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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.

Comments

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  • penucheBro420

    “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.”

    But don’t worry, you can still pretend to be from Boston like Passion Pit (when it’s convenient). Glad Boston has a crappy big box music festival like every other hip place like Kansas City (with 3 out of 20 bands being locals!), but as long as the city is actively hostile to DIY music the scene here will remain dead.

    • Peter Terry

      I’m a concert promoter and I’d like to feature local bands, but don’t have any contacts in that field. Maybe you or someone else reading this could hook me up? peter.t.terry@gmail.com

    • Johan Corby

      You don’t draw 20,000 people with bands that play Great Scott, Radio, and Allston house shows.

    • penucheBro420

      Obviously not. That’s exactly my point, that Boston will bend over backward if Aerosmith wants to shut down Comm Ave for a concert, and will bend over backward for an outdoor festival drawing 20,000 people, but doesn’t care even slightly about being an incubator for new talent. There aren’t really even Allston house shows anymore because the cops were focused on shutting them down (despite the fact that they can’t be bothered to solve most murder cases). The hostility the city shows toward independent music plus the ridiculous cost of rent is making musicians flee. You can pretty much live in Brooklyn for about the same price as Allston at this point, and the city will leave you alone if you have the gall to do something creative without being a personal friend of the mayor.

    • Johan Corby

      Well, you win. Well said. I thought you were butthurt that it wasn’t a bunch of locals headlining, but you made some solid points.

  • Charlie

    None of the members of Passion Pit have lived in Cambridge or Boston for years…they split for Brooklyn the minute their first album took off.

    • penucheBro420

      I remember when they were getting a ton of press at SXSW ’09 as this big Boston band and everyone else I knew from Boston who was at SXSW had never heard of them or seen them play in Boston before. They had money and connections to break their band before they even played a show.

    • Charlie

      I remember hearing the EP and I knew they had played a few shows at Great Scott and others, but then I think they basically stopped playing Boston venues until that first album came out…the buzz for the first record was really strong before it got released. Maybe they knew they wouldn’t be here for much longer!

    • Patrick Hopkins

      I saw them in 08 at the Iron Horse with Ra Ra Riot in Northampton, MA back when they were fresh to the scene…such an amazing venue and an amazing place to see them.

  • Amelia Mason

    GUYS I fixed the passion pit thing it’s ok now!

  • Yvonne

    I’d like to know what the city of Boston is getting out of this. I work in the government center plaza area and I see shows, circus, carnivals, concerts come and go, disrupting business and creating hazards. Do any of these host organizations leave the plaza better than they left it? NO! Could this plaza use some help? YES City Hall Plaza is a mess – the bricks are loose and it’s a barely handicapped accessible. WBUR – report on this please!!

  • callmebc

    Boston Calling is just a music festival with mostly brand names, and the only thing different about it is that it’s in the city limits as opposed to being out in Mansfield or such. As far as the “hip factor” goes, Boston already has a special reputation for music that few outside of the music business know about. For one, Boston is a musician factory with all the colleges in the area, especially with the likes of Berklee and the NEC, but there is little money to be made as a musician here, no matter how talented. So younger musicians tend to stick around for a year or so post college at best before heading off, as others have noted, to Brooklyn, Nashville or even Colorado (LA is much more of a gamble — you should only be invited there and/or have work waiting.) Actually if you take all the originally Boston-based musicians out of Brooklyn, there would little left of their music scene.

    And tourists have no clue where these musicians play around here — the Faneuil Hall and North Station areas for instance rarely have indie musicians playing their own songs. For that you have to head over to Allston, Cambridge, and Somerville, and even then you’ll need some insider knowledge to decide on which nights and which venues might have bands and music that you’ll like, and those are the places to catch the true up and comers before they head off to brief or long-lived success. (Actually by the time a mainstream news outlet calls a Boston band an “up and comer,” it’s usually a couple of years after the fact.)

    I would rather see the sections of the Greenway used for stuff like this — its progress as an urban space has been glacial, and pretty much every interesting and clever, not to mention hip plan for its use has fallen by the wayside. These types of festivals, if they catch on, might be just the jump start it needs to be something more involving, inviting and stimulating.