Lots of festivals got hit hard by COVID cancellations, from SXSW to Coachella, but one hit particularly badly was Boston Calling, as it was forced to suspend for not one, but two years, as it occurs on Memorial Day Weekend (to get those college kids before they leave for the summer). But in 2022 it came back, Friday-Sunday, May 27th-29th, only to lost most of its headliners, rain delay, acts cancelling due to COVID, and more.
Yet the event was a success, well-run (even when evacuating & reopening), great music (even with last-minute fill-ins), and much more.
The weather agreed on Friday, making for an easy walk for all the kids coming off of the Harvard Square stop and heading across the Charles River. The festival takes place at the Harvard Athletic Complex, a former tidal plain of the river (you could still see some reeds in parts) that’s got tennis courts, a football stadium, and general green lawns for the fest. There were four color-coded stages, two pairs of alternating stages – though they weren’t exactly equal, the small & hard-to-find Orange Stage for local acts you might only check out after leaving the Blue Stage, while the Red Stage was not as loud as the next door main Green Stage.
Early in the day were the breezy & easy Backseat Lovers on the Red Stage, a nice fit for the festival on a sunny afternoon. But the real energetic kick-off was The Struts on the Green Stage, suitably glam-kicking ass from the get-go. They were a great active rock band to transition from the early easy part of the day to the more pumped-up later part. Frontman Luke Spiller was in fine form, including playing the two sides of the crowd against each other in amounts of cheer, to say nothing of when the whole band froze in place. Notably, guitarist Adam Slack (QRO interview) wasn’t there, but had a capable stand-in with Neil.
Spinal Tap’s manager once said that Boston isn’t much of a college town, but it’s also a classic rock town (think the band Boston), so it was fitting to have Cheap Trick at the Red Stage. Yes, they closed with “Surrender” (including bringing out earlier-in-the-day performer Paris Jackson), which is still alright (if just seems a little weird), but so would you if you’d written that song – that or “I Want You To Want Me”, which naturally they also played.
Unlike most music festivals coming out of lockdown, Boston Calling hasn’t leaned into the popular (and easier to set up) EDM DJs, but did have Oliver Tree at the Blue Stage. The singer came on to Smashmouth’s “Allstar”, his DJ asked/demanded if the crowd wanted another song, and Tree returned to ask if cowboys cry in “Cowboy Tears”.
Once upon a time, sister act HAIM came out of nowhere to big name success, most recently with Women In Music, Part III (QRO review) – and Alana Haim starring in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (bringing in her sisters to boot), not to mention becoming besties with Taylor Swift. Yet they still put on a great show at the Green Stage, seventies throwback rock without just being seventies throwback rock, even if this “Man From the Magazine” couldn’t help but notice that they were all in matching black bikini/bra tops and leather pants.
A woman who’s been in music for years (yet still looks like a kid) is Avril Lavigne, who was unapologetically pop-punk at the Blue Stage. Yes, at this point, she’s kind of nostalgia, but “Why You Gotta Make Things So Complicated?” It’s just fun to listen to the Sk8er girl at this point, long since passed hating her (even if she might be a clone…), and now the kind of artist that her fans can bring their kids to.
Originally, Boston Calling was going to have Foo Fighters headline (actually, at one point even earlier, Rage Against the Machine were going to headline), but after the tragic too-young passing of their drummer Taylor Hawkins, they understandably canceled their dates. Thankfully, other big-name peers stepped up to step in, like Nine Inch Nails at Boston Calling. Frontman Trent Reznor noted that, while they were happy to be playing Boston, wish Foo Fighters were (a nice acknowledgement from the guy who was in Dave Grohl’s Sound City – QRO soundtrack review).
It was the giant NIN performance that they’d been waiting to play since COVID (and after having to cancel their own dates last year). And there was a suitably massive crowd, packed even if you were in VIP. They played the old hits – killed it doing Reznor’s song with David Bowie, “Afraid of Americans” – and the new.
The one issue every festival has dealt with since the beginning of time has been the weather, and of course it reared its ugly head at Boston Calling ’22. We had all seen the forecasts and knew that a storm was likely rolling in, but didn’t make it any easier that at around 3:30 PM, the announcement was made for everyone to vacate the festival grounds [note: including press, though we tried to stay in our tent as long as possible], going either across the bridge to Harvard Square or to next door Harvard Stadium. The stadium was hardly how you wanted to get into Harvard, trying to find a dry place beneath the concrete as you waited & hoped, but thankfully the storm passed and doors reopened at 5:30 PM. Hardly ideal, but compared to be stuck out in the rain and/or the whole day cancelling, was better than it could have been.
And Saturday was already star-crossed with headliner The Strokes having canceled due to COVID positive text prior, bringing a second set by Friday headliner Nine Inch Nails, but also after the storm, Australia’s King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard canceling right then & there due to their own COVID positive result. Though that did make it easier to rearrange the storm-shortened schedule, with pretty much everyone else still able to perform.
Still wearing his mask (as always) was Orville Peck at the Blue Stage. Peck has gotten notice as much for his fringed mask and high-profile fans like Lady Gaga as for his actual music, an unusual deep-voiced country, and while it’s still hard not to think of it as a schtick, as something that will expire, he has been keeping it up. Over at the main Green Stage were the Black Pumas, bringing smooth soul-rock that goes down easy. One might struggle to imagine someone having easy band as their favorite, it’s also hard to imagine someone not enjoying seeming them at a festival. Perhaps that’s why they seem to play every festival imaginable.
