The Front Row Boston team settled in early at City Hall Plaza, catching the sound check of festival openers Lisa Hannigan and Aaron Dessner as the security team spread wide and the event staff shuffled sections of aluminum fencing from the front of the stage. (Periodic wafts from the food tents made us envious of our colleagues over at Craving Boston.)

We shouldn’t have been shocked at the attendees’ dead sprints for the stages when the gates opened at 6 p.m., yet we were. The Sufjan fans spread wide to the Xfinity stage, as the Sia devotees beelined it straight ahead to the JetBlue stage. Any Hannigan/Dessner fans were lost among the Illinois t-shirts and Sia wigs. Fortunately, for the Sia fans at the JetBlue stage Hannigan and Dessner treated them to an ethereal gloss in the earliest set on Friday.

Whether the openers of this round of Boston Calling were too sleepy to kick off the action, or just right to ease us into the weekend is perhaps a matter of personal taste. But Hannigan’s winsome whisper of a voice proved more powerful throughout the set than it sounded early on. Dessner tread the ground of Jimmy Page, bowing his Gibson Firebird to provide staid backdrops of droning metallic rasps. Hannigan abraded elegantly atop the rhythm section’s quaalude thunder.

The band bound into pulsating stomps mid-set, and Hannigan’s voice rose up. She harmonized with other members of the ensemble, playing from sweet rich three-part homophony, to elisions on open, sublime dissonances with traces of resolution. Dessner countered with simple, motivic riffing that one might be hard pressed to describe as soloing, but was well-suited to Hannigan’s breathy wail. Their set did little to foreshadow the pageantry to follow.

We’re looking at what may amount to the most visually striking lineup Boston Calling has ever put to the stage, and Sufjan Stevens put in a strong early showing as the man to beat in Biggest Spectacle. The day-glo blacklight shimmer of his ensemble’s costuming and makeup smacked of psychedelia circa the Reagan era. Unfortunately, such an overwhelming visual sensibility compensated for an unfocused aesthetic and cacophonous set of arrangements, neither of which were helped by Stevens unctuous humblebragging between songs early in his set.

Sufjan Stevens
Jess Barnthouse/Wicked Bird Media

Stevens has never been a subtle artist, and he did little to bring a sense of nuance to his performance. Gratuitously smashing a banjo after his opener, Stevens symbolically put to rest the notion that he is still a folk artist, blatantly nodding to the broader — primarily electronic — soundscape of his latest album, Carrie and Lowell. The rest of his set took on a smash and grab style that at times featured an often overshadowed and unnecessary horn section, an abiding electronic percussion layer that conflicted with acoustic drums, and motion captured dancers. After introducing the wanton “All of Me Wants All of You” from his latest, Stevens did his best to ape Drake, the Weeknd, or any number of contemporary hip hop artists trafficking in lascivious lyrics and seductive stagecraft. Sufjan did not wear it well, appearing every bit a forty-something who didn’t know if he was being ironic or was truly down with the kids.

Sia, on the other hand, was down with the kids — literally. The youngest fans at tonight’s Boston Calling session were often clad in Sia wigs and swag, clinging to mom or dad’s hand to take in the pop diva’s set. That isn’t to say Sia’s performance was just for the kids. Her robust belting slammed off of the walls of city hall, resonating among the crowd. Performing to a recorded instrumental track, Sia stood stock still at center stage for the opening of the show, before sidling upstage right for the rest of the evening. Her signature wig didn’t budge, but the audience did. And her dancers did.

Jess Barnthouse/Wicked Bird Media

Sia used the screens at each side of the stage to project the stylized choreography that has become a hallmark of her videos and performances. Dancers mimed the choreography on stage in such synchronicity that it often duped the audience (Tig Notaro, Paul Dano, and Kristen Wiig were not in attendance despite their onscreen appearances and the audience’s corresponding roars), resulting in a set of elaborate performance pieces.

The evening closed with an elegant sign-off from Sia after booming her signature “Chandelier.” A series of bows from each of the dancers and Sia, and she sidled off-stage after a simple “Thank you so much,” the only words she said for the evening. The unflustered end of the evening bookended with Hannigan and Dessner’s serene outlay to introduce the evening. We’re sure the bookends won’t be quite so placid tomorrow.

Photos by: Jess Barnthouse/Wicked Bird Media