Boston Calling’s Friday Lineup and the Challenges of Music Festivals

Boston Calling took a year off to discover itself. In 2016, the local music festival was biannual, with fall and spring iterations. At the end of the spring 2016 iteration of the local music festival, rumors swirled not about next falls lineup, but about a new location, a move to an annual model, and an overall increase in scale for the event.

Now, a full year later, those rumors were realized. Gone was the cramped (and somewhat ugly) Government Center venue in the heart of Boston. Instead, festival-goers took the Red Line to the Harvard stop, and walked across the bridge to the new Allston location, dominating the Harvard Athletic Complex. The grounds now included three stages (allowing sets to overlap), a wide variety of local food stands, and a comedy club venue.

When I arrived at the gate on Friday afternoon 15 minutes before opening, a sizable line already snaked around the entrance. Everyone was excited to get inside, and after around thirty minutes, we were in. Stages, food booths, and porte-potties sat on the turf of the Crimson, inviting an audience to experience a festival more in line with those of Coachella and Lollapalooza. Even with an increase in scope of food offerings, performance spaces, and festival grounds, the festival struggled at times to serve its larger crowd. The Boston Globe reported that the 37,000 in attendance faced long lines for porte-potties, lagging credit card scanners, and a confusing layout. Even with the festival’s unplanned barriers to the audience’s enjoyment, the general mood of those in attendance was excited for a day of music from their favorite artists.

We winded our way through the crowd towards the Red Stage, where Whitney was set to play. Whitney is a Chicago based band which formed out of the members of two other groups: The Smith Westerns and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Their debut Light Upon The Lake was a slow-burning favorite of mine last year, and they have been touring the album since its release in the spring of 2016. The lead vocalist Julien Ehrlich also acts as the band’s drummer, so his kit sat at the front of their setup, and he lead the band throughout their set.

I’ve heard from others that a Whitney live show is a transcendent experience, and I was really looking forward to see how they adapted their often intimate club performances to the festival layout. Attending a music festival can often be very similar to shopping at Costco — you’re paying a decent price for the amount of performances you’re getting (or the bulk variety of toilet paper), but often the performances aren’t as high of a quality. Often sets have to be cut short to allow others to have time, or lose the intimacy because not everyone is there for a certain artist.

This was of no problem to Whitney however. The audience members, even those who were unfamiliar with their music beforehand, all enjoyed the unique falsetto of leading man Julien Ehrlich and the jam sesh qualities of the rest of the band. The band joked with the audience, playing covers of everything from Dolly Parton and Lion to the Golden Girls theme song, treating the crowd with a unreleased track off their yet-to-be-released sophomore effort. Even the rain that threatened the day didn’t phase the crowd, and it was an overall great set.

I then escaped the crowd surrounding the Red Stage to explore the rest of the grounds. The comedy show set up in the hockey arena interested me, and the organizers set up the venue to look like a classic comedy club, with small tables covered in tablecloths and little candles. Hannibal Buress, co-host of Adult Swim’s The Eric Andre Show was set to host Friday’s comedy offerings, but he was absent from the proceedings that afternoon.

A big issue with reporting on festivals, or festivals in general, is choosing which sets to attend. A plus of Boston Calling’s upgrade this year was a star-studded lineup, but this schedule created the “good” problem of deciding who to see. I wanted to see Car Seat Headrest, who released his indie-label debut Teens of Denial last year to critical acclaim, but one of the people I attended the show with wanted to see Sylvan Esso on the other side of the festival grounds. We ended up watching Car Seat Headrest long enough to hear my two favorite songs of his: “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “Fill in the Blank.” We ultimately didn’t make it to Sylvan Esso.

The biggest choice of the night came to be deciding between Mac Demarco or Migos. Mac Demarco released his strongest LP yet, This Old Dog, just a month ago, and was one of my most hyped performers to see this year when the lineup was first announced. Solange was scheduled to perform on Friday, but she dropped out the day before, and Boston Calling Management filled her spot with Migos. Migos is one of the biggest rap groups in the country, and dominated the charts with “Bad and Boujee.” We decided to go the the Green Stage and see Migos.

The set began with a long DJ set from DJ Durel. The crowd was having fun to the variety of recent hip-hop hits he played, but after hearing “Are you ready for Migos?!” three or four times before he jumped right back into his set disheartened the audience. After about twenty minutes, Takeoff and Quavo took the stage, but Offset was nowhere to be seen. Their set contained songs from their recent release Culture as well as older songs like “Hannah Montana.” Sadly, “Versace,” was nowhere to be heard.

Another major decision plaguing festival-goers is whether or not to “camp-out” at different stages in order to see certain artists. After Migos finished their set, their was a rush to the front in order to maintain the best possible view of Chance the Rapper’s set. Two obstacles laid in everyone’s way: the mud on the ground and everyone else. The combination of the day’s rain and the audience had created great pits of mud that left their mark on the crowd, sometimes swallowing whole shoes. Some cite it as another failure of the new Boston Calling location, but I say it’s merely part of the festival experience. There was a point where no one could not advance any further, and the audience in front of the empty stage was packed like sardines. Across the field Bon Iver was playing at Red Stage, and from what I heard of it he played a wonderful set, but I had to sacrifice that in order to maintain my position for chance.

After an hour of waiting in the mud with barely enough space to move our arms, the beat of the song “Mixtape” filled the air, and Chance the Rapper, seated on a motorized minibike, rode on stage while fireworks exploded behind him. Chance the Rapper is probably one of the biggest rappers in the world right now, hot of the release of his third project Coloring Book last summer. It seemed like everyone that night was here for him, and every other performer was just an appetizer.

Seeing Chance’s performance showed me how much of a “stadium album” Coloring Book was. Kanye West once said that touring with U2 and seeing their “stadium rock & roll” inspired him to write his own stadium album, Graduation, and it seems that Chance’s experiences with Kanye inspired him with Coloring Book. His last project, Acid Rap, was more intimate, more low key and made for the music clubs he performed in. But now, with Coloring Book releasing on every streaming platform, every song was bombastic. Even with slow songs like “Lost” the audience yelled every word.

Chance sure did know how to work the crowd as well. He played a medley of songs from Kanye West’s recent release The Life of Pablo, even though he wasn’t on the majority of the tracks. He walked through the audience to play his ballad “Same Drugs.” Chance the Rapper is a performer who grew up with the festival mindset of performance, and his shows reflect that very much.

Even with all of its growing pains, Boston Calling’s move to Allston proved a good choice for the festival. Bigger artists attract more fans, and those who performed did a generally good job. But the music festival isn’t even necessarily about the music anymore — it’s about the audience. The fun of some of these sets, most notably Migos for me, came from dancing and yelling lyrics with those around me, making friends out of strangers that I’ll never see again. And there’s a kind of beauty in that, past all of the heavily manicured “experience packages” that the festival staff attempts to prepare.

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