The sun was shining, the food lines were (mercifully) shorter than last year. What more could a Boston Calling attendee want? Logistical improvements having lifted the collective mood, the focus Friday was back where it belonged: on the music.
The first day of the three-day festival at the Harvard Athletic Complex started with two acts operating at vastly different energy levels: the sugary, post-Weezer guitar pop of Charly Bliss and This Is the Kit’s stately British folk-rock. Big Thief followed, Adrianne Lenker’s expressive vocals and reflective lyrics pairing well with her and Buck Meek’s scruffy, Crazy Horse-style guitar work. Less subtle were Citizen, who too often overwhelmed their grungy alt-rock with pitchy screamo vocals.
Perfume Genius’s performance followed a remarkably thorough emotional arc. Mike Hadreas started with a run of gorgeous, ornate songs from his fantastic 2017 album “No Shape,” detoured into darker territory mid-set, then finished with the cathartic release of “Slip Away” and “Queen,” all while dancing so hard he claimed to have briefly passed out mid-song. (Sandy) Alex G played it more casual, undercutting his brilliant songcraft with a resolutely unserious demeanor (choice banter: “That song was boring, but we’re gonna get better”). Noname delivered the day’s only hip-hop set, her self-described drunkenness not stopping her from reeling off rapid-fire verses and ably leading a soulful backing band.
Maggie Rogers was born to play festivals; the young singer-songwriter’s melodic electro-pop hit the sweet spot where trendy-sounding, moderately danceable, and immensely likable meet. Across the festival grounds, Pussy Riot mounted an agitprop barrage, primarily through perversely catchy (and sometimes downright silly) electronic dance songs. Only these balaclava-clad Russians could get a festival crowd to wave their hands in their air for a refrain demanding the KGB’s dissolution.
Though Portugal. The Man have no shortage of enjoyable pop-rock songs, their desperate desire to be a Serious Rock Band led to ill-advised decisions like flashing onscreen a smug brag about only playing with live instruments during an interminable jam. Paramore, on the other hand, embraced their pop reinvention, consummate frontwoman Hayley Williams strutting her way through exuberant renditions of their new ’80s-inspired material while mostly forgoing their 2000s mall-emo hits. Simultaneously, the National delivered a reliably excellent set of slow-burning indie rock, assisted by Maggie Rogers on a moving “I Need My Girl.” Frontman Matt Berninger was in fine form, cracking drunk-uncle jokes and charging into the crowd during the climactic “Terrible Love.”
The Killers opened with “Mr. Brightside”? That’s right — it took serious chutzpah for the night’s headliners to immediately dispense with their biggest song, but Brandon Flowers and Co. had plenty of hits where that came from. For these Vegas boys, rock ’n’ roll is pure showbiz, and no stadium-rock cliché is off-limits. That meant lasers, confetti cannons, disingenuous Boston sports patter, getting a fan to drum for a song, and lots of audience call-and-response. By the set’s second half, all those anthemic choruses and power ballads started to blend together, but the crowd’s enthusiasm for beloved singles like “Human” and “When You Were Young” never wavered. There’s a reason the Killers are among the last arena-rockers standing: What other modern band could so many festival-goers agree on?
At the Harvard Athletic Complex, Friday. (Continues Saturday and Sunday).Terence Cawley can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley