Festival Review:: Boston Calling Music Festival

Written by Eric Riley.

Earlier this month, I spent yet another few days in the wonderful city of Boston.

And for the third time, I was lucky enough to be spending the my time working at the Boston Calling Music Festival.

May’s production, which was the first to include a Friday night performance, would prove to be a tough act to follow. Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, Tegan & Sara, Brand fucking New – May was certainly the biggest, boldest to-date.

To be expected, and continuing with the trend of creating magic, Crash Line Productions and company built yet another spectacular weekend this September. And, not allowing themselves to be outdone by their pasts, this round’s festivities not only boasted an all-star lineup, but showed that this young festival could join the ranks of the big names.

Opening on Friday night again, which will seemingly (and, according to crowd reactions, thankfully) continue for the foreseeable future, the show was able to add in a third batch of performers – Future Island, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The National (whose Aaron Dessner has helped curate the festival’s lineup). This addition run into a few bugs in May, in regards to photo-pit entrances, overcrowding, etc., but those were remedied by the time Saturday morning rolled around. This time around, the few kinks that were present in the spring (and more likely than not unnoticed by most in attendance) made no appearance in the fall.

Now, before I start on the details of the show, here’s how my weekend started: I worked a morning shift in New York on Friday morning, from 6am until 1pm. I then rushed home, grabbed my bags, and sped to the Albany bus station to hop onto a 1:50 bus that would take me into Boston. As I made my way east, my phone rang and my housing for the weekend was apparently no longer an option. So, the potential for an hour or two of the sleep that I didn’t get the night before was also not going to happen. Instead, there was now a frantic search of bus and train schedules throughout the greater Boston area. The bus pulled in at 6:00, and as I sprinted from South Station to Government Center, my brother texted me saying his couch would be open. In Providence. So when The National’s first three songs wrapped up (which I estimated would be around 9:55), I would again sprint


to South Station to catch the last commuter train at 10:10 to Rhode Island. And, since I’m a damn professional, everything worked out.

Anyway, you don’t need to know more about any of that. Boring stuff, not important. But what


important is how impressive practically everything about those three days was.

Friday night opener Future Islands began the weekend with a set that can be summarized as interesting, to say the least. A combination of clean vocals and brutal, borderline-violent throat singing made for a unique sound and left a lasting impression long after their brief set wrapped up. Neutral Milk Hotel followed, taking the stage devoid of pit photographers and video monitors, requesting fans to experience the show with their eyes and ears rather through screens and lenses. As The National closed out the first night, their performance not only pleased those in attendance, but also reminded us that there were still two full days left of music to enjoy.

As the sun rose on Saturday, it was obvious that the day would be a scorcher. By the time noon rolled around, the temperature was in the high 80’s and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Neither the heat nor the humidity slowed anyone, with an energetic, eager crowd progressively filling the plaza during each passing performance. Sky Ferreira proved to be an early highlight, filling the air with her strong, electric pop sound. When Bleachers entered onto the adjacent stage, fans rushed over to watch as Jack Antonoff (guitarist of debut Boston Calling headlining act fun.) brought his moody 80’s synth-pop to life. Closing with “I Wanna Get Better,” which is arguably the best song from this summer, he left the audience happily entertained.

Now, as great as things are, they can’t be perfect. And as much as we all hoped against it,


was about to happen. After The Hold Steady (aka the best bar-band in America) opened their set with a track from

Stay Positive,

the idea of keeping a good attitude became seriously important. As their set closed, dark clouds gathered and General Admission guests were asked to vacate. Within minutes, heavy rain and winds were tearing through the empty plaza as thunder and lightning roared overhead. And while this delay – which [understandably] paused the show for around two hours and [also understandably] cancelled performances by Volcano Choir and Girl Talk, may have bothered a few fans and took a few banners for a ride, the situation was handled brilliantly. The fact that a festival in only its fourth production was able to not only clear out thousands of guests calmly and swiftly, but then managed to restore the stages’ functionality, keep the fans updated to-the-minute on Twitter, readmit them, and


have the two headliners perform, I could not have been more impressed.

Twenty minutes or so after the gates reopened, Lorde walked on stage and looked out over a sea of reenergized (and moderately damp) fans. Her performance was exactly what we had expected it to be – strong, eerie, and absolutely captivating. As ambient distortion swirled in the background, she delayed the beginning of “Ribs” (my favorite of hers, I might add) to address the crowd. Timid, shaky, and both visually and audibly moved, she thanked the audience. Worried that the show would not resume, and then worried that people wouldn’t return once the announcement was made, she delivered a sincere, strong “thank you” in a cracking voice before wiping her eyes and regaining composure.

