Boston Calling 2017 Festival Review: The Top 10 Best Performances

New England's premier festival survives growing pains for another winning edition


I was already creeping towards six feet before I was out of middle school, so I know a thing or two about growing pains. I wasn’t just a tall kid either, as I was gangly and awkward to boot. Getting bigger brings with it all sorts of clumsy issues, and not all of us are able to handle it with the utmost grace. For all its hiccups and missteps, however, Boston Calling Music Festival pulled off its transition from tiny city-center festival to major open-field event with laudable success.

In years past, BC was situated in City Hall Plaza, an unattractive square of brick right outside City Hall. Moving to the Harvard Athletic Complex technically put the festival in Allston but also provided room to add a third stage and a dedicated comedy facility. It also presented a bunch of new issues to deal with, despite having had the previous location down to a relative science. Audiences let the festival organizers know it, too, taking to social media to complain about any number of “failings.” Lines were too long for food and bathrooms, cell service was sporadic, egresses in and out of certain areas were too limited, and dammit there was mud on the ground.

It’s true food was an overall issue (vendors consistently ran out of food over the first two days and use of credit cards was hampered by poor connectivity), but frankly all those other issues are standard practice at big festivals. Mud? Really? It rained Thursday and Friday; what did you expect? Besides, more than half the grounds were actually astroturf, including the entire field in front of the Blue Stage, so that just seems nitpicky. As for the bathroom and egress issues, it seemed to me this was a lack of familiarity with the grounds by patrons more than a shortcoming of festival organization. For the first two days, it appeared that most folks were unaware of the pathway on the far side of the festival, the one lined with a row of porta potties for which there was never more than a three-minute wait.

I’m not arguing this new Boston Calling was perfect. Still, the crew was getting used to a brand-new venue, and they did their best to work things out on the fly. By day three, food seemed less of an issue, crowds understood how to flow through the grounds better, and adjustments were made to speed up entry into the festival and certain VIP areas. Could there have been more activations and activities to keep the crowd entertained between acts they wanted to see? Sure. Does the GA space between the Red Stage and nearby main Green Stage need to be rearranged to avoid congestion? Absolutely. But should Boston Calling return to its former, smaller self? Not a chance.

First off, that’s just a bad business strategy. More importantly, from a fan’s perspective, a lineup like the one put together for 2017 could not occur at City Hall Plaza. There were enough major acts to headline three festivals this size (Bon Iver, The xx, Mumford and Sons, Chance the Rapper, Tool, Weezer). Local acts were represented in almost every genre and era (Vundabar, Cousin Stizz, Converge, Buffalo Tom). Of course, scheduling conflicts are bound to arise with a fest this size, and I can appreciate the sentiment of those who miss the ability in years past to catch every single act on the bill. At the same time, it’s like complaining about the mud again. This is a major festival; what did you expect?

Boston Calling is simply bigger than that now. So much so that it isn’t even contained to one location or one schedule any longer. There are after-parties all over the city, from The Sinclair in Cambridge to Allston’s beloved Great Scott. I even found myself inside the members-only Harvard Lampoon house dancing to a DJ set from Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner, surrounded by secret society members and industry insiders.

I’ve personally been a supporter of Boston Calling since its inception and frankly found myself nervous the day before I set foot on the new grounds. I worried the expansion would cause it to have its first major stumble, and in the modern festival market, there’s always the risk it wouldn’t survive even one failure. With an unparalleled lineup, a willingness to listen to attendees’ concerns, and an assured and capable team behind the scenes, however, I’m happily still able to stand behind the event with complete confidence. There were issues with the first few incarnations of BC, so the fact that there were some miscues as they entered a new phase shouldn’t be surprising. But by the time I was 14, the pains in my joints subsided, I figured out how to control my lanky limbs a little better, and I grew more confident. Boston Calling will do the same, and it will be better for it.

Besides, aren’t these things all about the music anyway? You can’t even begin to say Boston Calling didn’t knock it out of the park on that front, so read on for more on the best sets of the weekend and an exclusive photo gallery.

–Ben Kaye
News Editor


10. Sylvan Esso

Schedule was one of the gripes a lot of people had with the festival this year, but the transition from Francis and the Lights to Sylvan Esso was a masterstroke of timing. Both trade in different versions of modern dance pop, which worked wonders on the damp crowd as they transitioned towards evening. Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn’s brand of electronic music, however, was delivered with such unbridled joy that it easily won out in comparison.

