Boston Calling 2017 was the culmination of the first time in my life I ever spent in the city. I started things off with a trip to Fenway Park on Thursday for a rainy game with a ticket I found on StubHub for 90 cents, and Boston Calling 2017 proved to be an even better value than that. Here I sum up what I found to be the best and worst of the festival, which took place at the Harvard Athletic Complex for the first time after taking place in Boston Plaza during its first four years.
BEST: Brandi Carlile, Tegan and Sara, Sylvan Esso among killer female-fronted performances
A lot has been made of the lack of inclusion of women on music festival lineups lately. Boston Calling featured 10 female-fronted acts among the 45 billed — 11 if you count Solange, who bailed on the festival the day before her scheduled Friday set and was replaced by Migos. Among those 10 acts were several who delivered some of the highlight performances of the weekend.
Sylvan Esso vocalist Amelia Meath may have brought the most swagger to any performance Friday — which says a lot considering Chance the Rapper closed out the day. Brandi Carlile rocked out with a throwback Americana set on the main stage Saturday, and was followed by a spirited and fun performance from Tegan and Sara on the stage opposite. The fest also featured memorable early-day sets from Mitski, Alexandra Savior, and Lucy Dacus — all three of which made their case for inclusion on plenty more festival lineups in the future. With her at times Alanis Morrissette meets Chris Cornell vocal stylings, Mitski was one of our favorite of the entire festival.
WORST: Tool, Mumford & Sons suffered from lack of volume
One thing that is common with city festivals are meddling sound ordinances that force them to not only end early, but also turn the sound down a bit once the sun comes down. While I can’t say for sure this is what Boston Calling 2017 did, it sure sounded like it when Mumford & Sons closed Saturday and Tool closed on Sunday. For each set, I was near where the soundbooth was, yet I struggled to hear the bands performing over the talking of those around me.
If you’re going to book rock headliners like Tool, please make sure you can pump up the volume. Two songs into their set, and those around me began a “Turn it up!” chant. At times it seemed like it happened, but people around me grew frustrated and left earlier than they might have. Another solution would be to install a stack of speakers near the soundbooth aimed towards the back of the crowd.
BEST: Single-day pass values
Boston Calling 2017 did as good a job as any fest of making one-day passes worth it. If you went to see Mumford & Sons on Saturday, chances are you would dig Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Brandi Carlile, Strand of Oaks, Kevin Morby, and Alexandra Savior. If you went Sunday for Tool, chances are Piebald, Mitski, and PUP would be in your wheelhouse. So I noticed many more single-day wristbands than I am used to seeing at a festival. This isn’t just great for fans but for the emerging artists booked early in the day. Acts like Morby, Savior, and Mitski likely benefited from it as well. However, Boston Calling also booked Major Lazer for Sunday, the only EDM act on the entire bill — an interesting choice that probably paid off.
WORST: The Chance the Rapper-Bon Iver-Sigur Ros conflict
I’m a big Sigur Ros fan and that the atmospheric Icelandic band overlapped with both Chance the Rapper and Bon Iver broke my heart. Sure, there might not be much crossover into Chance’s fan base, but surely there were some Bon Iver fans who had an internal battle over the decision like I did. I ended up watching all of Bon Iver — which paid off greatly — then caught most of the rest of Sigur Ros before finishing with Chance the Rapper. I have the benefit of seeing Chance at the next three festivals I go to, though.
BEST: The weather holds up (for the most part)
Like Hangout 2017 last weekend, the forecast for Boston Calling 2017 looked sort of grim as the weekend approached. Once the festival began, Friday was the only day to be hit by a meaningful amount of rain. It rained pretty good early in the day, let up, and then started coming down again as the sun went down. This second bit of rain actually worked out favorably if you were at Bon Iver‘s set. The rain came tumbling down during “Holocene”, and instead of running for cover, the crowd cheered wildly and many people threw their hands in the air. There’s something special about taking in emotional tunes in the rain that makes the experience that much more special.
