Boston Calling, Yeah, I Was There Too: A Brief History of a Growing Festival

In advance of Boston Calling’s lineup drop tomorrow, we’re reflecting on the ghost of Boston Calling past.

This year will be Boston Calling’s seventh year on the festival circuit, but its tenth iteration. In its infancy, the fest was a two-day affair held twice annually on the concrete patio at city hall. As it’s grown, it’s expanded to (literally) greener pastures. This year will be Boston Calling’s third year in its new location at the Harvard Athletic Complex in Allston, MA.

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The XX playing the Red Stage at Boston Calling in 2017, as seen from the Ferris Wheel

This small but spunky festival has a reputation for consistently booking tight, carefully curated, and well-rounded lineups. The thoughtfulness of each year’s bookings can be attributed in part to co-curator Aaron Dessner of the National, who told Forbes last spring that he prefers to book artists that he finds “inspiring or culturally important.” For its size, Boston Calling packs a punch – where else will you find Tool, Bon Iver, Chance the Rapper, Mumford and Sons and Tegan and Sara, all of whom played in 2017, on the same lineup? Other headliners have included the likes of Jack Johnson (Spring 2014), Neutral Milk Hotel (Fall 2014), Lorde (Fall 2014), The Avett Brothers (Fall 2015), Eminem (2018) and ODESZA (2016). The number of bands who’ve, frankly, skyrocketed to fame in the years following their Boston Calling appearances is a testament to the curator’s ability to spot talent. Chart toppers Kendrick Lamar, Portugal. The Man, and Twenty One Pilots all occupied mid-tier spots on the lineup in 2013 and 2014.

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Portugal. The Man played the main stage when they returned to Boston Calling for the second time in 2018

Although the festival has moved out of the city’s center, Boston continues to provide a backdrop to the festival, both literally and figuratively. Familiar high-rises like the Prudential Center and Millennium Tower can be seen from the event’s grounds and local acts and restaurants pepper the music and food lineups. Stalls run by local favorites like Tasty Burger, Moyzilla, Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, and Zinneken’s Belgian Waffles add the what is hands down the best festival food showcase I’ve seen to date. Big Boston names include Passion Pit, who hail from Cambridge, and two-timer performer St. Vincent, who graduated from Berklee College of Music in Back Bay. Even Natalie Portman, who curated a film festival for Boston Calling last year, has ties to the area as an alumna of Harvard University. The festival is well-known locally for booking regional undercard acts. Lake Street Drive (2014), Cousin Stizz (2017 and 2018), The Hotelier (2017), STL GLD (2018) and may more undercard artists are all New England natives.

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An anxious crowd waiting for Mumford and Sons to play their headlining set in 2017

The festival’s recent ballooning in size has not been without growing pains – organizers drastically underestimated the needs their larger crowds would bring in 2017, which meant outlandishly long lines for food, water, and bathrooms. That the two main stages are situated next to each other is also limiting, as it means only one band can play that area at a time and it’s easy for one set to be overwhelmed by the fans of the artist who will play the next stage after them. Since the schedules can only accommodate bands on two stages at once, this means there’s fairly significant artist overlap, which is extra frustrating because of how distant the third stage is. For example, if you are a fan of both The National and Paramore, last year you had to choose, as the two Friday sub-headliners played nearly identical timeslots (only five minutes without overlap) on opposite sides of the festival. For their part, festival organizers have been responsive to many of the complaints they’ve received. Notably, 2018 brought with it a tremendous improvement in the number of available facilities that left hardly any wait, regardless of your needs. Event organizers also instituted a wristband system for attendees hoping to catch specialty sets in the arena in response to complaints that the arena had filled up early and never emptied in 2017. New sponsored tents contributed much-needed seating to the festival, while art installations and a large new craft-beer tent gave those in between sets a little something extra to experience.

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The Menzingers took to the Red Stage in 2018

Boston Calling’s 2017 location change allowed it to draw much larger crowds and cater to bigger audiences, an opportunity it seized in 2018 when it booked rap god Eminem and brought the festival the largest crowd it has ever seen. This year’s festival organizers have the opportunity to capitalize on this momentum in a huge way. Their 2019 lineup drops tomorrow at 10am and we’ll be watching closely to see what else is in store for this scrappy little festival.

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