And that jubilation is actually one of the duo’s neatest tricks. Their music is quite a bit darker and heavier than I think people realize — take “Die Young” or “Coffee”, songs that don’t exactly have the cheeriest of themes. Even Sanborn’s mixes are moored in trudging, hefty beats. But dammit if they didn’t make it all enjoyable as hell. Meath especially gave people reason enough to move, her smile as infectious as her dancing. She unironically mugged for the photographers during “Kick Jump Twist”, clearly enjoying being the center of this party. The crowd couldn’t resist the good times, raising their hands in the air without instructions for the first time and bringing out the beach balls and balloons. It all added up to just the sort of energetic boost needed to get you over the hump as you headed into the nighttime performances.


09. Tool

The instant you started heading toward the Harvard Athletic Complex on day three, it was clear how many people had bought tickets just for Tool. It’s been years since the metal outfit have played in Boston, and they brought out one of the most diverse crowds of any headliner all weekend, transcending gender, race, and age. Many undoubtedly had been itching for a chance to finally catch their beloved rock gods live, and they were rewarded with one hell of a visual experience. It’s true that the quartet don’t provide much in the way of pure stage presence; Danny Carey is a beast behind his elaborate drum kit, but also hidden, and Adam Jones and Justin Chancellor bring intensity to their instruments, but not much movement. Maynard James Keenan is the most fascinating to watch, garbed in his riot gear and stomping about at the rear of the stage, but stuck in back, he didn’t exactly hold your eye.

Still, if you were looking for something to watch, there were all the crazy CGI animations and lights going on behind the band (that skeleton creature with the eyes in its hands and fetus in its head during “Vicarious” is still seared in my brain). Odds are, though, if you were there for Tool, you were there to hear them deliver storming renditions of “Schism”, “Ænema”, and “Parabola” live. If that was you, you no doubt left with a concert memory for a lifetime.

08. Frightened Rabbit

I’ve long loved Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit, but after catching them live three times, I’d yet to be utterly impressed with their live shows. It seems I was just finding them in the wrong city, however, as they brought their absolute A game to Boston. “Boston is sort of like coming home,” Scott Hutchison stated. “It’s the closest thing we can get to Scotland in this country.” He even gave a shoutout to one of his favorite local beverages, Downeast Cider, wearing a hat from the craft cider company the entire set. Maybe it was sipping on that beverage that made tracks like “I Wish I Was Sober” and “Modern Leper” sound better than ever, or maybe it was just their love of the city in which they were being played. Whatever it was, it worked, as the band seemed to be enjoying themselves more than at any time I’d seen them in the past, and that feeling spread throughout the entire audience.

07. PUP

The Boston music scene has long been one of peaks and valleys, but the city has always been kind to hardcore and punk fans. So when a Canadian act rolls into town screaming, “I spent a long time down in the basement/ Instead of rolling with the riff-raff” (“Familiar Patterns”), it shouldn’t be surprising to find them embraced as warmly as PUP were. The crowd created undoubtedly the most spirited mosh pits of the weekend, sending crowdsurfer after crowdsurfer into the air — much to security’s chagrin. The band earned the response, delivering surprisingly strong gang harmonies as they ripped through relatively dark material (“The Coast”, “Sleep in the Heat”, “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You I Will”) with furious, good vibes. Yet, true to their home country, they were as humble a punk band as you’ll ever see, thanking security and the festival crew for keeping everyone safe and shouting out local favorites The Hotelier, who’d played earlier in the day, after the crowd chanted “PUP! PUP! PUP!” during a break between songs. The hometown boys were surely great, but there’s no better way to warm up on a cool Sunday morning in May than in a PUP mosh pit.

06. Hannibal Buress/Pete Holmes

One of the biggest check marks in the win column for Boston Calling was their Hannibal Buress-hosted comedy lineup. Replacing Natalie Portman’s film festival just weeks out from the event and its rather crammed, mid-day scheduling put a big question mark over the possible success of the addition. Yet, every time I entered the comedy area (housed in a hockey arena), I found it packed full of excited fans doubled over in laughter.