WORST: The mud
As noted above, the rain wasn’t ever really horrible, but it did leave a lasting mark on the festival’s remaining days. The field that the Red and Green stages sat on turned to mush almost instantly, and even when the sun came out Saturday, it wasn’t enough to dry out the fields. This left big mudpiles all over, and I saw more than a couple of inebriated people pay the price by taking a tumble as a result. The artificial field the Blue Stage sat on fared much better. If the festival returns to Harvard in 2018, I recommend making the Blue Stage the main stage and the other two stages for smaller acts.
BEST: Bon Iver and Chance the Rapper
Friday the most top-heavy day of the festival, hands down. As mentioned earlier, Bon Iver‘s set was greatly improved by a well-time batch of rain. His set gave everybody all of the feels, and he even delivered a moving monologue about how taking in live music shouldn’t just be about those of us lucky enough to attend, but to also think about those that don’t get to enjoy the same choices. His set was my absolute favorite of the weekend, and my second favorite came in the form of Chance the Rapper‘s closing set that same night.
I’ve been following Chance on the festival circuit for sometime. My first ever Coachella in 2014 during weekend two saw Chance cancel his set due to illness, with the rumor being he partied too hard celebrating his 21st birthday. He was magnificent at Outside Lands last year, but arrived on stage late and left early. He’s making the rounds as a headliner for nearly every major fest this year, meaning he has to fill 90 minutes every weekend. He proved not only does he have the material, but he has the star power to captivate a crowd with his words of wisdom as well. Seeing Chance the Rapper live was like getting the most empowering elements of going to church, and I say this as someone who doesn’t subscribe to any religion. It was an uplifting way to end the first day of the weekend for sure. Chance also spent time after his show with some fans who waited up for him, actually talking to them. How many festival headliners have done that?
WORST: The xx come off too robotic
If Saturday at Boston Calling was your first time seeing The xx on this tour cycle, you probably thought it was a pretty fantastic performance. Musically, it certainly was. They didn’t miss a beat and proved that they’re solid second-line festival performers. Saturday was my fifth time seeing The xx on this cycle dating back to Coachella, and it’s hard not to notice how everything seems pretty scripted. Considering how their music makes people feel, it’s a bit of a bummer to realize that almost everything they do on stage is predetermined — down to the between-song banter. Each night, Romy Madley Croft introduces “Performance” by saying she has to sing it on her own, “which is a bit scary, I’ll do my best”. Oliver Sim introduces “Dangerous” by saying he used to dedicate it to the couples in the crowd, “but I’m single now and I’m a bit bitter about it.” Mix it up a bit out there, dudes.
BEST: These quotes from performers during their sets
“This song isn’t really about drinking responsibly. For some of you, it’s probably too late. I think. I hope.”
– Frightened Rabbit singer Scott Hutchinson before “Sober”
“This is my hometown, I’m from Cambridge. I feel right at home — people are so mean. I dedicate this song to Harvard Square, the first place I got catcalled.”
– Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso before “Hey Mami”
“Told em. I told em I’d make it to Harvard one way or another. Sometimes you gotta go through the backdoor.”
– Moses Sumney
“I would take a marriage proposal from Harry Styles, if anyone knows him. I’m straight enough.”
– Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara
“Anyone have beers? We will reimburse you — they didn’t have beers backstage. The performance will be better. Anyone use venmo?”
– Mondo Cozmo
“I’m from Atlanta and you guys kicked our ass in the Super Bowl. But we are the Brady and Belichick of this motherfuckin’ rap shit.”
– Killer Mike of Run the Jewels
“Don’t die. You should go get your kidneys checked. Probably your liver too.”
– Cage the Elephant singer Matt Shultz after a fan botches a stagedive (watch below)
OTHER BEST + WORST FESTIVAL RECAPS: