Moving Boston Calling from City Hall Plaza to Harvard’s Athletic Complex in Allston meant more changes than address: the bigger space brought challenges of its own. The layout became a labyrinth, with fans walking around confused about how to get from the adjacent Red and Green Stages to the Blue Stage tucked away in the back of the grounds. Lines for everything were a nightmare—getting in could take an hour, not to mention waiting at any of the stands for food.
Among other issues, festival planners certainly have their work cut out for them for next year. However, they made up for the frustration that navigational difficulties brought; nearly each band on the lineup this year pushed their performances outwards in a manner that wouldn’t be possible in the confines of City Hall Plaza.
The weekend began with what most took in stride as a good omen: a persistent drizzle that soaked festival-goers and turned Harvard’s Athletic Complex into a mud pit. The crowd came mostly prepared, donning rain boots and hoods, gleefully stomping into the dampening turf for Friday’s balancing act of mellow vibes from Bon Iver to Sigur Rós and high-energy sets from Migos to Chance the Rapper.
The Most Clown Jokes Made In Nervous Energy: Vundabar
This wasn’t Vundabar’s first time in a festival setting. The local indie-rock group is known for their goofy personalities that they carry on stage with them, fusing jangly guitar hooks with stuck-out tongues and jaunty dance moves—this has taken them to festivals in France, Belgium, and Denmark. But Vundabar left the crowd feeling like they should’ve caught the band at a venue like The Middle East, playing through a set that felt rushed. In between jokes about clown culture—“Clown! Union! Clown! Union!” vocalist Brandon Hagen chanted—the three-piece floored it through each song, making “Sad Clown” almost indistinguishable from “Ash In The Sun.” Still, the band’s sound was tight and each member kept pace with the others, never missing a note. The very first set of the festival, Vundabar left the crowd eager to see where the weekend would take them.
Most Likely to Be an Instagram Filter: Whitney
Over the last year, indie rock band Whitney have proven that they can hold their own—embarking on a headlining tour while earning coveted slots on the festival circuit. You’d never know that they dropped their debut album, Light Upon the Lake, barely a year ago.
For a group like Whitney—meant to be enjoyed with a cold beer on a blazing summer day—it’s never ideal when the audience is all-hoods-up, dripping in rain. But with drums rolling and trumpet in tow, Whitney forged ahead in a set that showcased drummer/vocalist Julien Ehrlich’s wistful falsetto and the band’s tight arrangements. At one point, Ehrlich stepped down from his drum kit and sat down cross-legged with bassist Josiah Marshall; the two joined hands—and lips—as the audience hooted.
“Anybody in love in the crowd?” Ehrlich asked before launching into “Golden Days.” “This song is for when you break up and you still follow each other on Instagram… and dream about what it could have been.”
I swear the sun peeped out of the clouds.
The Human Slinky You Wouldn’t Want at the Dinner Table: Francis and the Lights
In shades, a maroon bomber jacket, and high-waisted black pants, Francis Farewell Starlite (is that a real name?) looked pretty damn small on the mammoth that was the Green Stage. His stage setup was minimal: just a microphone up front, an electric keyboard, and a little black table manned by a DJ in the back corner.
It all made sense when Starlite started flailing across the stage, his body writhing and spastic as if controlled by puppet strings. The guy was Elvis on acid. He might have covered more ground than a Premier League footballer during a match, even making it over to the keyboard for a glissando during funky electropop track “I Want You to Shake.”
Towards the end of the set, he stopped his DJ cold to share the worst onstage story I’ve ever heard—something about a man at a restaurant telling him to put his glasses on his shirt, not the table, so he wouldn’t lose them. All was forgiven, though, when he brought Chance the Rapper on for some synchronized dancing during closer “May I Have This Dance.”
The Best Ending to an Awkward Start: Car Seat Headrest
Frontman Will Toledo had his shaggy head of dark hair falling over his face to conceal the small smile he gave each time the crowd began to cheer as he tuned his guitar during sound check. The Virginia-based band is best known for 2016’s Teens of Denial, a monolith of an LP with many songs clocking in over five minutes long. Though, it’s not Toledo’s first release, as the singer-songwriter has self-released 11 albums on his Bandcamp page. His songs have a confessional quality, and there was something cathartic about hearing a decently-sized crowd shouting “I’ve got a right to be depressed!” as the power chords created an electrifying backdrop for “Fill In The Blank.”
The band came onstage to “Vincent,” albeit foregoing the wavering guitar note intro for some pre-recorded fuzziness that ushered Toledo back into the cheers. The instruments clumsily joined in. But once Car Seat Headrest got deeper into their set, everything seemed to come together: Toledo playfully danced around the mic, guitarist Ethan Ives leaned into each strum, and the crowd thrust their fists into the air accordingly. A glance at Toledo might leave one assuming smallness—skinny, pale, and decidedly inward, he doesn’t strike you as having the biggest voice. But he unleashed his soul into each song, diving into the depths of his deep range and releasing guttural snarls matched by the aggressive instrumentation.