Pete Holmes headlined day one, riffing on selective veganism (“Fish are just swimming vegetables”) and the vulgarity of Boston accents. Holmes is a man who doesn’t generally engage me (though I do enjoy Crashing), and I was happily surprised to find myself enjoying his set. The way he would go off on tangents about nerd movies or affably drop jokes after heckling threw him off course made him seem like the sort of bumbling goof I could get along with. Plus, his bit about his awkward proposal to his wife had me laughing at every breath.

Buress himself topped the day two lineup, drawing such a large crowd that police and fire marshals had to block the entrance to stop more people from coming in. Acutely aware of his audience, he opened with a number of bits about Boston Calling itself. He poked fun at the family of three he saw being taken away in an ambulance after they all tweaked out on weed edibles (“How bad are those genes that none of them could handle themselves?!”) and the uneven replacement of Solange with Migos (“That would be like replacing Lil Wayne with Sade. ‘Hey, Tribe Called Quest canceled, let’s get Mumford and Sons.'”). There were crude jokes about sleeping with fans across the country, laughing at his own death, and more, but even if you didn’t crack up at all the jokes, the image of him humping a Keurig coffee machine on a hotel bed will forever be seared in your mind.

05. Whitney

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I wasn’t really into Light Upon the Lake, Whitney’s 2016 debut album. But everyone has always told me they’re the type of band I’d be particularly into, and Consequence of Sound had given them a CoSign, so I figured it would be worth checking them out. Well, the beauty of opinions is that they can change, and the Chicago outfit’s afternoon set certainly changed mine.

They delivered a completely perfect mid-afternoon set just as the sun began to peek through the clouds for the first (and last) time on Friday. Perhaps the mix is just crisper in a live setting, but Julien Ehrlich’s voice sounded so much sweeter to me than it ever did on record. Whether it was the drowsy closing hit “No Woman” or the rollicking good vibes of “No Matter Where We Go”, the workmanlike performance provided the sort of chill atmosphere that made converting a non-believer like me inevitable. Even older fans couldn’t get enough, calling out for more new songs after they played “Rolling Blackout”. Ehrlich joked that they might have to wait until late 2018 or early 2019 to hear a new album, but they’d be touring Light Upon the Lake for awhile. Although I haven’t had the chance to revisit the LP, with performances like this, it’s still very much a record worth seeing done live — especially if they drop in another cover of the Golden Girls theme song.

04.Chance the Rapper

The last time I saw Chance the Rapper was at the inaugural Meadows Festival this past October. At the time, he was on his Magnificent Coloring World Tour, bringing along a stage full of bright colors and puppet suits. On Friday, he brought his Be Encouraged Tour, something that seemed considerably less involved with nothing but a giant screen and a few simple stage levels. But by the time the first fireworks exploded during opener “Mixtape”, it was clear Chance is just as big on his own as he is with a massive stage setup.

He wasn’t entirely alone, of course, as Nice Segal, Peter Cottontale, and Stix of The Social Experiment were on hand, as was a small choir for backing vocals on tracks like Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” and “All We Got”. It’s rare that a rapper’s backing band is as well known as Chance’s, and they deserve a ton of credit for being as lovable as their leader. Still, no one can touch Chance in terms of sheer charm and grace. He is the gentleman of hip-hop, demonstrated by how often he thanked the crowd and addressed fans directly. Somehow it made a giant headlining performance feel remarkably intimate, even as fire blasted behind him during “Blessings”. It’s strange that Migos, who had delivered a considerably less engaging set just hours earlier, didn’t show up for their DJ Khaled collab “I’m the One”, though it was fun seeing Francis and the Lights return to do “May I Have This Dance” after Chance danced during the same song on the same stage earlier in the day.

Being a single rapper on a big, empty stage can be a challenging proposition, but young Chance the Rapper’s professionalism and larger-than-life personality made the space his own. Who needs guest appearances when you have all that?

03. Bon Iver

22, A Million divided a lot of Bon Iver fans with its seemingly sudden shift towards electronics and Auto-Tune. However you feel about the record, the live show that Justin Vernon’s project has built around it is nothing short of breathtaking. Closing down the Red Stage on Friday, Bon Iver delivered a set as engaging visually as it was musically. As the sun began to set, the shifting, spinning beams of light that appeared to streak out of every available space on stage dazzled as one of the most fearless live bands of the last few years presented a true aural wonder.

