Casually chilling on a cigarette, local emcee Michael Christmas explains, "If you don’t have your city on your back then it’s hard to grow.” Now on the rise, Christmas still feels an immense connection to his city, which he proudly displayed when kicking off the third day of Boston Calling to a crowd of local faithfuls.
Boston Calling has made a name for itself in a brief amount of time based on impressive production quality and eclectic lineups—but there’s much more to the fledgling entertainment powerhouse than that. Boston Calling possesses a unique spirit that’s due in large part to its symbiotic relationship with Boston.
Although Boston is a relatively small major city, its reputation as a college town greatly precedes it. College students are a target demographic for the programmers at Boston Calling, as is evident by the lineup year after year. This year’s headliners were the artful pop star Sia, Swedish electropop powerhouse Robyn, and the English DJ duo Disclosure. With acts like ODESZA, Haim, Janelle Monáe, Miike Snow, Elle King, City and Colour, BØRNS, and Courtney Barnett playing more than capable, at times electric second fiddles, Boston Calling’s wide-ranging lineup had no shortage of college student appeal. Some of the most impressive shows, however, were the ones that demonstrated what makes Boston Calling such a diverse amalgamation of musical talent.
One such show was the Friday night opener, Sufjan Stevens. The enigmatic singer-songwriter’s musical catalogue has boldly extended into different pockets of indie over his nearly two-decade long career. Beyond that, the man puts on one hell of a live show. While his band sported strange tribal neon attire, giant bird outfits, and suits made of balloons, Stevens performed for scores of fans devoted to his eccentric brand of pop. During a particularly trippy portion of Stevens’ performance, an audience member behind me explained to her boyfriend that “Sufjan is an acquired taste.” If that’s true, then Sufjan must be feeding his cult of fans some extremely tasty Kool-Aid, because the crowd was thoroughly enthralled by the production.
Another notable performance that broke the cookie-cutter college kid mold was that of New Jersey indie rock outfit The Front Bottoms. Although the weather was grey and windy during their set, the four angsty grownups delivered an impassioned performance to their own distinct, loyal fans. Many of the people in the audience seemed familiar to me—but that was because I knew them. These were 20 to 30 somethings who most likely grew up on the Warped Tour scene with the likes of Blink-182 and All Time Low, among many delightfully bratty others. There was little reprieve from the mass of flannels, dyed hair, and adventurous face piercings ready to belt their hearts out to The Front Bottoms, who seemed to be grown up pop punk-heads themselves. The angst was still refreshingly present, as vocalist Brian Sella introduced two songs with “This one goes out to my ex-wife!” before diving into lyrics like “I f***ing hate the comments. Why do you feel you have to talk?” In this way, the Front Bottoms channel the teenage angst of yesterday into the unwilling adult displeasure of the present day, all the while never taking themselves too seriously.
When it comes to the best fans in the venue, however, the award has to go to the multitudes of young children present on City Hall Plaza. Never in my life have I witnessed such a vast number of kids under 10 wearing noise-buffering headphones while jamming out on their parents’ shoulders to Haim and Elle King. A line must be drawn at the literal newborn I encountered toward the middle of the crowd during The Vaccines’ set—but I applaud parents like the ones who allowed their seven-year-old twins to stencil spray paint “My First Concert” on the front of their shirts and “Julia ‘hearts’ Miike Snow” on the back. As a friend of mine lamented only half-seriously, “These kids are way cooler at that age than I could have ever hoped to be!”
While it was fun to consider these children and their burgeoning coolness, their presence, as well as that of scores of older adults—talking 55 and up club—point to the one potential downside to the Boston Calling formula. Because Boston Calling is so accessible to the public and because of the City Hall venue, the audience at shows tended to be much more docile than the average festival crowd. Though tame fans were the case for several high-energy performers this weekend, this was especially apparent during the set of Vince Staples, a rapper out of Long Beach, California whose hard beats only succeeded in turning people up in the first few rows.
While the occasionally lukewarm nature of Boston Calling crowds is not necessarily a downside, next year’s venue move may shake things up. Curated by The National’s Aaron Dessner, both the spring and fall incarnations of Boston Calling have occurred at City Hall Plaza for the past three years. Starting next Memorial Day weekend, however, Boston Calling will transition to a once a year format held on the grounds of Harvard’s Athletic Complex in Allston. The newfound room for activities will allow for a massive expansion of music, food, and comedy programming, the latter coming off its first year among the cultural fray. Crashline Productions, the event management company in charge of Boston Calling, will also incorporate a visual arts component as well as a film portion curated by Harvard graduate and lesser Star Wars trilogy heartthrob Natalie Portman.
Ultimately, the venue change presents Crashline with the opportunity to expand programming systematically so that hordes of college kids can get reasonably crazy without infringing upon the safety or innocence of some child's first concert or the grounds of City Hall. With much more physical space to work with, producers have the opportunity to diversify the musical stylings even further. Not a single hip-hop artist or rapper has ever headlined Boston Calling during any of its seven iterations. Even more shocking is that Disclosure was the first EDM headliner the festival has ever seen. If Boston Calling intends on continuing to cater to younger audiences in the future, they will have to grace headliner spots with a big name rapper and/or DJ and incorporate these genres—which are undeniably popular with college-aged individuals—into the lineup more frequently.
At just 21 years of age, Michael Christmas is enjoying his successes humbly and excitedly, bringing his boys with him to shows and answering questions lobbed at him by overeager fanboys who have been with him since 2014’s prolific Is This Art? “It was crazy to see all the hands go up when I asked who was feeling good,” starry-eyed Christmas said of the crowd at Boston Calling. Michael Christmas’ devotion to his city and fans is what Boston Calling is all about, so regardless of whether or not more rappers are added to next year’s lineup, Boston will still have its hometown boy ready to rep his city in May 2017.
Presale tickets for Boston Calling 2017, which will be held May 26-28, are on sale now.
To view gallery, click on a photo below. All photos taken by Tori Fisher / Gavel Media.