I’ve written in the past that I wished Boston Calling Music Festival would book a more gender-balanced, diverse and musically progressive lineup. And let me say, before I go any further, that I am genuinely excited about the bill for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend festival, which takes place May 27 to 29 at Boston’s City Hall Plaza. It features some of the most forward-thinking voices in pop, like Sia, Sufjan Stevens and Janelle Monáe. It showcases a nice mix of popular music styles, including hip-hop, EDM, R&B and some of the weirder strains of indie rock. There are more local artists, thanks in part to the addition of a third stage. And of the 24 main acts, 10 of them are fronted by women.
The danger with pop music festivals, even the smaller ones like Boston Calling, is that a distinct curatorial point-of-view may be sacrificed in favor of a trying-to-please-everybody policy, which can land you in blandville. Even if you’re trying to check all the boxes—women, people of color, the old along with the young—will it still feel like just that: checking boxes, going through the motions?
My personal philosophy contends that a more diverse lineup (in every sense) yields better music, and this season’s festival certainly bears that out. Of course, my criteria for “better” includes “more varied,” so it’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And as I was reminded recently, when I spoke to Boston Calling co-founder Mike Snow, festival organizers don’t think like critics. He told me that Sia, Robyn and Haim were booked because they were promoting recently-released or upcoming albums, and that “It just sort of worked out that way with everybody else on the board who was going to fit into the lineup and into the energy of the day”—implying, maybe, that female headliners begat female supporting acts, like a cascading chain reaction of ladies. In terms of whether the festival considers gender balance when designing the bill, the answer was yes and no. “Our curatorial team, I think, does consider a lot more than record sales and touring calendars,” said Snow. At the same time, “I don’t think it was conscious, we don't sit there and say, ‘We got to get some percentage.’ We're all proud of that, we're all happy that's the way it worked out. And if next time touring calendars for female artists don’t line up, we're going to be right back” to a male-centric bill.
Still, the pressure on festivals to hire more women has increased in the last year after a tweet showing a British festival poster with all but the few female names erased went viral. (The image inspired a flood of similarly Photoshopped festival posters, including one for the 2015 Converse Rubber Tracks Live at the Sinclair in Cambridge.) At last, the demographics of festival lineups are part of the mainstream music dialogue (at least for now). And it’s hard for me to see that as anything but good.
Now, without further ado, here are my picks for Boston Calling’s must-see acts. There are, happily, a lot.
In an effort to retain some measure of anonymity as her fame has grown, the Australian pop singer Sia has taken to performing with her face obscured, usually in some version of a giant platinum blond wig. This limitation seems only to have freed her; her concerts often veer into performance art, with a crew of androgynous dancers doing the exhausting work of emoting while Sia stands in the shadows and belts.
Charles Bradley was the highlight of my trip to Newport Folk Festival in 2012. With his a gravelly, sweat-soaked voice and inexhaustible showmanship, the 67-year-old funk singer is very nearly James Brown reincarnate.
Sufjan Stevens is one of those artists who seems to contain limitless creative reserves. “Carrie & Lowell,” his most recent album, is delicate and contemplative, but the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Michigan musician is capable of captivating an audience with even his subtlest material.
The California rapper is an uncompromising performer who brings vicious energy to songs that are by turns sharp and lissome.
Palehound is a Boston-based indie rock band fronted by Ellen Kempner, a singer-songwriter and guitarist of formidable talent.
The Australian singer-songwriter tells stories that skate the line between absurdity and pathos, with a delivery that is simultaneously raucous and deadpan.
Christine and the Queens
The French pop singer Héloïse Letissier, who performs under the name Christine and the Queens, writes slow-burning, minimalist synth jams that mine the ongoing process of queer self-discovery. Live, she infuses Michael Jackson’s lithe virtuosity with sleek avant-garde flair.
The up-and-coming emcee from Minneapolis (by way of Houston) is restless and relentless, a stunning performer who infuses hip-hop bluster with riot grrrl attitude.
The experimental rock band takes big, complicated ideas and executes them with finely-rendered nuance. It’s rare to find a group of musicians who can perform such ambitious arrangements as well live as they do in the studio.