There was a time when I thought nothing was more “Boston” than watching Pixies perform at Boston Calling in May 2015.
Savor some Tasty Burger to “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” hear a guy holler “I saw you at The Rat!,” then beat feet out of City Hall Plaza and moan when the Haymarket T station clogs with people. Nights like that felt like the ultimate Boston experience — bonus points if you sported a Red Sox hat.
Boston music fans like myself have flocked to the festival for that caliber of city-centric experience since the inaugural May 2013 edition. Beyond the heavyweight headliners and you-had-to-be-there sets from then-budding stars (young Halsey and Lizzo come to mind), those intentional layers of Boston culture have enticed folks, year after year — now for a decade.
When the festival returns this weekend, guests will surely sniff out this year’s quintessential Boston moment: perhaps a few carefree minutes swaying to the tunes of local performer Alisa Amador while wolfing down gooey bites of a Roxy’s grilled cheese sandwich.
The night of Pixies’ performance, Boston Calling was only in its third year and fifth edition — the fest was biannual until 2016 — but it already reigned as the headliner of local festival season. Even its home at City Hall Plaza made a statement: We’re rooted in the heart of this city. Inside the festival’s gates, music pulsed between two adjacent, alternating stages. Fans literally never had to miss a beat.
I could observe everything from the media area, tucked underneath the cover of City Hall’s Brutalist facade. I’d swivel in my seat, back and forth between stages, recharging my phone before I returned to the sea of flower crowns (this was the mid-2010s, remember) flocking from barricade to barricade, as Run the Jewels’ roaring hip-hop made way for Tove Lo’s bawdy pop, or a saccharine set from BØRNS crashed into Courtney Barnett’s rollicking alt-rock.
I’d arrive early enough to witness a Boston artist christen each day, and linger until the skyscrapers reflected the vibrant stage lights of whichever headliner — giants like Beck, Sia, Nas with the Roots, and the Replacements — buttoned up the evening. You couldn’t ask for a more spectacular backdrop. Lorde, awestruck by the glimmer of the city during her September 2014 performance, told the Boston Calling crowd they were her “new favorite audience.”
On special occasions, like 2013′s headlining set from Boston’s Passion Pit and the aforementioned Pixies performance, homegrown music bookended the day, like a panoramic view of what I’d cover any given week in my fledgling music journalist days.
Then Boston Calling moved to Allston.
The festival relocated to the Harvard Athletic Complex in 2017, expanding its offerings to three stages and an arena for a comedy component hosted by Hannibal Buress. Gone were the days of pivoting between two stages, never missing a moment of the lineup, and dancing under the dazzling twinkle of the city.
Instead, we had endless stretches of Astroturf, a lineup laden with overlapping sets, and a sparkly new Ferris wheel, an Instagram-ready spectacle ripe for Coachella comparisons. Initially, I eyed it with skepticism.
Because Boston Calling wasn’t Coachella. It was a glorious marathon of sets from artists fit to play every size venue in town, like a weekend-long loop between the Paradise Rock Club, the House of Blues, and the Agganis Arena. Its former location downtown and its glimmers of local flavor — electro-pop artist St. Nothing ascending from an Allston basement, Christmas in May with a set from Boston rapper Michael Christmas — cemented the weekend as the quintessential Boston experience. Now it was closer to Cambridge than the actual core of the city.
I ping-ponged between the three stages in 2017, hustling to witness as much of the lineup as I could manage. The thought crossed my mind as I trudged through the complex: I never would have to do this at City Hall Plaza. No — I never could do this at City Hall Plaza.
The former location had shifted from a downtown sweet spot to an undeniable limitation. Boston Calling’s massive new domain in Allston demonstrated a hard-earned evolution that never could have squeezed into the Plaza’s compact footprint.
The transformation suddenly clicked, as I felt the breadth of the festival’s growth spurt in my aching calves. But I didn’t feel it in my soul until I stepped up to the Tivoli Audio Orange Stage last year.
Boston Calling unveiled the new performance space for its 2022 edition to offer a weekend-long showcase of area acts, ranging from Crooked Coast’s reggae-rock to Van Buren Records’ hyper collective of hip-hop. I scoped out the new stage on the first day of last May’s festival, eager to see a set from Avenue, a Roxbury-raised rapper.
When I turned the corner, I saw more than Avenue. I saw Boston.
I saw many faces I recognized from local shows, and many that I didn’t, all pressed against barricades, expressing the same passion for these artists as they did for world-renowned headliners. Crowds gathered for artists like Aaron and the Lord, the Chelsea Curve, and Dutch Tulips maintained the enthusiasm throughout the weekend. (I should note: In 2016, the festival organized a similar endeavor at City Hall Plaza, but the stage wasn’t allotted enough space for this kind of proper spotlight.)
On the Red Stage, Boston Calling’s prior model remained in place. Boston artists Oompa and Julie Rhodes greeted Saturday and Sunday afternoons as the first acts of the day. Yet independently, those were just 30-minute snapshots of the music scene. What went down on the Orange Stage was a weekend-long display of modern Boston. The stage reprises its key role again this year, with 12 performances from acts like Brandie Blaze, Najee Janey, Little Fuss, Blue Light Bandits, and Ali McGuirk.
For a decade now, fans have debated how much Boston should be in Boston Calling. I’m not saying the current formula is the right answer — but it’s the closest Boston Calling has come to balancing the equation in 10 years.
As for that Ferris wheel I once side-eyed: I eventually surrendered and boarded it to interview local hip-hop veterans and festival performers STL GLD on a raw spring day. We chatted while bracing ourselves against an icy mist like good, stoic New Englanders. That felt pretty damn “Boston” to me.
All that was missing was a fistful of Tasty Burger.
Victoria Wasylak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @VickiWasylak.