You see, Vernon isn’t just a master at crafting records; he’s talented and smart enough to be adventurous in his live performances in ways that can surprise and excite longtime fans. From the changing vocal tics of “715 – CRΣΣKS” to the collapsing digital mosh and skittering percussion of the jam in the middle of “21 M♢♢N WATER”, the arrangements kept the show engaging by making it unexpected. When it transitioned into “8 (circle)”, the spotlights focused on the quintet of horns, reminding you that Bon Iver is more than just Vernon. At times it was even bigger than itself, like when he said, “If you’re confused, you don’t know what to do this year, trying leaving your church,” before “666 ʇ”. “I think it’s important to remember that we all chose to be here; it’s literally just standing here listening to music,” he said at one point, reminding everyone in the middle of this masterful performance how important and rare music really is. He continued, “But it’s also about the people around the world who don’t have a choice.” It was a heavy thought, but a significant one. And one he didn’t let linger for too long as he lifted spirits with one beautiful rendition after another.

02. The xx

“We’re not used to playing in the daylight,” Oliver Sim said midway through The xx’s pre-headlining set Saturday. “So it’s nice to see your faces.” It was nice to see the band’s, too, and a good thing that the dying, early evening light didn’t completely kill their stage show, as it went a long way to setting the mood for the performance. With bursts of white and warm-hued lights cutting through walls of smoke, the presentation was equal parts alluring and ominous, welcoming yet somehow distant. Coupled with the British trio’s formidable talents, the experience was enrapturing unlike anything else the whole weekend.

Jamie xx worked amazingly hard up on his platform, making things look deceptively easy as he transitioned from drum pads to synths to samplers. He created a layered background of sound off which Romy Croft and Sim just owned their craft. The pair kept differing levels of intensity, the former stern-faced and subtle, the latter writhing and solid. Croft’s striking vulnerability was on full display during her solo rendition of “Performance”, and I still have opener “Say Something Loving” stuck in my head. The beautiful play between the two singers’ voices was only amplified live, especially on the one-two of “Fiction” and “Shelter”. The xx are known for creating stunning records to lose yourself in, but live they wrap their arms around you and bring you into their world with the warmth of a loving and careful guide.

01. Wolf Parade

In what was one of the two worst scheduling conflicts of the weekend, you can’t fault the majority of those in attendance for going to check out Run the Jewels on the main field. Those guys are consummate performers, and I have no doubt they put on another ballistic show. However, if you were brave enough to take a risk and join the scant few who traveled to the Blue Stage to kick off your night with Wolf Parade, you were rewarded with hands down Boston Calling’s best rock performance, for all the vagueness of the term.

I caught the reunited Montreal outfit when they first got back together last year, and the extra months on the road have clearly done wonders for what was already an incredible group of musicians. Looking out at what could have been a decent early afternoon-sized crowd, it’s possible they realized their audience had a made a very conscious decision to witness this particular set and therefore upped the anté on the whole thing as a means of thanks. Whatever the case, Wolf Parade simply brought it straight from opener “You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son” to closer “Kissing the Beehive”. There was a nice indie dance party in the back to contrast the day’s mosh pits during “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” and “Fine Young Cannibals”, the latter song dedicated to one particularly bouncy gent in a giraffe costume.

The band also turned in a pair of new songs right at the midway point. One, which we’ll call “Never Leave Home” for now, saw Dan Boeckner at his best, a punk rock prom waltz that had heads swinging along instantly. Spencer Krug, his foot ever resting on his piano stool, took lead on what’s probably going to be called “Lover Boy” but I hope is dubbed “1, 3, 2, 4” for its quirky pre-chorus. Either way, the songs were signals of a new album that’s going to be very welcome for fans, so prepare yourself for something great.

And great is an understatement for what Wolf Parade gave that unfortunately but understandably small late Sunday crowd. The band poured themselves into every inch of the show, displaying graciousness and virtuosity that younger bands could only hope to learn from. Folks were surely pleased with what RtJ brought over on the other side of the festival, but for those who sought out something different, they were left with a set worth holding on to for years to come.

Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Boston Calling.


Photographer: Ben Kaye