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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.

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.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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The Vaccines

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Ironically enough, the first clouds of the afternoon began to eclipse the sun Saturday just as The Vaccines started in with the sun-kissed indie pop of “Teenage Icon”. By 3 p.m., fans were hankering for some rock and roll to be lobbed at them straight down the middle. To that end, the West London rockers arguably offered up the day’s most comfortable and accessible set up to that point. Merging glittering indie rock with ballsy rock bravado and some well-placed Smiths-like guitar pop, The Vaccines were a nice midday cooldown. –Ryan Bray

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Palehound

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Speaking to the early arrivals at the start of day two, Ellen Kempner wore her nerves on her sleeve. She may have been charmingly overcome by the moment, but her band, Palehound, wasn’t. Boston Calling is good about giving its local exports the stage, and the post punk trio made the best of their opportunity, letting their riff-heavy, occasionally shoegazey sounds wash over a loyal army of their most ardent fans. That support wasn’t lost on Kempner, as the front woman took a moment to acknowledge “a really great scene.” On a bill dominated by some A-list talent, Palehound made their voices heard Saturday. –Ryan Bray

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Disclosure

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Photo by Ben Kaye

If Odesza thought they had the best light show of the fest, they were wrong. Disclosure were already showing them up halfway through HAIM’s set when they tested out their Bat Signal-esque lights in the sky. Kicking off their set with “White Noise” and “F for You” didn’t hurt as they smoothly transitioned between the two while a huge crowd went nuts. Their very modernist light show cast flashes of blue dots on Boston’s buildings as they drifted in and out of sight on the screen behind them. It wasn’t as unique as Sia’s movie approach or as Studio 54 as Robyn’s, but it was very impressive in its initially minimalist approach. Last year’s Caracal was largely panned by critics, but the new songs sounded much better live. While the Sam Smith rumors didn’t pan out, Disclosure put on a headlining set worthy of closing out another successful Boston Calling. –Edward Dunbar

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Unknown Mortal Orchestra

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson absolutely shreds. Not like a YouTube Shreds video or Steve Vai noodle guitar — dude rips it up in a tasteful manner that showcases his own skills but never takes away from the quality of his songwriting. To pigeonhole his music into just psychedelia would be a shame as his work gets progressively funkier and smoother with each passing album. If anything, his combo of cosmic soul, funk, and psych is reminiscent of the legendary Shuggie Otis. While he didn’t announce it as such, Nielson’s wonderfully funky “Ur Life One Night” was the most original tribute to Prince of the day, and older tracks like “Ffunny Ffriends” and “So Good at Being in trouble” were met with small patches of sing-alongs in the crowd. –Edward Dunbar

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Michael Christmas

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Boston Calling has never been big on hip-hop, but this year we were treated to a handful of great acts. With Lizzo killing it opening the main stage on Saturday, Sunday’s opening ceremony responsibilities were placed on Michael Christmas’ shoulders. A local Boston legend, Christmas has been slowly building up a cult following around America, and this opening set was sort of a homecoming for him after spending a few months in LA recording his debut album. Upon seeing himself on the big screens, he pointed and let out an audible “sweet.” Later on, he pointed to the crowd waiting at the other stage and asked, “Why don’t y’all come over here and fuck with me?” Pretty soon he won’t need to be asking. –Edward Dunbar

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Lizzo

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Photo by Philip Cosores

If Friday’s best moments were dominated by garish theatrics, Saturday started out with a slate of raw, guttural performances. One of those belonged to Lizzo, whose fun, amped-up, pro-lady hip-hop brought some serious energy to the crowd as temps began to spike in the early afternoon. Flanked by her “big grrls,” Jessica and Grace, Lizzo radiated confidence through every moment of her 40-minute set, one that included squirt gun fights, a quick Prince tribute, and plenty of therapeutic dashes of you-do-you wisdom. “Love yourself like nobody else can,” she sang on “En Love”. Message well received. –Ryan Bray

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Haim

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Photo by Philip Cosores

HAIM have hits. It’s crazy to think that an act with only one album and one EP under their belts could load a festival set full of recognizable songs, but the three sisters managed to pull it off with material from their excellent debut, Days Are Gone. Kicking things off with “If I Could Change Your Mind” seemed reckless, but the more they played the more countless moments of “oh yeah, they play that too” occurred. Songs like “Forever” and “The Wire” were tailor-made for big festival moments as they groove around danceable beats and anthemic choruses. They played two new songs, “Give Me Just a Little of Your Love” and “Nothing’s Wrong”, both of which sounded similar to their usual sound and ready to conquer the pop charts. A thrilling cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” with Christine and the Queens backing and a drum-heavy coda to set closer “Falling” proved that HAIM have the musical chops to back up their sweet hooks. –Edward Dunbar

