When I say Harvard, many will immediately jump to the distinguished ivy league college packed with an ethereal, antiquated lore that is only outshone by people’s feeble attempts at saying “park your card in the Harvard Yard” in a wicked awful Boston accent. As a Bostonian, you learn to appreciate the beauty of the area and between taking walks near the Charles River or watching kids play frisbee, you develop an affection for the quaintness of Harvard and Cambridge as a whole.
Though after this weekend, my perceptions of the studious suburb of Boston changed drastically as for three days, the area around the Harvard Athletic Complex was shut down to host this year’s iteration of Boston Calling Music Festival. Instead of collared shirts and pant suits, people were coming through the town in drones with chokers, vintage wear and jumpers. A semi-permanent culture shock took hold of Cambridge though despite these changes, the charm and irreplaceable nature of Harvard Yard remained unmoved.
Originally conceived as a biyearly music festival held in Boston City Hall Plaza in 2013, the switch to Cambridge came after years of deliberation in terms of finding a way to better accommodate the more than 20,000 concertgoers without compromising the purity of the audio quality. Thus came the announcement last June that the 2016 Boston Calling would be the last one held at City Hall Plaza, with the promise of a completely revamped experience at the Harvard Athletic Complex in Cambridge, only 15 minutes away.
Fast-forward to this past weekend and any looker-on could feel the sheer magnitude of this festival and the fanbase it has groomed over its four-year history. Having already attended two iterations of the festival, I was filled with a childlike whimsy over how Crash Line Productions and Aaron Dessner, both of whom produce and co-curate the festival respectively, would one-up my previous experiences with this monumental upgrade.
How monumental was this upgrade? Well, a two adjoining stage set-up has now turned into a three-stage extravaganza with the addition of a comedy arena, which highlighted the best in local comedy. In addition, a ferris wheel and golden archway christened concertgoers that entered the Athletic Complex.
I have broken down the experience into my five takeaways from the festival that accurately portray the sort of elaborative creation that Boston Calling has now become.
1) Distance Makes The Heart Grow Fonder
This statement, surprisingly, has two connotations that give a sense of direction to the longevity of this festival. Primarily, the distance between stages allows for a break from that tiresome continuity between listening to music. A walk from the Blue Stage to the Red and Green Stage will take you about 5-10 minutes depending on how scenic you want your route, especially with inflatable periscopes with lyrics from artists performing at the festival, lining paths. While the notion of “no overlapping sets” has been taken away, Boston Calling has supplemented this with a scenic landscape that transforms the athletic fields into a modern carnival. Lastly, in hopes of stacking their principal lineup, the festival has been reduced to a once-a-year festival rather than a bi-yearly festival, which pays off immensely. Instead of second tier musicians headlining two festivals, Boston Calling now has enlisted the top-tier musicians that were thought to be exclusive to top-tier festivals. For example, compare last year’s headliners (Sia, Disclosure, Robyn) to this year’s (Chance the Rapper, Mumford & Sons, Tool).
2) See the Sights
I previously mentioned the carnival layout of the festival, which for me, highlighted the new Boston Calling experience. When walking onto the field, one’s senses are assaulted with the vibrant colors coming from the rows of concessions and scents coming from the wide array of food vendors. While the Boston City Hall Plaza was a central location for fans, it lacked in practicality and any sort of visual pleasure, instead greeting fans with weird architectural structures and lopsided cobblestone. The ferris wheel overlooking the Green Stage was almost too picturesque and the quaintness of the 17th century Harvard buildings surrounding the venue added to the beauty of the festival’s modernity. The sight of the weekend though belongs to the view of the Blue Stage from the stands of the soccer field, which allowed fans an unobstructed line of sight of the action, which became only better when performers such as The 1975 and Sigur Ros gave fans as much of a visual performance as an auditory one.
3) Laugh It Up
When a film experience hosted and curated by Natalie Portman was initially announced back in January, the excitement was palpable as the Harvard alumnus was set to bring a similar experience as SXSW to Boston Calling. However, when plans fell through, ace comedian Hannibal Buress came to the rescue, announcing a comedy experience highlighting the best in local comedy. While comedy may not be the first thing that entices individuals as it pertains to a music festival, the Comedy Arena kept audiences on their toes as a wide array of stand up comedians took the stage to share their take on their experiences as both comedians and Bostonians. Highlights included Lamont Price’s struggles with Nintendo, Hannibal Buress’s rant-filled comedy special and Eugene Mirman, the voice of Gene Belcher on “Bob’s Burgers,” and his custom calendars.
4) Folk Ya!
Folk music has always been subtly ingrained in the musical spirit of the Boston Calling Music Festival. This year’s iteration took on a new meaning within the genre, stretching the lineup from top to bottom. Not many expected that Mumford & Sons would be headlining this small Bostonian festival but on Saturday, fans were treated to a two-hour long performance that highlighted material from their past three records as well as an elaborate cover of The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends,” featuring Aaron Dessner of The National, Brandi Carlile and Nathaniel Rateliff. The former musicians took the Green Stage before Mumford & Sons, creating a sort of mini-Newport Folk Festival that brought a foot-stomping good time to all those in attendance. However, the highlight of the festival in the musical aspect came late Friday night on the Red Stage with Bon Iver, who took the stylings from his experimental record “22, A Million” and fused them with the intricate musings of his previously folk-centric records to create a unique performance that balanced out the excitement of the day with his melancholic yet realistic examination of love.
5) One Last Thing…
With 45 musicians branching across three stages, it can be overwhelming to pick exactly when musicians required your undivided attention and who exactly put on the best performance of the weekend. Fans found themselves running between all three stages to catch as many musicians as possible to ensure they got the most bang for their festival buck. Though at the end of the day, it’d be a sin not to name drop a few musicians that gave new life to the festival. I found myself entranced by Mac DeMarco on the Blue Stage on Friday afternoon, which was filled with plenty of crowd surfing as well as a comical cover of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.” I also found myself becoming a newfound fan of The 1975 through their addictive pop-y sound that hinged on mid-80s Talking Heads. Lastly, Car Seat Headrest, who I have been a fan of for a long time, delivered a bombastically relentless, guitar-driven extravaganza that showcased why Will Toledo is the modern patriarch of indie rock.