Night and day—that’s the difference between Boston Calling in its old footprint at City Hall Plaza and its new incarnation at the Harvard Athletic Complex, where the festival grew up in commanding fashion over the weekend. City Hall Plaza was best suited for Boston Calling at night. Nobody liked baking or slipping on bricks. And all the people with little place to go was a distraction. But when dusk set in and the face of City Hall transformed into a kaleidoscopic light show, that downtown cradle among buildings provided a focus and identity.
You couldn’t find that on the vast Allston fields of Harvard, where Boston Calling enlarged into pretty much the same homogenized, multi-stage sprawl you’d find at Coachella or Bonnaroo. But there was plenty of room to wander and places to hang, with decorative distractions like a Ferris wheel and quirky art installations by Russ Bennett, who designed Phish festivals in the ’90s before Bonnaroo.
That made Boston Calling by day more of a people-watching pleasure—with one huge problem. If you wanted to eat or drink, the concession lines were ridiculous, particularly for food (portable toilets were slightly more ample if you were willing to find them). Additional food stalls will hopefully make an easy fix—next year.
Sigur Rós’s Jónsi Birgisson
Despite illumination from ship-vent sculptures with lyrics, the Ferris wheel, and spotlight-topped arches that made a cool exit, Boston Calling slipped into more anonymous shadows after dark. Kinda like a night of the living dead—at least for the masses who survived for final act Tool, which summoned grotesque videos to match its gnarly precision and molten (gasp) jams anchored by virtuosic drummer Danny Carey. Dressed in riot gear, vocalist Maynard James Keenan lurked in back as a silhouette and perplexed the crowd with a shout-out to law enforcement and the military vs. “snowflakes,” including himself in the latter category and adding, “Divided we fall. Don’t believe the hype, dumb-dumbs. We’re all in this together.”
Tool capped the weekend as the only band with the legacy, gravitas and visuals (lasers included) to truly fit the scale of the setting—and hopefully point toward future headliners that build on Boston Calling’s grander vision (as for myself, I’ll dream for Radiohead). Sigur Rós did much the same in a more insular way with atmospheric mystery amid Friday’s drizzle on the faraway third stage while Bon Iver got lost in big-band bombast with synths and horns on the main end of the grounds.
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
Perhaps the best part of Boston Calling growing to three music stages with 45 acts (plus comedy stage) was more room for diversification in genre, gender, race and age. There was heavy music from Tool and local metalcore rousers Converge. The folk-roots mafia secured space on Saturday with Mumford & Sons, Brandi Carlile and Nathaniel Rateliff, who joined in a Mumford encore of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
Run the Jewels
Hip-hop played a bigger role, peaking with Sunday’s fiery tag-team flow of Killer Mike and El-P in Run the Jewels and worthy Friday headliner Chance the Rapper, who oozed charisma and skill on the mic in a set colored by day-glo haze, fireworks and streamer cannons, a backing vocal quartet and a live drummer adding to the punch.
Chance the Rapper
Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath
The DJ/electronic faction enjoyed a lively Sunday dance party with Major Lazer (a weird setup for Tool) but chilled earlier in the weekend to the cool seduction of Britain’s the xx and the especially engaging duo Sylvan Esso, whose Cambridge-bred singer Amelia Meath danced in platform boots like an earthy role model for free spirits. Sensitive indie-rockers Lucy Dacus and Mitski also earned early exposure on the larger stages along with other Boston favorites like Buffalo Tom, Vundabar and the Hotelier.
Weezer provided a Sunday homecoming win for Harvard alum Rivers Cuomo, who led his crew through a virtual greatest-hits parade plus the winsome new “Feels Like Summer”—something the weekend didn’t quite feel like. On the same stage at the other end of the career spectrum on Friday, Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo suggested the next great indie-rock savant, with fans singing back his every word. And Cage the Elephant sealed its main-stage status on Sunday with catchy songs and swashbuckling antics as Matt and Brad Shultz jumped down to the crowd.
Cage the Elephant’s Brad Schultz
A fair number of Soundgarden T-shirts were spotted over the weekend in honor of the late Chris Cornell. It reminded me of when Soundgarden played an area festival, 1992’s second edition of Lollapalooza at Great Woods (now the Xfinity Center). That one-day fest also boasted the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ministry, Ice Cube and Pearl Jam on the main stage—face it, side stages never made logistic sense at the Mansfield shed. Boston Calling now has the opportunity to build its own legendary bills for today’s generations to remember—on a site still within its namesake city and with more space to forge its playground (and yes, if you want an easier time seeing bands up close, it helps to spring for pricier VIP sections that spring out from the side of each stage). Otherwise, organizers need to let 40,000 people manage to grab a bite and still enjoy the music, all day and into the night.