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Sufjan Stevens

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Photo by Ben Kaye

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to have a little fun tonight.” Sufjan Stevens said this after an opening song that saw him don angel wings and smash a banjo into pieces. It’s all part of the wonderful spectacle that is a Sufjan performance, which over the years has evolved into as much a trippy dose of ornate musical theater as a tried-and-true live performance. That gravitas suited Friday’s middle slot, as Sufjan bobbed and weaved his way through his eclectic catalog of folk, electronica, and baroque indie pop numbers with bountiful amounts of style and substance. –Ryan Bray

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Charles Bradley

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Photo by Philip Cosores

Charles Bradley brought out the sun … Or rather, the sun should have come out. Sunday’s cool and chilly overcast was the complete opposite of Saturday’s blazing 90+ degrees. That didn’t stop Bradley from putting on an incredible performance that recalled the showmanship of James Brown and the music of more modern contemporaries like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. The “Screaming Eagle of Soul”, at a ripe 67 years old (though looking 20 years younger), gave a hell of a performance. His enthusiasm was contagious — you could tell he pours every ounce of his soul into his music when he dropped down to his knees, microphone stand over his shoulders, looking up to the sky with a mix of sorrow and hope. In “How Long”, he sang, “You know people suffering/ They looking for something/ Something to look up to.” Bradley just might be that person. Despite his early billing, his legendary status is secured. The weather better show some damn respect next time. –Edward Dunbar

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Courtney Barnett

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Photo by Philip Cosores

Boston Calling’s minimal two-stage setup makes navigating the festival something of a no-brainer. But fans congregated to watch Courtney Barnett weren’t passively plopping themselves in front of the next stage. They were unmistakably there to see the Aussie guitar rock queen rip through her poppy but visceral jams. Barnett, drummer Dave Mudie, and bassist Bones Sloane went to the woodshed, with Barnett in particular thrashing and occasionally writhing around on the stage in a rock-induced fit. By the time the band closed with “Pedestrian at Best”, Barnett had delivered a set worthy of discrediting everyone who’s ever said “Rock is dead.” –Ryan Bray

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Christine and the Queens

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Photo by Philip Cosores

After a momentous set at Coachella, Christine and her Queens brought the energy for one of the most fantastic early sets Boston Calling has ever seen. Her self-proclaimed “freak pop” drew a sizeable crowd despite the third earliest billing and for good reason: Her combination of synth pop and French influences are both fantastic and inclusive. To explain herself to the crowd, she said, “When I was young, I didn’t fit in … So I decided to be awkward and proud of it. I owned everything about me.” While singing, she switched between English and her native French at the drop of a hat, and her brilliant backup dancers’ atypical and artsy dance moves were on point. Other acts take note: This is how you make interesting and thrilling pop music. At a festival headlined by a European pop queen, Christine seems to be heir apparent to the throne. –Edward Dunbar

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Sia

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Sia isn’t your typical pop star, even if her best songs have that grab-you-by-the-throat quality that all killer pop tunes have. It was a point the singer emphatically made Friday night. Armed not with a band but rather a crew of stage performers (and video performers, which included SNL vet Kristin Wiig), Sia’s closing set played out like a string of short films, with her ensemble acting out each tune in wildly alive fashion. Meanwhile, the woman of the hour moved barely a muscle as she hung back and sang stage left. But even in the shadows, Sia delivered the weekend’s most cinematic and unique set. –Ryan Bray

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Janelle Monáe

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Photo by Philip Cosores

There is no other way to put it: Janelle Monáe is absolutely breathtaking live. Breathtaking because half the time you’ll be staring at her and her massive backing band in absolute awe of the music you’re hearing, the other half because you’ll need your inhaler after dancing so hard. No other act could match the sheer energy and excitement Monáe generated when she took the Jetblue stage as its penultimate act. Her presence was urgent and necessary — perhaps powerfully moved by the death of hero and mentor Prince — as she pressed all the right buttons to open up minds and dance floors.

Speaking of Prince, the Purple One was given two tributes from Monáe: “Givin Em What They Love”, which featured Prince on the album version, and an absolutely barnstorming cover of “Let’s Go Crazy” to close her set. Her own thrilling material, such as her recently massive hit “Yoga” and older favorite “Cold War”, was interspersed with tributes to Michael Jackson (The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”) and James Brown (“I Got You (I Feel Fine)”).

All the while, Monáe commanded the stage with theatrical flourishes, expertly executed dance moves, and powerful rhetoric. She proclaimed that “tonight is about choosing freedom over fear.” Later on, she expanded on the theme with strong words in favor of equal pay and equal rights. They were powerful and imperative words from one of music’s most vital forces. In a festival full of big names and big budgets, Monáe proved to be the best of the best by providing a genuinely special set. With Boston Calling moving out of City Hall Plaza, it seems like she will always be the reigning Queen of this land. –Edward Dunbar

Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Boston Calling 2016.

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