It was hard to find the small Orange Stage that hosted local acts, but fans did for Van Buren Records. They’re a local hip-hop collective made good, or at least topper of that stage, those that were there were certainly into it (including multiple folks who, according to their t-shirts, were working “BAR OPS”). It’s important any festival to have a stage for smaller local acts, but particularly a city with such a rich local music scene & history as Boston, even if the stage seemed a little shunted to the side (even ghettoized).
While Boston Calling ’22 went wide appeal like most festivals coming back from COVID, it was notable that its line-up still leaned rock, without Gen Z pop – or even much hip-hop. But of course, even a rock fest like this was ruled by Run the Jewels. It’s a backhanded compliment to say, “I’m not into rap, but I like this,” but it’s very true about RTJ (and it’s not like rap fans weren’t there as well). Their ability to find fans across genres should be praised, as well as their excitement at just being so big. Not to mention being such a killer team-up, hard in any art form. And they do have some common denominators, like Killer Mike calling out asking, “What’s it like, being in a legal state?…” But what’s his current feeling on gun control?…
Even with the rescheduled, ‘fit them in’ new schedule, for some reason there was still twenty minutes between RTJ’s close and NIN’s scheduled start at the next door Green Stage, but in actuality started five minutes early, because Nine Inch Nails aren’t just professionals – they also love playing. Trent Reznor noted at the start that, “We’re not The Strokes, if you haven’t figured that out yet.” Indeed, he seemed amazed that they’re now a “reliable band,” thinking back to his first trip to Boston over thirty years ago, to record at Synchro Sound on Newbury Street, and how shocked he would have been then that, “Anyone would even have heard those songs or that anybody would even give a shit about them years and years later, I wouldn’t have believed you. So, I’m grateful to be here.” He added on their reliability, “If anybody has a birthday party or a bar mitzvah or need someone to look after your plants while you’re on vacation, hit us up. We’re here for you.” And this wasn’t just playing the same set again, because thirty-plus years gets you a lot of deep cuts (and a new cover of Bowie’s “Fashion”), with only a few must-play repeats (“Wish”, “Head Like a Hole”, “Hurt”).
After the rain of Saturday, it was a beautiful Sunday at Boston Calling, sunny, but not overly hot. The grounds were a little damp, but pretty good considering the storm the day before. And it was the biggest crowd of the festival, between it being the Sunday of a long weekend, no rain forecast, and Metallica.
Some of that crowd managed to head over to the small Orange Stage for Boston’s own Paper Tigers, who even had a mosh pit by the end of their set. And during the easy, breezy day was a nice setting for the very nice Cults on the Green Stage. The appealing band was easy to like.
Sometimes, certain acts book a string of festivals at just the right time, when they’ve got a breakthrough record and a whole new level fame. This year, that has been Japanese Breakfast, who came to the Blue Stage behind Jubilee (QRO review) – and closing out the season of Saturday Night Live the weekend prior. Indeed, it was kind of early for an artist that’s gotten this big, but they were lovely sounds (gong included) at this bright time of day. Michelle Zauner & co. were in fine form, not just her loving playing, not just her band loving playing, but her loving her band playing, like when QRO favorite Adam Schatz killed it on saxophone.
Some of that crowd managed to head by the Orange Stage for the Sublime-esque reggae-rock of Crooked Coast – but it appeared that Modest Mouse’s Red Stage set ended early. Having the tough job of playing the Green Stage before Metallica was Glass Animals. Admittedly, their upbeat electro-dance might not have been the choice for the many, many people there wearing Metallica t-shirts (perhaps only The Misfits have more people wearing the t-shirt of the act that’s playing), but they were enjoyable, not as bass-heavy or hard like most EDM.
More fitting to go with the headliner was the act right before them on the next door Red Stage, Weezer. Indeed, frontman Rivers Cuomo noted who was up next, and that while his own band had been covering Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” on tour, this time wouldn’t “tempt it.” Instead, they covered a contemporary of theirs, Nirvana’s iconic “Lithium”, and still did their now-classic cover of Toto’s “Africa”. Oh, and they did some of their own great songs, thankfully leaning towards their nineties heyday like “My Name Is Jonas”, but also the brand-new “Little Bit of Luck”.
And there was much singing along by the crowd – not just to the old classics & covers, but even more recent singles like “Pork and Beans”. One could certainly hear the sing-alongs, because the low sound level of the Red Stage continued, hampering the enjoyment of this band that rocks. But special note to seeing Japanese Breakfast in the VIP, as it’s always great to see a young act catch one of the older acts that they grew up with (Schatz was certainly rocking along, while Zauner was taken up with fans asking for selfies).
There were no volume issues for Metallica, closing out Boston Calling ’22 at the Green Stage. “I think we’ve established that we have some loud Metallica fans here!” All of Boston could hear the band that kind of embodies the classic phrase, “They rock.” And as much as that is true, one shouldn’t overlook the band’s engagement up there, not too-cool-for-school but instead, “Extremely grateful to be up here, after 41 years, to be doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Even if you’re not into Metallica, it’s easy to be into live Metallica. Of note was their impressive use of big screens behind them (and fire – Beavis & Butthead would love this), essential for a show & crowd their size, showing not just the band, but use for imagery such as that of WWI soldiers for “One”. And then singer/guitarist James Hetfield could flip to asking if there were Metallica songs the crowd didn’t like, or noting that at a recent Brazilian show someone had had a baby, so if someone was going to have a baby here, go to the medic, “And if you want to make babies, go over here…” “Some dad humor,” Hetfield sheepishly admitted – before going into the anything-but-sheepish classic, “Sad But True”.
So, Boston Calling wasn’t quite what was expected for 2022, but little has been for the last two years (or ten… or twenty…). But, like the Celtics winning their nail-biting Game 7 on the final day of the festival, it was a success. Indeed, it rocked.
-photos: Boston Calling / Active Coverage