Where Lorde’s humility struck the crowd’s hearts, Childish Gambino’s confidence closed out Day Two in high fashion. As he took the stage, Donald Glover’s presence and power was instantly felt. There was no time for modesty or reserve, but rather relentless poise, composure, and dominance. His command over not only the stage, but the audience, was unreal, at times holding the microphone away from himself for full verses, knowing his crowd would fill in the blanks. There may have been a pause a few hours before, but a little rain wasn’t going to end the day. And Glover capped it off exactly how it should have been.

The heat and humidity of Day Two was nonexistent on Sunday. In its place, mid-70’s and clear skies. The weather was as ideal as possible, and the bands took full advantage. Boston natives Gentlemen Hall kicked off the final day and were welcomed with open arms. With trumpet, violin, and a whole lot of grit, Brooklyn’s San Fermin left their mark early on. Even as the day drew to a close, I still heard murmurs and rumbles of people talking about them.

Between the last two performances on the Red Stage – one of 2013’s biggest breakouts the 1975 at 6:00, and punk legends The Replacements at around 8:20, the median age within the crowd jumped twenty or thirty years. Where we heard teenagers and college kids cheering for Matty Healy at dinnertime, we heard their parents reminiscing about seeing The Replacements back before the House of Blues hit Lansdowne Street. Before their performance at this year’s Riot Fest, it had been more than two decades since The Replacements had played in-concert. Getting to watch a band that inspired so many of my favorite bands, but also hadn’t performed since I’ve been alive, was surreal and probably one of the coolest things I’ve experienced.

The Replacements’ performance was huge. That’s inarguable. But, it wasn’t the best thing to happen on Sunday – that honor goes to two guys from Ohio.

At 5:00, the crowd began chanting and screaming for twenty | one | pilots. And when the duo crept on stage donning their trademark ski masks, the cheers were deafening. To accurately put their performance into words is a difficult task – it’s part ukulele, part hip-hop, part piano rock, part pop. I don’t really know what to say about it, and I’m a diehard fan of theirs. Regardless of


it is, it is undeniably infectious. To detail the group’s stage presence is tricky, because that would limit it to the stage. Drummer Josh Dun found himself performing a drum solo while balanced on a wooden platform above the crowd, while vocalist Tyler Joseph spent as much time on his piano as he did playing it, eventually finding himself in the seating area near the back of the audience. The two finished their set on individual risers atop the crowd, banging water-soaked drums before bowing and announcing “we are twenty | one | pilots, and so are you.”

Like it seems to do each time around, September’s show proved to be even better than its predecessor. Brought to life by a group of dedicated music professionals, packed from start to finish with incredible performances, filled to the brim with passionate fans, and kept running smoothly by a tirelessly-working staff, volunteers, and vendors, Boston Calling doesn’t only impress, but reaches and exceeds every expectation. Sign me up for May. 

Boston Calling Interview With:: Crash Line Productions

Interview conducted by Eric Riley.

Could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what Crash Line Productions is/does.
– No problem. I’m Michael Snow, co-founder of Crash Line and one of the producers for Boston Calling. My job is basically to break the festival down into the major parts – performers, sponsors, licensing, etc. etc. And after all of that gets set, we try to see how well we can build our small little city in a day and a half or so. It’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that people may not recognize right away, but they appreciate. They don’t tend to focus on the video screens or the Port-A-Potties, but they like that they’re there.

You previously worked at the Phoenix Media Group until it closed last March. After it closed its doors you and a coworker, Brian Appel, decided to form Crash Line Productions. What is it about working in this industry that made you guys want to pursue creating a company on your own?   
– I was more on the radio side of it. We ran a station called WFNX here in the city, along with a newspaper and a magazine that we all worked on. But working here, like it would be in any company, there are a lot of different directions and a lot of different goals and a lot of things that you want to achieve. Things are always changing, so you have to do things to keep your audience connected and make sure you always have a product to give them. I think we always just enjoyed doing new things and seeing what we could get done. So now, we took what we had both learned in the past and applied it here, working to use that knowledge throughout the year and focus it down into two weekends.

