Go behind the scenes before Boston Calling
Music festival designer Russ Bennett hopes to take Boston Calling to the next level.
THE COUNTDOWN to Memorial Day weekend has begun, which means only one thing for fans of great live music: Boston Calling is just around the corner. As the city prepares for Chance the Rapper, Mumford & Sons and Tool—not to mention a support card packed with sonic wonders, from Buffalo Tom to Flatbush Zombies—the festival organizers are busy engineering a major upgrade. No doubt about it, 2017 is going to be huge, because this is the year when Boston Calling graduates from talented upstart to festival circuit mainstay.
This perfectly scaled ‘Goldilocks’ music festival (neither too small nor too big, but just right) has been built over five years and seven iterations on these core essentials: a rock-solid community vibe steeped in diversity, both sonic and cultural; and an eclectic roster built around cleverly selected headliners and a rich vein of local bands. These cornerstones are set to remain intact but the formula, established in debut year 2013, has been tweaked by necessity: It’s all about location.
This year’s change of digs, from the brutalist concrete-scape of City Hall Plaza to the big-sky riverside playgrounds of Harvard Athletic Complex, adds a whole new dimension to the
“We try to put a little joy and humor in everything we do. Otherwise it might be serious” Festival designer, Russ Bennett
tried-and-tested equation. What’s more, Boston Calling is no longer a biannual event: there’s now just one yearly shot at festival perfection, spread over three days. The metamorphosis should be spectacular.
To accent the new vision for Boston Calling, Hannibal Buress has been recruited to host a ‘comedy experience,’ featuring Tig Notaro and Pete Holmes. The bulk of the festival’s transformation, however, has been trusted to a man whose name may not be straightaway familiar: a man who wears his beard wizard-style (long and white) and hangs out in a tree house deep in the forests of northern Vermont.
Russ Bennett—designer, builder, thinker, sculptor—will in large part determine the look and the feel of Boston Calling. What musical curator Aaron Dessner (from indie band, The National) has done for the lineup, Bennett will echo in the space and the aesthetics. “We try to put a little joy and humor in everything we do,” he tells us. “Otherwise, it might be serious.”
It was while working on the first big 3-day camping festival held by legendary jam band Phish—in Plattsburgh, New York, 1996—that Bennett began to reshape festival culture as it’s currently understood. “There wasn’t really a lot thought about festivals: people would just put up a stage. So we began to think we should create a place of central congress, just like in a city you have parks and stuff like that, and bring more art into the mix. That’s how we got started in this crazy thing.”
Since then, Bennett has worked on all of Phish’s outdoor extravaganzas, and left his mark on Bonnaroo, Outside Lands and Vegoose, among other majors. If you’ve ever marveled at a strange and wonderful festival artwork, there’s a decent chance that it was conceived somewhere in Bennett’s limitless imagination. Connecting all his work is the same question: “How do we create the environment that people will thrive in and the opportunity for culture to exist? That’s really what we’re after,” he says. “People want to relate to each other, especially with today’s media driving wedges wherever it can.”
So what does Bennett have planned for Boston Calling? “We don’t need to do Paul Revere on a horse, but we do want to think a little bit about the history and depth of Boston. People came here and started a new thing, you know, much to the chagrin of some. Boston is a multicultural city today—we don't have to get preachy about that—so we might do a mural that represents the population of Boston. I want it to be joyful.”
The festival’s expertly curated lineup lends itself naturally to Bennett’s vision: “It’s very eclectic,” he says. “I think there’s something really wonderful about how the [curators have] crossed genres. And hopefully we’ll get a mixture of population, just like the city itself. So I’m thinking that we’ll cherry pick some of the lyrics and scatter them about. Physically and philosophically.”
Given the new location—lots of greenery and mini-parks conducive to the many joys of spring—Bennett plans to embrace the space in such a way that merits his use of the f-word: “I think we can provide a place for, you know, Frisbee. Stuff like that. And room to get away from each other a little bit.”
The bottom line, though, is all about bringing people together: “People are going to be introduced to things that they wouldn’t go see on their own. That is one of the wonderful things about a festival,” he says, with barely concealed joy. “It’s like a great buffet.”
BEST OF THE FEST From top, Mumford & Sons; festival designer Russ Bennett; Chance the Rapper. Previous page, Boston Calling returnees, Tegan and Sara