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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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Elle King

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Elle King’s rockabilly is less authentic, more so a Hollywood facsimile fit for populating college radio stations rather than accruing any real staying power. While she may have had a good time on stage, her vocals left much to be desired. Perhaps it was the low mix that plagued a handful of acts on the Red Stage, but she simply didn’t have the power or conviction to carry most of her songs. On Sunday’s top-to-bottom-loaded bill, she came off as simply average, which isn’t enough when you’re scheduled around such massive talents. –Edward Dunbar


    Odesza

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    It seems to be a trend at Boston Calling where the second stage closer draws a bigger crowd than that night’s headliner: Brand New, Lorde, and now Odesza have helped established that tradition. After selling out the 3,000-person House of Blues three times over, it’s no surprise that Odesza’s crowd stretched to the very outer rims of the area. The high school crowd ate it up and, while their music isn’t particularly interesting or inspiring, it’s a nice, upbeat way to spend a Saturday evening. Not to mention, they had a spectacular light show that fully utilized their large background screens for a very cinematic effect. –Edward Dunbar


    Battles

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Does being a smart, adventurous, technically sound rock band necessarily make for a great festival set? That’s the question that hung over Battles’ Red Stage performance Saturday afternoon. Ian Williams, drummer John Stanier, and bassist Dave Konopka have earned lots of well-deserved experimental kudos over the past 10-plus years, but the band’s cerebral math rock felt even heavier and harder to digest than normal on Saturday. Maybe it was the inescapable sun and heat, but for whatever reason, the concrete expanse of City Hall Plaza didn’t offer the best environment for an angular sonic exercise. –Ryan Bray


    City and Colour

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Heavy-handiness doesn’t usually go over well at festivals. Most of the time it feels like the singer-songwriter types are drowned out by side stages and crowd chatter, but City and Colour have always managed to avoid this fate. In the face of an always very pop audience at Boston Calling and the ridiculously hot weather, it’s a testament to Dallas Green’s songwriting prowess that they still managed to pull a huge crowd. An entire set of slow burners probably didn’t win over the non-believers, but it was a solid, if somewhat sleepy, performance that was appreciated by fans. Bonus points for having Little Jack (The Raconteurs/Dead Weather/Greenhornes) on bass! –Edward Dunbar


    The Front Bottoms

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    The Front Bottoms have a lot of conviction, but their songs are less than inspiring in the face of cold winds and quickly lowering temperatures. Despite the elements, they soldiered on and won over a good chunk of the crowd in the process. Echoing Sufjan Stevens’ incredible stage show, they inflated their own wacky, arm-flailing tube men for a split second, a lone flourish in an otherwise minimal state setup. Opting for bare-bones was a bold move in the face of some of the massive productions that other artists put on, but The Front Bottoms’ fans don’t care — all they want is the band. While some of their songs may musically (certainly not lyrically) devolve into grocery store commercial-esque lightness, their frequent moments of darkness were enough to hold a casual fan’s attention. –Edward Dunbar


    Lisa Hannigan and Aaron Dessner

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Boston Calling has a history of easing festivalgoers into the long weekend. By that measure, Lisa Hannigan was pretty uniquely suited to open the festival’s Memorial Day installment. The Irish-born singer-songwriter brought some warmth to a perfect late-spring evening, running through a set of her own numbers as well as some soon-to-be-released tracks recorded alongside The National’s Aaron Dessner. The two mesh well, with Dessner/The National’s moody ambiance locking in well with Hannigan’s folk rock. Fans were a little chatty and distracted at times (such is the plight of the opening act), but Hannigan and Dessner kicked things off in pleasant style. –Ryan Bray


    Børns

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Child prodigy Garrett Børns may be all of 24 years old, but he’s already got 14 years under his belt as a professional musician. That experience showed itself Saturday, as the youthful veteran’s set exhibited his well-honed ear for pop songcraft. Working on the heels of his 2015 debut, Dopamine, Børns delivered nearly an hour’s worth of synth-driven indie pop gem stones to the crowd. But the real highlight came during his well-executed and timely cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes”. –Ryan Bray


    Robyn

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    No one who watched Robyn close out day two of Boston Calling can say the seasoned dance maven didn’t leave it all on the stage that night. The singer’s red Adidas jumper didn’t last a full song, and before long she took to energetically treating the stage as her own one-woman dance party. But by headliner standards, fans seemed relatively disengaged from Robyn’s hypnotic set. It was announced earlier in the day that Robyn would debut new remixed versions of her songs, but the crowd continued to thin over the course of her 90-minute set. “Play something we know,” one woman was overheard saying. The people have spoken. –Ryan Bray


    Vince Staples

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Vince Staples knows how to set a crowd off despite his somewhat reserved persona. He mumbled into the microphone, but his stage banter was endlessly entertaining. He explained that he didn’t “…have [his] glasses on… So [he] can’t see everything” and noted that “there’s a lot of high schoolers, middle schoolers…” before advising them to “stay in school” with the addendum of “I mean, I dropped out, but the chances aren’t good.” What could have been momentum killing was actually very endearing. Meanwhile, all of the cuts off his debut album, Summer ’06, set everyone off, with the excellent “Norf Norf” and earlier mixtape track “Blue Suede” getting the biggest reactions. –Edward Dunbar


    Miike Snow

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Festivalgoers were in need of a second wind late Saturday afternoon after hours spent in the heat with precious little shade. Enter Miike Snow, who enthusiastically ushered in the dance portion of the second day’s proceedings. Throwing everything from glam and ’70s soft pop in with a more contemporary dance rock sound, the Swedish band used fan favorites like “Gengis Khan” to prime the crowd for the rest of what the festival had in store Saturday night. –Ryan Bray


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