This will be the fourth edition of the Boston Calling Festival – and a very exciting one at that. The festival itself, in comparison to others at least, is still very young, but the buzz around it is huge. Did you anticipate this big of a response so soon?
– We’re only two years old. And the truth of it is, no, not entirely. When we started this, we both thought that the city wanted an event like this and could support it. But we also knew that people in Boston as well as throughout New England tend to have high standards for things like this, because we’ve been privileged with all of these awesome sports arenas and theaters and concert venues, so we knew it had to be done right. It had to focus on the attendees and deliver a solid experience, then the city would respond to it and the rest could come naturally. It’s been extremely humbling to see how quickly this has all happened, because we knew that if we could do this right, we could do something special.

Boston Calling has a pretty diverse lineup. The May lineup is typically pretty different than the September one, while the show in the fall shows even more range. What made you guys choose to make each edition so different?
– *laughs* Well what made us do that is what artists are actually available. With the cycle of booking, it’s a little bit of timing, a little bit of money, and a whooole lot of luck. These artists could be anywhere in the world, so to get them to your event takes a lot of different things to come together. But sometimes, once you get two or three artists set, or if you see a the crowd is responding well to something in particular, it makes sense to pull more people in from certain areas or genres. We’ve been really fortunate to be able to get the lineups we’ve made, and it just so happened that people’s schedules worked out well enough to give us the diversity that people loved.

A good portion of the festival’s sponsors are Boston-based, and I can assume that that’s intentional. Why do you feel like it’s important to partner with Boston-based companies?
– Well I’ve lived here my entire life, so I think that it’s really important to fly that flag and show that your community as a whole embraces and supports what you’re doing. When things are really working out, and you’re bringing in people who are passionate about the area and about what they’re doing, it just makes sense and it works. Boston is a city where people remember the time they spent there, no matter how long it was. And along with that, we have the local sponsors who not only do we believe in them, but they believe in what we’re doing as an event. They call up and tell us that they enjoy and believe in what we’re doing, and it’s fantastic.

Who has been your favorite performance throughout the past three shows, and who are you most excited to see this time around?
– I guess if I narrow it down to one from each show, I’d start with saying I’ve been a huge fan of The National for a long time. They were the last band to play at our first festival, so the experience of watching them play is something I’ll always remember. Their performance was sort of the endcap to the entire year and-a-half that it took to pull off the first one, so feeling that sense of accomplishment, teamed up with the appreciation I’ve always had for that band, it was truly special. But I think my favorite from that year was probably Matt & Kim – the weather that year was so awful, but those two have such a high energy and it made everyone forget all about it.

I think the most unexpected performance I’ve seen would have to be Major Lazer, no question. I had seen it in smaller venues before, but watching it on that grander scale was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

For this upcoming one, I think I’m most excited to see Bleachers. There’s a lot of buzz around them, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Then again, if I can see more than three songs from a band’s set, that’s a victory for me. There’s always something to do, so we’re always running around. But even if I can’t stop and watch an artist’s full set, I can still have to chance to watch someone watching their favorite band. And to think that we had something to do with giving them that opportunity, it’s such a great feeling. Getting a second to step back and take the entire scene in as a whole, it never loses its impact. It’s a rare instance when you can see a pure sense of appreciation in someone’s face, and I think music is where we get that chance.

The lineup for each show seems to get bigger and better each time around. Have there been artists that fans requested a lot? Or maybe one that you tried to get but couldn’t?
– There haven’t been many that we’ve gotten each year, but when Outkast announced their festival route, we hadn’t announced our lineup yet, so there was this huge pouring-in of people asking if they’d be here. I don’t think we’d ever be big enough to get an artist that huge, but I think we’re a festival stepping stone – kids can come out and find out that they really enjoy seeing the bands that they like while surrounded by 20,000 strangers, and then turn around and go to a bigger one, and another after that. We’re like the gateway drug of festivals. *laughs* But maybe I shouldn’t say it that way.

Each show seems to bring something new, and this time you included a huge Octoberfest celebration. Was this a chance to celebrate Sam Adams’ 30th Anniversary? Have you already started planning for the (hopeful) next one?
– We haven’t really started planning the site for May yet, because we want to have the chance to see if there are things that happen this weekend that need to be changed or tweaked for the next time around. We’ve been working with a few of the performers for the next one, and we’re very excited to announce some of those. We like to always have something happening no matter what, we always like to be thinking of new things or creative ways to add in new features, because it’s always a “why not?” mindset. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, right?

Well whatever you’ve got planned for the next one, which we all hope will be in May again, I’m sure it’s going to be awesome. Thanks again
– Yes, you’ll see us back here in May. We’ll keep doing this until people stop showing up.