The Duo That Started the Mud Party: Sylvan Esso
Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn ushered in Friday evening with slick, dance-y beats and pure fun. Never mind her breezy songbird vocals, a smiley Meath jumped around—absolutely glowing—in black, four-inch platform shoes, and had no trouble performing an arabesque or bouncing on her tippy toes to the beeps and clicks of “Kick Jump Twist.” We saw a darker interpretation of the duo’s music in producer Sanborn, who legitimately looked like he was in physical pain as he twisted knobs, his face scrunched in anguish every time he turned to face the crowd.
Barring the man next to me who pretended to be the chimes during “Coffee,” the sing-and-dance-alongs to Sylvan Esso’s set were a great way to kick off the night. If your shoes weren’t already caked in mud, they were now.
Most Likely To Make You Believe In Magic: Bon Iver
There’s no doubt that Justin Vernon has some connection to the mystical world—the bearded Eau Claire, WI native wrote his first album secluded in a cabin in the middle of Wisconsin wilderness. And 2016’s 22, A Million explored new sonic terrain wildly different from the twinkling acoustics of For Emma, Forever Ago. The rain had subsided earlier in the day, but Bon Iver’s set provoked its reappearance—and the crowd couldn’t have been happier.
The first half of Bon Iver’s set was almost all of 22, A Million, save for the very first and last tracks. Translating the complex production that accompanies the heavily modulated and glitchy experimental folk songs seemed too difficult to pull off live, but Vernon’s finesse with his tools made even the most garbled sounds come across beautifully. In fact, hearing some of 22, A Million live helped illustrate the profound uncertainty in the lyrics lurking beneath the glitchy noises Vernon is belting through a vocoder. The visuals helped—flashing the symbols and characters used in the song titles from 22, A Million along with bursts of colored light created a mellow but hopeful atmosphere.
The second half featured songs from Bon Iver’s first two albums, an acoustic respite from the synth-laden former half. Armed with only his voice and guitar, Vernon launched into the introspective explorations of “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI,” received with relief from the crowd, glad they could now sing along. “Minnesota, WI” and some of the final songs featured a small brass ensemble and percussion, which each broke to solo at points throughout the set. The rain began to trickle again during “Holocene,” and the skies completely opened up and unleashed a downpour as Vernon began “Skinny Love.” The crowd went wild—the raindrops fell like glittering stars as they were illuminated by the stage, and no one cared to put up their hoods as they shouted along those words they’d never felt more deeply before: “Who will love you? Who will fight? Who will fall far behind?”
Most Epic, in a Literary Sense: Sigur Rós
I couldn’t tell you what songs Sigur Rós played during their 90-minute set—partially because I don’t know Icelandic, but mostly because their show didn’t feel so much of a collection of songs as it did an intrepid hero’s journey from Greek mythology. (The 10-minute rain shower only added to the mood.) The epic began with all three band members behind a screen as white lasers shot out, as if from the tips of Orri Páll Dýrason’s drumsticks; continued with crashing noises and frontman Jónsi hunched over, hacksawing at his bowed guitar and crooning like a violin; and concluded with a (newly) shirtless Dýrason smashing down his sticks and mauling over a speaker. The end.
Best Substitute for Church on Sunday: Chance the Rapper
As the lights from Sigur Ros’s set illuminated the cloudy sky, Chicago’s Chance the Rapper brightened the crowd that stretched back to the main entrance with his upbeat positivity and whip-fast hooks. Reminding the audience several times throughout the night how grateful he was to be there, Chance seemed at ease on stage. He leapt across the stage all throughout his set, sprinting through the crowd at one point and climbing the scaffolding above the sound tent—much to the delight of the fans, hurrying to get Snapchats, reaching for the rapper’s hands. It looked exhausting, but he spit lines with such enthusiasm it came across as effortless.
Working a three-song Kanye West medley into his set, a DJ Khaled cover, and bringing the Social Experiment band onstage to perform “Sunday Candy,” Chance’s set gave a nod to his roots. He powered through songs about his family, songs about his relationship to his faith, and song about his personal relationships—all of which culminated in unabashed exuberance. Dancing underneath fireworks and showers of sparks and confetti throughout his set, Chance connected with the crowd in a way Friday’s previous performers had strode for but not achieved.
“I couldn’t do this without y’all,” Chance said at one point. “Thank you for believing in me.” And he meant it, genuinely: a goofy smile spread across his face each time the crowd cheered, and he took the time in between songs to laugh and talk his way into the next one. He joked that he didn’t know the words and needed their help—the crowd responded without fail, knowing the words to even his fastest verses. He performed classic favorites like “Cocoa Butter Kisses” and “Lost” from Acid Rap as well as plenty of songs from 2016’s Coloring Book, including “Same Drugs” and “Finish Line.” It was a heartfelt way to end day one.