Boston Calling 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

Janelle Monáe, Sia, and Sufjan Stevens memorably closed out the fest's City Hall Plaza era


    Boston Calling will never be the same again.

    That’s not even hyperbole. Just hours before the festival’s 2016 edition kicked off, a press release went out announcing that the event would not be returning next year to City Hall Plaza. Not only will there no longer be a fall version as there has been since its 2013 inception, but the three-day fest will move to the considerably larger Harvard University athletic fields. So even though Boston Calling will go on for the foreseeable future, Boston Calling as we’ve known it through three years and seven iterations (!) is officially gone.

    The move suggests a lot of positives for the festival and really for the festival scene at large. The little guy in the big town in a part of the country that never could sustain a large music event is growing up. Next year will see more stages, plus a film festival curated by Oscar winner Natalie Portman. (They already have Grammy-nominated Aaron Dessner of The National curating music, so Portman is but another major team addition.) Sure, Harvard is a bit more difficult to get to, but the trade-off is grassy fields and indoor venues as opposed to an old, brick courtyard and constant exposure unless you’re VIP.

    And let’s keep in mind that Boston Calling remains one of the last independent music festivals in the country. Time will tell if BC can retain that independence (fingers crossed!), but it certainly is encouraging to see a tiny, cherished local affair potentially joining the big leagues and becoming a true anchor event in Boston all by itself.



    Photo by Philip Cosores

    But this is all talking about 2017 before we even get nostalgic about 2016, and there’s plenty to discuss before we should even worry about next year.

    Proving its growth is warranted, this year’s Boston Calling had one of the best festival bills around. It’s also one of the most diverse: Women received equal representation all the way through, from risers Palehound and Lizzo to rare gets like headliners Sia and Robyn. Genres were as diverse as genders, with rap (Vince Staples), soul (Charles Bradley), indie (Courtney Barnett, Sufjan Stevens), electronic (ODESZA, Disclosure), pop (Christine and the Queens), pop punk (The Front Bottoms), and alt-country (Elle King) all represented. There was even a new third stage that hosted smaller bands and local comics; though the set times weren’t always the most convenient, the stage offered a respite from the larger crowd, and the comedy provided a nice change of pace.

    Although we can’t fault the lineup at all on paper, the vast variety of music being limited to two alternating stages led to some occasionally challenging transitions. (Christine & The Queens into Unknown Mortal Orchestra in particular took a fair amount of mental adjustment.) It’s possible this also attributed to an uneven crowd. BC is a re-entry festival; there were times during the day when the Plaza certainly felt less full than it had in years past, and you have to wonder if people were popping in and out between their must-see acts. Of course, the weather probably had something to do with this, too. Saturday was brutally hot, while Sunday was reasonably cool; one could’ve kept people away for fear of heat stroke while the other might’ve sent folks into nearby restaurants and bars to warm up between sets.


    Speaking of weather, holy Hell, Saturday was painful. This was the first time I’d ever seen a major line for water at BC, with some patrons waiting up to 25 or 30 minutes to use one of only 10 taps. Could they have sprung for another refill station when they saw the weather report? Probably. Still, I personally didn’t witness many emergency incidents, and pit security was given what seemed like an endless supply of bottled water, which they tossed and passed back into the audience between every set. They were fast to respond, and the lack of crowding probably helped keep everyone relatively safe.


    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Which all just goes to show how truly well-run Boston Calling is. The staff was great, the grounds simple, and the whole machine just worked so smoothly. Even the crowd wasn’t as rowdy as past years. (Again, weather was probably a factor.) True, there’s not a ton to do besides watch a band or wait around for the next set, but re-entry assuages some of those pains, and a nearly impeccable lineup deals with the rest.

    When they relocate next year, there will be more space for more activities and installations, more bands, more attractions, more festival. It’s weird to think of attending Boston Calling without seeing the buildings of The Hub towering above — even though that itself was a strange concept three years back. But if Crash Line can bring the sort of top-tier talent and quality production to Harvard that they had once again this year at City Hall Plaza, Boston Calling is going to be an east coast force to be reckoned with.


    And really, it already is. One needs only to look back at the music that made Boston Calling 2016 such a success to see that. Click on for all the proof you’ll need.

    –Ben Kaye
    News Editor


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