A Brief But Affectionate History of Boston Calling Music Festival

Twelve installments, 11 years, and one little City Hall concert that became a destination festival. Now let us remember the highlights, from 2013 to today.

Indie-cute DIY duo Matt & Kim at the first Boston Calling in May 2013. / Photo by Mike Diskin

May 2013

Two colleagues from the defunct New England alt-rock radio station WFNX (RIP), Brian Appel and Mike Snow, actualize their idea of holding a music festival in Boston proper when Mayor Thomas Menino’s office approves their plan for a two-day concert at City Hall Plaza. Curated by Aaron Dessner of the melancholic-rock band the National, the inaugural Boston Calling takes place on Memorial Day weekend, making it the first substantial public gathering after the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings. Tickets sell out, and the event goes down as a cathartic and much-needed success.

Major Lazer at Boston Calling, September 2013. / Photo by Mike Diskin

September 2013

It’s such a success that the festival happens again three months later on Labor Day weekend, offsetting Boston’s reputation as a stodgy, no-fun zone. “I never thought I’d be drinking a beer in City Hall Plaza,” one local performer announces from the stage. “Usually, we’d get arrested for this.”

Lorde at Boston Calling. / Photo by Mike Diskin


Boston Calling’s two days of programming grows into three with big musical acts such as Lorde, Nas, and the Roots on the September bill. Bolstered by the Zeitgeist-y reunions of the Replacements and Neutral Milk Hotel, this magazine pronounces the festival “the Boston version of Coachella.”

Soon-to-be superstar Halsey performed during Boston Calling Music Festival at Boston City Hall Plaza on May 24, 2015. / Photo by Mike Lawrie/FilmMagic)


Headliners of the fifth and sixth Boston Calling editions include Beck, My Morning Jacket, and Alabama Shakes. Burgeoning pop stars Halsey and Tove Lo play early daytime sets.

Photo via Getty Images


The festival consolidates into one annual Memorial Day weekend blowout, celebrating its last hurrah at City Hall Plaza with headliners Sia, Robyn, and Disclosure. A little-known singer by the name of Lizzo performs in the early afternoon. Patriot Julian Edelman playfully protests Deflategate by yelling from the stage, “Free Brady!”

Boston Calling moved to the Harvard Athletic Complex in 2017. / Photo via Getty Images


A relocation to the Harvard Athletic Complex in Allston more than doubles Boston Calling’s footprint, from 6 acres to 16. The move isn’t without complications—long lines and official-app glitches cause some online carping—but now, with 45 musical acts, three stages, comedy sets, and a Ferris wheel, the homegrown concert is poised to become a destination festival.

Natalie Portman smiles

Photo by Lisa Weidenfeld


Boston Calling becomes a destination festival quickly, with swift logistical improvements: more bathrooms, more concessions, and more star power. Eminem, Jack White, and the Killers headline, while actress Natalie Portman curates a partnering film festival.


While the year’s genre-spanning lineup includes superstar rap (Travis Scott), psych rock (Tame Impala), pop-folk (Brandi Carlile), and lots more, the omission of regional hip-hop on the bill disappoints local artist Cliff Notez, who responds with his own competing micro-festival, Dorchester’s Boston Answering, telling this magazine, “I just want to make sure people aren’t forgetting us.”

Nine Inch Nails closed out two nights of Boston Calling 2022 / Photo by Alive Coverage


They don’t. After a two-year pandemic-inflicted hiatus, the festival returns to Allston with heavyweight headliners Nine Inch Nails and Metallica—and a stage devoted exclusively to local talent. Weather and COVID complications require some skillful eleventh-hour improvisation—NIN close out two nights after The Strokes cancel last-minute—but the show goes on swimmingly.

The crowd during Kahan’s record-breaking set. / Photo by Photo by Alive Coverage / Boston Calling


Hometown heroes Dropkick Murphys finally play their city’s premiere festival after the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a late-breaking cancellation. But it’s another local act who helps make festival history: Ten years in, Boston Calling logs its largest attendance ever—a one-day sellout of 40,000—thanks in part to Watertown-based rising star Noah Kahan.


See you there?

A version of this was first published in the print May 2024 issue of Boston as part of a Boston Calling 2024 package, with the headline, “Don’t Miss a Beat.”