Comic Ken Reid battled the heat and a diffident audience when he took the stage Saturday at Boston Calling. Fans of Reid’s popular podcast TV Guidance Counselor, know that his comedic approach is rooted in the preposterous incongruities he recognizes in pop culture arcanum. On Saturday, he looked at the space around him — City Hall Plaza — and riffed on the dissonance of holding a music festival in a place that is so loaded with other meanings to Bostonians: “We’re standing on what was once Scollay Square. This is the place where sailors would get tattoos, and beat people up at Burlesque shows. And now look at it.”
From Scollay Square to City Hall Plaza. From infamy to civic pride. We know that Boston, as a city, and the places that make it up get reinvented over time. Swampy inlets from the Charles become the Fenway. The Combat Zone becomes home to Emerson and Suffolk dorms. JP becomes a bougie haven of gentrification. But that reinvention never erases the layered history of places in Boston. And those layers reflect, endowing events that take place here with an excess of meanings to those in the know.
Boston Calling has been around for only four years, but in that short time, it has become so closely identified with its locale that they seem inseparable. As co-founder Brian Appel told us last week, that’s why the city is right there in the title of the festival. From the start, it was meant to be a festival identified with Boston. And hosting it at City Hall Plaza was an ode to Boston’s penchant for reinventing civic spaces: our sterile excrescent ode to brutalist architecture is rarely such a warm, inviting space as when it hosts Boston Calling. And recursively, so much of Boston Calling’s identity and charm came from its ability to convert that plaza into the site of Boston’s premier music festival.
At the end of their set on the third stage, the south shore’s Black Beach thanked the mayor. In finest Boston tradition, the band spoke a little truth to power, and made a nose-thumbing reference to the brewing scandal of the administration’s alleged proclivity to union bullying. In that slight gesture, the band reclaimed our civic space. I won’t kid myself that the festival is one for the little guy. It’s a massive capitalist venture that — this year, especially — demonstrates aesthetic excesses and grandiosity on a scale that probably does belong in a site better suited to 18,000 fans than a concrete block in the city center. But bringing a little rock and roll to City Hall Plaza made it feel as if the festival was on our side. As if it were our own. Black Beach gave us a nice little shot of that. And that’s why it’s important that Boston Calling has been at Government Center. And that’s what will be missing when it moves next year and it feels like we’re borrowing space from the Brahmin class to toss our shindig.
There will be dozens of easy jokes about Boston Calling being at Harvard next year. I can imagine a set like Elle King’s this past Saturday in which she prodded the audience, relying on easy Boston stereotypes — “Why am I always drunk in Boston?” — and feigned indifference at being part of the festival — “Hopefully I won’t remember being here.” Any posturing rock band will reach for the low-hanging fruit, taking a shot at the irony of rock and roll at Harvard. But the gesture like Black Beach’s, the moments of knowing smiles and ironic tweaks at the city’s dense past, won’t be there. Instead, we’ll be left with the easy jokes of the tourist crowd, and then where are we? Coachella: Boston Edition?
But perhaps that’s what we’re after. In discussing the festival’s extension into comedy, curator and third stage host Lamont Price said he was brought on so that Boston Calling looked a little more like major music festivals incorporating comedy, like Bonnaroo and South by Southwest. And with the addition of the film festival next year, that seems to be the growing goal. A “serious” film festival to be curated by Harvard grad Natalie Portman may class up the joint and push boundaries a bit. How that film festival might conflict with or be affected by the already well-established IFF Boston(running each April) is yet to be seen, though. Trying to steamroll the largest film festival in New England, and one so many culture vultures see as critical to cultural life of Boston, is evidence that in an attempt to think big, Boston Calling might be losing sight of what made the festival exciting to us to begin with.
What makes the move more curious is that this year’s festival went local in ways it had never done before. Local acts Palehound and Michael Christmas kicked off the main stages on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. In addition to local comedians, the third stage hosted local bands all weekend — including a slaying set by soon-to-break Bostonians Lady Pills — and the emphasis on the festival being a “super-Boston event” in the words of co-founder Brian Appel seemed to be there at the level of programming. But perhaps the local lineup was a way to assuage fans given the news to come that the festival was moving. Perhaps that’s the concession.
There is a counterargument to be had. The festival is going to Harvard, but by staying south of the Charles it stays in Boston. And for the city’s scenesters, this puts the festival closer to the home of the creative class in lower Allston. In a neighborhood that still has cheap rent and denizens resourceful enough to compensate for lack of nightlife with its house party scene (despite recent kerfuffles), Allston gives the new Boston Calling a cachet of being among the musicians, among the Bohemians, among the people who’ve worked so hard to create a scene that would welcome Boston Calling.
But that local audience isn’t really the audience for Boston Calling, is it? The ticket buying public are not the starving artists in Allston. They are the folks who can afford the three-day VIP pass.
As evidence, where’s the public transit? Boston’s caustic wit, Luke O’Neil, tweeted that he’d best start waiting for the 66 bus now to get to next year’s festival. For the plebes, two rather unreliable bus routes are all that serve the new site. And a trudge from the red line in Harvard Square may do the trick, but 18,000 concert-goers drunkenly pushing across Anderson Memorial Bridge at midnight a week after Harvard has cleared its coeds likely won’t be welcomed by the Cantabrigian effete elite.
Boston Calling has felt every year like our festival. Not like our secret, but like our festival. A music festival on the terms of Bostonians. On the terms of our scene, and our city. We welcome others to participate in our festival in our plaza. That won’t be the case with Boston Calling 2.0. Like so many other public displays in Boston, it will be for the benefit of others, and for the benefit of their imagination of who we are. It won’t be on our terms.
Moving the festival to Harvard may be fun. And the festival will grow bigger. It may even grow better in some ways. But it fundamentally changes the identity of Boston Calling. It won’t be the transformation of our public space to speaks to our idea of who we are. It won’t evince that civic pride that’s so critical to what Boston Calling is. In name, it will still be Boston Calling, but it will be calling everyone but Bostonians.