Boston Calling has officially reached maturity. This past Memorial Day weekend marked the festival’s fifth year in existence and its sophomore year as a full-blown 3 day, 3 stage event, and boy could you tell. Not only did the management staff successfully address a number of issues from previous years like poor wifi/data access, too few food vendors, and general layout problems, but they brought a noticeably strong lineup to the table for yet another year of live musical indulgence. Paramore’s Hayley William defined the magic of the festival’s allure well, as she meaningfully explained “It’s hard to stay present, but tonight we get to.” I was fortunate enough to be present for three days straight of the nonstop live performances, and that good fortune undoubtedly equated to some strong opinions about who “won” the weekend. To sum up my thoughts and experiences, below are my informal awards for this year’s Boston Calling.
- Best Overall Performance: Eminem
Demand was never an issue for Eminem. One of the most successful hip hop artists of all time stood before a crowd of over 20,000 Bostonians Sunday night with the assurance of a proven 45 year old legend and the toughness of a once-struggling Detroit rapper. When Eminem boldly confessed that this was his first time performing in Boston in 14 years, the record attendance all made sense. This was not another pit-stop. This was a gift to a city yearning to witness one of rap’s greatest icons to perform. It was an experience that was a first for most, and possibly a last for the aging hero. Song after song, Emimen proved that he isn’t just some eternally angry man. He’s a hit-making machine that could keep tens of thousands of adorning fans singing along for two hours straight without the slightest of doubts or hesitations. His unexpected introduction of Skylar Grey to play the accompanying role for songs like “Stan” and “Love The Way You Lie” was an absolute treat, but the real kicker was the invigorating revitalization of his Slim Shady days. Songs like “The Real Slim Shady,” “My Name Is,” and of course “Lose Yourself” all sent the crowd into a complete frenzy in ways that no other artist could inspire.
- Best Individual Song: “Oliver James” by Fleet Foxes
Towards the end of Fleet Foxes set on Sunday night, a look around at the crowd would yield a sea of rain-soaked smirks virtually neglecting the fact that their drenched bodies were shivering in the cold. It had been over half a decade since Fleet Foxes had been in the Boston area, and the number of crowd members (including myself) that were fulfilling an adolescent dream by standing in that storm was clearly sizable. The band had just completed their awe-inspiring finale “Helplessness Blues,” to which the thankful crowd went absolutely ballistic as the band bowed and walked off stage. As the stagehands came to pick up equipment and stragglers walked towards the opposing stage to see Eminem, the crowd would not stop chanting “One more song! One more song! One more song!” To their surprise, lead singer Robin Pecknold responded, emerging from backstage alone with nothing but an acoustic guitar. As the rain continued, he began to sing the slow and uncomplicated B-side “Oliver James.” Not only was this encore truly genuine (something that is unfortunately incredibly rare these days), but it showcased Pecknold’s one-of-a-kind voice as a singularity – a sight and sound that appeared too dreamlike to be true. Pecknold nearly brought me to tears with a voice that seemed as effortless as it was liberating. The repeated refrain “Oliver James, washed in the rain, no longer!” made the storm feel less like an unnecessary burden and more like a controllable baptism to rinse away anything troubling the soul. As Pecknold cried “No longer!” one last time and the crowd erupted into applause, I realized I had been holding my breath and released a massive cathartic sigh.
- Most Unique Performance: BROCKHAMPTON
Alright, you caught me – this category is borderline ridiculous. Nonetheless, BROCKHAMPTON’s story needed to be told as arguably the most incomparable concert experience I’ve ever had. The group’s soul-driven and sensual member Bearface began the performance with a slow and stirring rendition of “SUMMER,” but that was the last you would see any sense of composure out of the rap group that many people are dubbing as boy band reinventionists. The fast and funky beat to the following song “BOOGIE” essentially turned the turf field into a trampoline as the entire crowd started jumping in unison while they feverishly pushed into each other. Subsequent songs would yield several mosh pits, multiple crowd surfers, countless thrown open water bottles, at least half a dozen torn-off shirts, and an energy that I’ve just plain never seen at a live venue before. Towards the end of their set however, something strange happened. Ameer Vann, one of the group’s most popular faces, had been missing the entire performance after accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced earlier in the week. As the performance went on, it became markedly noticeable that the crew was staying silent and cross-armed during his verses. The crowd was still belting out Vann’s lyrics line after line to fill the space, but the rest of BROCKHAMPTON could not handle the oppressive hole being left in Vann’s absence. A few members began crying towards the back of the stage while the instrumentals played on, and then in the middle of a verse, they group walked off together without warning. People whispered to each other in confusion, asking whether we just watched the group break up. The next day, BROCKHAMPTON released a statement that they had officially released Vann from the group and that they would be cancelling the rest of their tour dates to regroup.
- Best Opener: Tauk
Some openers just can’t accept their role in the day’s overarching scheme. The opening act is not meant to provide a moment of revelatory insight. Though it may sound bad, they are meant as a warm-up. New York’s Tauk understood that concept perfectly. They accepted their role and had the confidence and instrumental prowess to get the crowd’s hearts pumping and blood flowing. Their lack of a singer provided a gateway to curiously long hard-rock jam sessions backed by a formidable drummer and improvisational guitarist. This style can be best summed up by their finale – Tauk exclaimed they had one song left despite having 10 minutes remaining in their set, then proceeded to fuse 3-4 songs into a fast-paced compilation of unadulterated rock’n’roll.
- Most individually talented performer: Jack White
The authority Jack White brings to the stage is that of the most commanding leaders in musical history. Not only were his guitar playing skills nothing short of God-given, but his self-appointed position as a mobile conductor was positively astounding. On multiple instances, White would crane his neck in the middle of a riff and stark barking at a fellow band member to change tempo, adjust their rhythm, or stop playing entirely in order to fine-tune the sound he wanted to hear. At one instance, White walked towards the pianist during a solo, simultaneously reached over the top of one piano to play it, and motioning the pianist to compliment him with the adolescent keyboard. It was obvious that the crowd wasn’t as knowledgeable on White’s setlist considering he played songs from his solo work, The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and a few others, but that truly did not matter. White’s mesmerizing talent blew that naivety straight out the door and shifted the focus to his absolutely otherworldly musical acumen for the entirety of his set.
- Best Cover Song: “American Girl” by The Killers
When Brandon Flowers is confident, don’t bother questioning the quality of his upcoming performance. To that point, when Flowers proclaimed Friday night that The Killers were massive Tom Petty fans and they’d gotten “pretty good” at covering “American Girl,” it was obvious we were in for a nice surprise. In the same fashion that The Killer flawlessly covered The Cars “Just What I Needed” during their trip to Boston in January, their cover of American Girl was spot on. They didn’t try to outshine Petty, but rather paid homage to him on an appreciatively warm summer night that Petty made a part of his eternal brand.
Its safe to say that 2018’s edition of Boston Calling was once again a promising sign for years to come. The acts were consistent, sponsoring booths were constantly crowded, and most importantly the festival organizers were obviously paying attention to the feedback they received over the past several years. Check out the playlist below to get a taste of the great music flowing across Harvard’s athletic fields all weekend.