Boston Calling is taking over the Harvard Athletic Complex this year — meaning both longtime veterans of the festival (like me) and first-timers will be entering uncharted territory. We’ll all be trading in the gray concrete of City Hall Plaza for the lush athletic fields of Allston, and the three-day festival is more expansive and diverse than ever — musically, edibly, and Instagramable-y.
The new festival footprint will cover 16 acres of Harvard territory. It was designed by Russ Bennett, the creative mind behind the visual spectacles of Tennessee’s Bonnaroo and San Francisco’s Outside Lands festivals.
“Government Center — that architecture is called ‘brutalist’ for a reason,” Bennett notes. “Being on ground and grass is going to be a wonderful change for everyone.”
Bennett has been working with the Boston Calling team since the beginning of the year to transform the space into a visually cohesive and locally representative all-day playground. An artist-sculptor by trade, Bennett incorporated unique visual elements throughout. A city skyline mural featuring diverse members of Boston’s community separates the two main stages, while an interpretation of the Bunker Hill Monument sits smack center between the two main stages and food tents.
A 60-foot Ferris wheel will anchor the grounds, giving spectators great views of both the festival and the eastward-facing city skyline. Plus, says Bennett, “we placed it there because it’s nice for the performers to see nice things, too.”
This expansion also allows more than 25 restaurants, food trucks, and vendors to dish out food and beer — with local favorites like Michael Scelfo (Alden & Harlow, Waypoint) and Andy Husbands (Tremont 647, Sister Sorel) slinging festival-exclusive grub and Mikkeller returning with their European taps following Crash Line Production’s Copenhagen Beer Festival last fall.
“It’s not going to be your fair food-carnival stuff — and it’s not going to be their standard restaurant fare either,” explains Crash Line’s director of concessions, Stewart Billodeaux. “Many of them will be creating dishes just for us.”
An equally tasty smorgasbord of comedy — a replacement for the postponed Natalie Portman-helmed film festival — will give attendees the opportunity to cool off and LOL with Hannibal Buress in the Bright-Landry Hockey Center, an indoor oasis that seats 3,000. Crash Line’s Trevor Solomon (who books the festival with the National’s Aaron Dessner) also curated the 13-act comedy lineup that includes heavy hitters like Tig Notaro, Pete Holmes, and Eugene Mirman.
“It’s cool that you can take a pivot step and see some top-level comedians perform while your friends break up the day and recharge,” says Solomon.
Oh — and then there’s the music, with Chance the Rapper, Mumford & Sons, and Tool headlining three respective nights.
“The lineups have been all over the place, to be honest with you,” says Solomon with a laugh. “I think this year, we married a bunch of festivals we’ve done in the past and came up with really good chemistry for this one.”
There are also three stages — the Delta blue stage, the Xfinity red stage, the Boston Calling stage — all of equal size, but while the Xfinity and Boston Calling stages are within earshot, heading to the Delta stage could be a time commitment. Bennett’s expert tip: “I would stand at the very back of [the lawn for] the blue stage. It’s not that long of a venue and there’s a little rise, so you’ll be able to look over people and have a beer and a hot dog at the same time.”
The scheduling for the three days is tight, with some sets and comedy acts starting close together or simultaneously. For example, there’s Major Lazer and Weezer’s 8 p.m. sets on Sunday, or the Pete Holmes and Solange overlap on Friday. So how do you plot your priorities? (For me, it’s Samuel Adams’s Raspberry Lemon gose, half shells from Shuck Food Truck, and Tegan & Sara.)
“I am a TV producer, so I have to have a plan,” says Nicole Derosiers, 30, of Boston. “I’ve gone every single year since the beginning, and I know that all plans don’t go the way you want them to, but for me it’s: Get the bracelet, get the beer, and then figure out when the first band we want to see is starting.”
Part of Derosiers’s strategy is to make a Spotify playlist of the artists she hasn’t heard of yet, so she knows if there’s someone new she should schedule into her day. But as an early bird ticket buyer, it was the comedy stage that threw her for a loop.
“I’m a huge Phoebe Robinson fan — and Eugene and Tig, so I hope I don’t have to make choices,” she says. “In the past, you never had to make decisions because it’s all planned out, but now it’s bigger with a lot more going on, and I’m scared I’ll have to choose between a favorite kid.”
For Patrick Bresnahan, a 21-year-old rising senior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, it’s about finding your grounds and sticking to it.
“I first went to Boston Calling in 2015 with the Alabama Shakes, and it got me addicted to going to concerts ever since,” he says. “What I’ve done in past years is plan out my day around the bands — like for Hozier in 2015, we stood at that stage all day, so we could be as close as possible.”
This year, he’s especially interested in the xx. “But I want the full experience, too,” he adds. “The food looks really good and Hannibal Buress is definitely cool. There’s so much happening. This year will be much more of a festival.”