Ready to shake free of its growing pains, Boston Calling music festival aims to conquer its behemoth 16-acre home for the second year running — while smoothing out the snags from the year before. Friday through Sunday, the Killers, Jack White, and Eminem will headline the festival, alongside ever-mysterious Natalie Portman-curated entertainment programming and live podcast and comedy components. And then there is the ambitious lineup of 150 food and beverage options across two tiers of VIP ticketing and general admission.
Long lines for food and bathrooms, sold-out vendors, and sound leakage were chief complaints of attendees (and neighbors) when the festival moved from City Hall Plaza to the Harvard Athletic Complex in Allston in 2017. The three-stage, three-night festival expanded to include an indoor comedy experience, an Insta-hit Ferris wheel, and the responsibility of corralling 40,000 ticket holders among 45-musical acts throughout the weekend.
“We learned that despite our team being on-site for hundreds of hours and having a good handle on how it would lay out, it can be overwhelming for people coming to a new venue with this many features happening,” says festival cofounder Brian Appel.
Hayalsu Altınordu was one of them. A community manager and festival regular from Miami, she attended last year but does not plan to return for this weekend’s festival. She cites wait times as her main frustration.
“We waited in line for an hour and a half to leave my backpack in a locker even though we were pretty early, like 4 on Saturday,” she says. “We missed gigs. It was a total disappointment.”
The lines, Appel says, are a concern his team sought to immediately address, with better signage, additional on-site staff to lead the way, and more intuitive pathways and facility locations.
“Now we’ve seen how people behaved at Harvard — which direction they turned when they entered, what they wanted to do first,” he explains. “If getting around all day feels clunky, it’s a longer day. We made it more seamless.”
Last year, organizers predicted concert-goers would head straight through the main gates toward the Red and Green stages, but instead found the natural flow heading to the bleacher-flocked Blue Stage, parallel to Harvard Stadium. This caused bottleneck traffic across narrow walkways and seemed to limit resources along the path.
“We’ve put more staff and another bar and other facilities by the Blue Stage,” says Appel. “We made sure guests will have everything they need to do on that site this time around.”
Additionally, returning festival designer Russ Bennett will re-create the playful sense of discovery and artistic immersion he dreamed up last year — but with a thoughtful layer of practicality.
“A lot of this is trying to predict human behavior,” Bennett explains. “We’ve created more wayfinding for attendees and made sure we can accommodate crowds in traffic areas when they’re really dense. We made the roadway between the main entry and the Blue Stage wider — and the back way, along the brick-and-iron fence [between the Red and Green stages and the Blue Stage]. And then we also made sure to include nicer things of pleasure and pieces of art for people to enjoy along the way.”
The organizers are keeping much of the festival’s artwork under wraps, but Bennett says a new version of his scaled Bunker Hill Monument reproduction will make an appearance. “We’ll add different artists and a collective of graffiti folks going in a new direction,” he says. He’ll also debut a second “very Boston” icon, adding with a laugh, “It’s Boston Calling, not Chicago Calling.”
Being mindful of time and preparation constraints carried into the food and beverage planning as well. While memories of hopelessly long lines during the dinner rush are fresh in some attendees’ minds, participating restaurants like Area Four are curating their menus to accommodate the masses.
“Getting Area Four was a big coup for us because they only do things they know they’ll do well,” says festival director Favour Jones.
‘We’ve seen how people behaved at Harvard — which direction they turned when they entered, what they wanted to do first.’
Jones chose her foodie newcomers, like Gloucester’s Jaju Pierogi and Somerville’s Union Square Donuts, based on their ability to survive the festival demands. “We have to find people who know how to feed a lot of people,” she says. “We tried really hard not to bring the level [of vendors] down, and it just shows how many great chefs there are in our area because I could have doubled the food court — but I ran out of room.”
Sound bleed also plagued the festival in its new home, to the dismay of attendees and residents across the river. The Cambridge Chronicle reported there were more than 30 noise complaints — though some were repeat callers — to Cambridge police during the festival weekend last year.
This year, a sound solution comes courtesy of Bon Iver.
“We also run the Eaux Claires Music Festival in Wisconsin and it’s curated by Bon Iver, who was insistent that we use L-Acoustics for all our audio on the stages,” says Appel. “We’re such fans of their engineers and speakers, so we’re bringing them over here [for all the stages] this year. The artists are ecstatic. It gives us control with directing the sound bleed, and we’ll combat the spilling into Cambridge.”
But many fans, don’t seem deterred by last year’s setbacks, with VIP and Platinum tickets already sold out.
Max Alsgaard-Miller, a young professional from Somerville, plans to return to this year’s iteration, after attending last year in Allston and for several years at City Hall Plaza. He’s excited for what organizers have in store, but also thinks the move itself was a big improvement.
“It really feels like a hometown festival, where you can run into people you might be acquaintances with, but then you’d get to watch a set together,” he says. “I liked that dynamic sense of Choose Your Own Adventure. At City Hall Plaza, it was more just ‘Point A to Point B.’ I like seeing art pieces you can hang out under for shade and how they break up the schedule so you can explore two very different bands if you just walk over to the other side.
“And honestly, I was just thrilled when they moved to Harvard and had actual grass,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll even take the fake AstroTurf.”