Tool, Chance the Rapper, Mumford and Sons: Highlights from the Boston Calling Festival
Sun, rain, shine — it’s almost as if these are essential for any music festivals taking place anywhere between spring and summer. With the season (and the larger problem of climate change) entirely open to debate, folk/country band Hiss Golden Messenger’s frontman MC Taylor addressed the crowd on a chilly closing day, “It’s probably going to snow by the time Tool gets on.”
Whereas on day one, blue rain ponchos were spotted all over, stood on astroturf at the Harvard Athletic Complex — right next to the somewhat colosseum-style Harvard Stadium — watching the cinematically intense and ambient magnificence of penultimate act, Iceland’s post-rock pioneers Sigur Ros at the Delta Blue Stage.
The eighth edition of Boston Calling signalled a few changes — moving to the Harvard Athletic Complex, cutting down from bi-annual outings to just the one edition and thus, presumably scaling up the artist billing. And when you get prog rock’s most loved band Tool on your lineup, you know you have to measure up and offer something in a similar space.
That explains why, even though everyone was wearing Tool T-shirts on the final day, it didn’t take more than a few seconds of mathcore/hardcore veterans Converge kicking into ‘Dark Horse’ for the crowd to break into a punching-and-kicking mosh at the main stage. The Delta Blue stage had just earlier hosted Toronto punk rockers PUP belting out songs like ‘If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will’.
But whether you had to traverse mud and a few tight corners to find a good spot, there was something for everyone at Boston Calling, even if their curation leans more on indie and hipster acts. From reunited bands like Piebald and last-minute additions like rap’s best new trio Migos replacing Solange to the anthemic nerd rock of Weezer, this was a lineup you wouldn’t see very often. Well, at this scale, at least.
While day one kicked off with the jokey lo-fi rock on Boston band Vundabar at the Xfinity Red Stage, San Francisco noise/weird rockers Deerhoof got a few intentional and unintentional laughs at the Blue stage. Surprisingly, with the downpour seeming to come to pass, when Chicago indie rockers Whitney got on, their sunny psychedelic vibes brought the sun out, even as it drizzled. With the one-man show that was Francis and the Lights on the Green stage, Boston Calling’s evening featured another new favourite in the indie and mainstream rock scene — Car Seat Headrest, riding high on their critically-acclaimed Teens of Denial, having everyone sing along to songs like ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’ and ‘Destroyed By Hippie Powers’. What followed through the evening was slack rocker Mac DeMarco’s “jizz jazz”, proving he’s one of the most chilled-out yet passionate performers in rock right now. Before we headed to see Sigur Ros, there was the well-arranged, stunning performance of Bon Iver, also riding on their lauded 2016 album 22, A Million. By the time you tuned in to catch the day’s headliner — Chance the Rapper, with his fireworks and ginormous visual screens — you were sort of hoping for something a little more intimate, especially after seeing Sigur Ros and Bon Iver, but the rapper was all about bombast, much to the crowd’s delight.
And for anyone who dug rap and hip-hop, day two would have been a clear highlight. The festival lined up the party-friendly hip-hop of Tkay Maidza, carpe-diem preacher Russ (who was on about 45 minutes past his set time), Cousin Stizz and his DJ being as trigger-happy as possible with a sample of gunshots and the rockstar rap of Danny Brown. Even then, it didn’t dim the turnout and interest in folksy country-blues leaning rock of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, the pop of Tegan and Sara, adrenaline-fuelled fun from The 1975, electronic emotional music from The XX and of course, Mumford and Sons. The headliners for the day, Mumford and Sons were totally their British selves when they brought on peers in Brandi Carlile and Nathaniel Rateliff to jam on The Beatles’ evergreen ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, but they’d prefaced it with two hours of their career-spanning best – from ‘The Cave’ to ‘I Will Wait’ and ‘Ditmas’ – as frontman Marcus Mumford switched between drums, guitars and piano.
By the final day of a festival, there’s a sort of ease that you want to set in, in the way you walk long distances between stages or wait about half an hour in line to buy your ice-cream or salad bowl. It helped that a laidback vibe was provided by psych rockers Mondo Cozmo. If anything, day three seemed to throw in the heavy with a little bit from the previous two days — the rap of Flatbush Zombies and one of the best sets of the festival by hip-hop duo Run the Jewels, indie/alt rock from Piebald, Frightened Rabbit and Cage the Elephant and the gigantic EDM star trio of Major Lazer.
To top it off, they had a band that rarely performs at festivals, hasn’t performed outside the US for years, and has been best known to say and do whatever they want — Tool. Sure, it’s been about 11 years since their last album and they’ve been touring regularly still, but when Tool plays their songs, it’s like being in a suspended timeframe, every song as strong as the next — from ‘Parabola’ to ‘Jambi’ to ‘Stinkfist’. With every song of their 90-minute set resonating why they’re one of the most sought after, must-see bands in the world, Tool might have stuck out on the Boston Calling lineup. They proved that perhaps prog is still relevant, even amidst all the rap, indie, electronic and mainstream rock.