day.
After seeing Mitski, Run The Jewels and even a bit of the almighty Tool (whose rather aggressive use of the word "snowflake" was off-putting at the least), I concluded that Boston Calling is the perfect festival for niche fans. Those who love music for the sake of it, looking beyond mainstream consumption. Standing in a crowd wholeheartedly singing along with Mitski to “Your Best American Girl” and then immediately witnessing the smiles in the pit during Run The Jewels felt like a testament to a crowd that existed beyond needing an excuse to drink and dance — they attended the festival to check out prolific up-and-coming geniuses like PUP perform alongside established musical giants like Chance and Tool. If anything, Boston Calling is a festival constructed from the ground up for the adoration of music.