Arts & Entertainment

Building a festival to rock Boston

Fun. is one of the acts set to play at Boston Calling, May 25-26 at City Hall Plaza.
Fun. is one of the acts set to play at Boston Calling, May 25-26 at City Hall Plaza.Credit: AP

New York has the Governors Ball. Chicago has Lollapalooza. New Orleans has Jazz Fest. And now, if all goes according to plan, Boston will have a signature music festival to call its own.

Boston Calling will be the first multiday, multistage, ticketed rock festival held on City Hall Plaza. The event, planned for May 25 and 26, could draw as many as 20,000 fans. Event organizers Crash Line Productions are expected to announce the festival today.

Boston Calling (the title was inspired by the classic Clash album “London Calling”) is the brainchild of Brian Appel and Mike Snow, cofounders of Crash Line and onetime colleagues at radio station WFNX.

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“We saw that there was a void for a music festival,” said Appel, a New York native who moved to Boston in 2003. “We thought that the location was overlooked by lots of people because of preconceived notions of the barren landscape. [W]e thought that we could do a really nice job and turn it into a wonderful outdoor concert experience in the middle of the city.”

The lineup includes many high-profile rock acts, including recent Grammy winners Fun., as well as the Shins, the National, Of Monsters and Men, the Walkmen, Andrew Bird, Ra Ra Riot, St. Lucia, the Dirty Projectors, Matt & Kim, Cults, Youth Lagoon, local acts Caspian and Bad Rabbits, and others.

“I think when you start talking about bands like the National and Fun., I think this really speaks to a younger generation that makes up a giant percentage of the population of our city,” said Chris Cook, director of the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Tourism, and Special Events. “Other cities have major signature music festivals. This has the potential to be that, and that’s very exciting.”

The festival is being bankrolled by Crash Line’s board of directors. Appel and Snow decline to name them, saying only that they are “in the media” and they “were willing to participate in the initial up-front expense.” As with other events held on City Hall Plaza, the festival will pay a set $200/hour usage fee for the site, which will go directly into the city’s general fund.

The unforgiving brick and concrete surfaces of the plaza may not seem especially suited for a two day festival, but Boston Calling backers plan to “soften up” the landscape a bit, Appel said. “We want to make it a comfortable experience for everybody but, at the same time, we embrace the fact that it’s downtown Boston and don’t want to transform it into something that it’s not.”

Snow promises the sound system is being carefully designed. “We brought in sound engineers who have done testing from every point on the plaza to make sure that the system we’re putting in place is perfectly tailored for the event space and minimize any bleed into the public outside of the event.”

Appel and Snow began cooking up the idea for the festival after modern rock station WFNX-FM went off the terrestrial airwaves last year. (It is now an Internet radio outlet.) Both had been involved in mounting free WFNX events at City Hall Plaza, and Snow, a Melrose native, had attended other concerts there, including the massive “Mixfest” shows put on by WBMX (then 98.5) in the late ’90s.

But Boston Calling, its sponsors hope, will become an enduring part of the city’s identity.

Appel and Snow have asked National guitarist Aaron Dessner — also a Crash Line founding partner — to curate the festival in conjunction with booking agents and ticketing partners, The Bowery Presents. Dessner, who has curated other music events, jumped at the opportunity.

“When the guys approached me about starting a festival in Boston it really clicked in my brain from having played in Boston over the years so many times, at all levels, that it was an odd that there wasn’t a major annual festival in the Boston area, just because it is such a great music scene,” said Dessner. “Boston is every bit as strong as Chicago or San Francisco or any of these classic music towns.”

“For us, to be able to do something like this that hasn’t been done in town, with a great lineup, is something that I think is big for the city, something to put us on the map of festivals,” says Josh Bhatti, a Plainville native, and head of the Boston office of the Bowery Presents, which books Royale and the newly opened Sinclair in Cambridge among other venues. “It’s not like it’s Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza right out of the gates, but I think it’s a really well-constructed festival. None of the sets are overlapping, so you can see every single band that is playing over the weekend.”

Playing downtown, as opposed to leafier suburbs like Mansfield, home of the Comcast Center amphitheater or Canton, whose Prowse Farm hosts the Life is good Festival, is also part of the draw for the musicians.

“I think city festivals are awesome,” says Jack Antonoff, whose hitmaking pop-rock band Fun. recently won two Grammy awards including best new artist. “When you park a festival right in the middle of a city it really captures the feeling of the city.”

On both days of Boston Calling, the gates will open at 1 p.m. and a beer garden and food trucks will serve up to 20,000 music fans as they listen to tunes from nearly 20 acts playing two stages until 10:30 p.m.

Dessner worked with Bowery Presents in booking his diverse wish list of acts which included Bird, Youth Lagoon, and the Walkmen.

“Anytime you have a festival where the capacity of the festival is up above 20,000 with two days it has to be a range of artists, it can’t be any one slice of music,” said Dessner, whose band is currently at work on a new album due out later this year. “I like it when the lines are blurry between these genres.” But, Dessner says they were sensitive to the space. “We avoided booking anything that would be death metal and shake anybody’s windows off.”

Early bird weekend passes go on sale at 10 a.m. on Friday March 1 and include a general admission pass for $120 and a VIP pass for $325. Single day show tickets will be available soon after.

Tickets will be available at www.bostoncalling.com, www.ticketmaster.com, and with no service fee at the Sinclair box office in Cambridge.

For the first edition of the festival, all involved say ticket sales will not be the only barometer of success (although a sell-out would be nice); they will also take into account the flow of the music, and concertgoer feedback.

“Building a festival is no different than when you’re in sixth grade and you have a crush and you make a mixtape for a girl you like,” says Antonoff of Fun. “You’re just trying to put something together, all these little parts, one plus one plus one is going to equal a million instead of three. And I think that’s what you have here, some of my favorite bands. This is a festival that if I wasn’t playing, I would spend hard-earned money to go see. That, for me, is the greatest honor, to be part of something that you know is cool and thrilling just looking at it from the outside.”

“I think success will be determined,” says Bhatti, “by people saying, ‘I can’t wait for the next one.’ ”

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