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Can Boston Calling Music Fest Boost This City's Hip Factor?

The debut Boston Calling Music Festival at City Hall Plaza last May. (Mike Diskin)

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Despite dismally cold, wet weather, the first edition of the Boston Calling Music Festival was, by all accounts, a success. Its debut last Memorial Day weekend sold out well in advance, logistics were smooth, and the trendy lineup of nationally touring, mostly indie rockers—including Fun., Dirty Projectors, The Shins, Andrew Bird, and rising Boston post-funk outfit Bad Rabbits—exceeded expectations.

As Boston Calling’s second installment arrives this weekend, Sept. 7 and 8, the emergence of a new festival on the scene brings up some big and important questions. What does Boston Calling say about Boston? Will it bring together people from across the city’s many communities or merely appeal to a narrow swath of the population? Can it help make the city a better, more attractive place for musicians to live and work?

In the weeks leading up to the first festival, anticipation was anything but uniform. Reader comments on the preview I wrote for ARTery were mixed. Some charged that the lineup was not diverse in terms of genre; that minorities were under-represented (perhaps as a result); that there were not enough local bands; and that the festival designed to boost Boston’s hip factor was altogether too mainstream.

I shared some of the same worries—namely, about the lack of diversity in the lineup. But the critiques made clear to me that the people of Boston care deeply about their city, its culture, and its image. And I was nevertheless excited to see an appealing collection of pop acts, both large and small, right in the heart of my city.

This weekend’s sequel is headlined by Vampire Weekend and  electropop outfit Passion Pit, which was born around Boston but members have since moved to New York and elsewhere. Other big names include the rapper Kendrick Lamar, emerging R&B diva Solange (sister of Beyoncé), and DJ collaboration Major Lazer. Besides Passion Pit, Boston is represented by indie rock duo You Won’t, synth-pop group Bearstronaut, and blues-rockers Viva Viva.

The lineup looks different this time around, co-founder Brian Appel says, in part because of the feedback they received: May was primarily indie, and pop, and alternative rock, and then for September we added a day here which is primarily EDM [electronic dance music] and R&B, and there’s some hip-hop on there, so we did want to expand our reach a little. … And, you know, we listen to people when they comment to us and they say, hey, what about this artist, or this format, or how about changing this layout—and we take these comments seriously.”

Judging from the buzz around Kendrick Lamar, Bostonians are hungry for the sort of virtuosic, hard-edged hip-hop at which the young Compton rapper excels. And the prevalence of electronic and dance music is a clear bid to attract the recently returned college set. The festival has not sold out, so it remains to be seen if its organizers will deem the slightly diversified lineup a success. Whether Bostonians will look at it and see a bill that reflects the vast range of the city’s cultures and tastes, at least when it comes to popular music, is another story altogether. Considering the prevalence of white males in rock music, it’s not surprising that the May lineup looked the way it did—and why, as a result, the organizers looked out-of-touch. September’s festival reaches further, however tentatively, away from safe territory, and in future iterations it will be the inclusion of artists like Lamar and Solange, rather than Vampire Weekend and Fun., that will give Boston Calling any sort of reputation for hipness.

Like the May festival, the September weekend was curated by Boston-based Crash Line Productions, New York-originating The Bowery Presents, and Aaron Dessner of Brooklyn rock band The National. In the three years that The Bowery Presents has operated in Boston, it has made a noticeable imprint, especially with its latest endeavor, The Sinclair, a medium-sized concert hall in Harvard Square. Members of both You Won’t and Bearstronaut have high praise for the new venue, which, according to Nate Marsden of Bearstronaut, “is doing an amazing job with pairing up local acts with national touring acts. Putting really good local bands in front of audiences that would really enjoy them, and support them, and probably didn’t even know existed.”

Boston Calling seems to have taken this mission seriously as well. Besides Passion Pit, all of the local bands—You Won’t, Bearstronaut, and Viva Viva—are up-and-comers who will doubtlessly benefit from the exposure.

Thanks to the festival’s manageable size, it is possible to catch every one of the weekend’s 20 acts. “For a regional bill, in the location that it’s in, in City Hall, it couldn’t be more perfect,” says Paul Lamontagne of Bearstronaut. “It’s just the right size. And I feel like it’s really, really drawing the community around here, rather than like a national or international festival, like Lollapalooza.”

Boston Calling’s smallness may end up being its strength. With its proximity to New York, Boston is in a perpetual state of comparison with its much larger, much cooler neighbor to the south. Student musicians are drawn to the city to attend Berklee and New England Conservatory, but upon graduation, the lure of the Big Apple proves irresistible to most. Yet, as Lamontagne points out, the fact that Boston Calling is too small to be a destination for people living outside New England has the unexpected perk of making it a regional event, something that pulls the local community together, rather than simply infusing it with outsiders.

“It’s called ‘Boston Calling,’ it’s not called ‘Lollapalooza’ which is not region-specific,” muses Lamontagne. “Maybe there’s something cool about that. Maybe they’re doing something different than Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo, you know? I like that idea. That’s not to say it’s a limitation. It may be the calling card of the festival.”

Previously:

Correction: An earlier version of this essay incorrectly stated that Passion Pit still was based around Boston, when in fact members of the band have since moved Away.

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