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Boston Calling Music Festival, six years old this month, used to run bi-yearly, once in the spring, once in the fall, and took place on Boston’s City Hall Plaza; in 2017, it shifted into a once-a-year event and relocated to the Harvard Athletic Complex, affording itself space for more musical acts and stand-up comedy routines. Over the course of its lifetime and amidst these tweaks, the festival has grown into one of the country’s most lauded, small in scale but with such a profound impact on the East Coast’s festival scene you’d almost swear it’s been an institution for decades.

If there’s a through line uniting this year’s lineup, it’s the absurd political moment we’re living in, with performers ranging from Eminem (who censured Donald Trump in a freestyle verse during 2017’ BET Hip Hop Awards) to The Decemberists (who included a thanks to Robert Mueller in the liner notes of their new album, I’ll Be Your Girl), and Pussy Riot, the staunchest opposition Vladimir Putin has ever known; over in the comedy arena, Jo Firestone, David Cross, and Pod Save America lighten up political chatter with humor and sharp observation. There’s an agenda at play here, but in Boston, one of America’s most liberal cities, politics is oxygen, as crucial to our way of life as sports, the American revolution, ice cream parlors, and bad accents.



But the music comes first, and oh, what a musical slate to choose from. If you’re planning a day at Boston Calling this weekend, consider seeing a few of the artists we’re most excited for:



Noname: Chicago rapper-poet Noname dropped Telefone, her debut mixtape, in 2016. Coming from an established MC, it’d be merely impressive; coming from a new talent, it’s extraordinary, an exceptional piece of work as buoyant as it is personal. Noname raps with playful, casual ease, speaking to audiences with familiarity typically reserved for family members and close friends. Her work’s intimacy might lessen in a live environment, but not its warmth.

Pussy Riot: Being at Boston Calling is just one stop on Pussy Riot’s first ever North American tour, their set is basically required viewing, partly for the opportunity to see them and partly for the agitprop theatrics they’re known for. Here in the States, we’ve only been able to appreciate the group from afar. Now’s the rare chance to experience them up close. Take it.

The Killers: Seventeen years is a long time for a band to keep rocking without showing signs of aging. Enter The Killers and Brandon Flowers, a front man who approaches performance as if he has something to prove. He doesn’t, of course, and neither do The Killers, who from album to album (including last year’s Wonderful Wonderful) always find purpose in their music, which is harder than it sounds after just shy of two decades.




Lillie Mae: On the other end of the musical spectrum, there’s Lillie Mae, coming off the release of her first full-length album Forever and Then Some in 2017. Her tattoos, her hair, and her nose rings suggest she’s part of the same punk tradition as Pussy Riot, but then you hear her music; she has a classic American sound, bluegrass and folk by way of banjos and mandolins, cemented by her vocals, which ring with one-of-a-kind urgency all her own. (Note: If you’re seeing Lillie Mae, drop in on Jack White, too. He produced her album. If nothing else, stop by to tell him “thanks.”)

Oh Sees: Like The Killers, Oh Sees have figured out how to maintain their vitality in a 20-year career. Unlike The Killers, they’ve changed their name over half a dozen times and output about as many albums as they have years in their lifespan. Orc, their latest, is a wicked piece of work, unhinged and yet totally focused in its face value lack of focus, the kind of music that inspires reverence through sheer shock and awe, and if that’s not an invitation to give their set a look, nothing is.

St. Vincent: Annie Clark is indisputably one of today’s great rock ambassadors, blending the “drowned in crackle” sounds of indie rock with the melodic overtures of chamber rock and the exuberant experimentations of prog rock. She’s also widely regarded as one of the best live acts out there, her stage design and complex choreography serving as an art installation backdrop for her music. Far and away the must-see show on Saturday’s lineup.



Fleet Foxes: Maybe I’m overusing “see them live while you can” as a reason for checking out performers, but seriously, it’s Fleet Foxes, one of the best musical acts out there today; they only returned from their 2013 hiatus just about one year ago, and their last album, Crack-Up, ranks among 2017’s best achievements. Maybe they’re back for good, or maybe they’ll take another too-long break. Either way, you’re missing out if you skip them.

Khalid: Khalid’s breezy style and soft-spoken vocals evoke the sense of a conversation; listening to him sing, you feel as if he’s talking to you directly instead of addressing an audience. That suits his subject matter, rooted firmly in abiding emotional turmoil, from suicide, to poverty, to parenthood in absentia, to the basic human need for love. He’s one of the most gifted new artists of the last year, and he might also be the best representative for a generation of young men weaned on and isolated by social media.

The Decemberists: I’ll Be Your Girl is one of 2018’s best albums to date, which is reason enough to see The Decemberists’ set. But the Portland-based indie rockers unfailingly put on a good, lively show, and if nothing else, hearing I’ll Be Your Girl’s synth-forward sounds adapted for the stage sounds like a worthwhile curiosity. (Maybe they’ll give a shout-out to Mueller, too.)