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Boston Calling 2016 delivers rousing farewell to City Hall Plaza

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Mike Diskin

Playing both her infectious original songs and knockout tributes to musical legends, Janelle Monáe delivered one of the best performances of the weekend. (Photo courtesy of Mike Diskin)

It’s the end of an era for Boston Calling.

The music festival that has drawn thousands to City Hall Plaza since its inception in May 2013 is slated to move to Harvard University’s athletics complex in Allston next year. The news arrived via press release just hours before the first night of music on Friday, May 27.

Every artist on the lineup seemed determined to end Boston Calling’s last weekend downtown on the right note, and they certainly succeeded. You could feel the energy pulsing across the brick and mortar of the plaza as an eclectic spread of sounds filled three exhilarating days of music.

This year’s festival empowered women as much as it championed genre variety, with Janelle Monáe, Haim, Courtney Barnett, Sia and Sufjan Stevens delivering some of the most memorable performances. The celebration featured rock and rap hits, party jams and Purple One tributes in a proper sign-off to its Government Center age.

Top-shelf Sunday

Mike Diskin

Electronic duo Disclosure closed out the final night of the festival. (Photo courtesy of Mike Diskin)

Sunday evening brought chilly weather and a powerful bang to the weekend. Both Janelle Monáe and Haim warmed the area with their back-to-back upbeat performances.

Monáe and her nine-piece band pleased the audience with spirited renditions of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” and the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” and ended with Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” which she dedicated to “my hero, my mentor…the greatest rock star of all time” while fittingly bathed under purple light. Long after she left the stage, the crowd was still drunk off of her high-energy performance, setting the mood for the night.

Haim, a Los Angeles-based rock trio comprised of sisters Este, Danielle and Alana Haim, followed suit with their cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U,” which included backup dance work from Christine and the Queens, the French pop group that performed earlier in the day.

The band introduced “Nothing’s Wrong” and “Give Me Just a Little of Your Love,” two new tracks from their upcoming sophomore album, and delivered a sea of hits – “If I Could Change Your Mind,” “Don’t Save Me,” “Forever,” “Falling” and “The Wire” – from their debut 2013 LP “Days Are Gone.”

A defining year for the Front Bottoms, 2016 included sets at major festivals after the release of their 2015 album “Back On Top.” Despite their success, the band still projects the endearing energy of a band at a college basement house show.

Opening with “Skeleton,” the Front Bottoms drew in a large crowd ready to groove after Charles Bradley’s soulful set. There was a noticeable difference in their old songs like “The Beers,” “Au Revoir (Adios),” and “Maps” and newer songs like “West Virginia” and “HELP,” a change lead vocalist Brian Sella said occurred quite organically on their most recent album.

The night cascaded beautifully from one performer to the next, leading to the festival’s closing act, electronic duo Disclosure. Despite speculation, Sam Smith did not appear as a surprise guest for closing song “Latch,” as he had at Coachella in April.

Otherwise, Disclosure exceeded expectations for its performance, which included a mix of songs like “White Noise,” “When A Fire Starts to Burn” and “Bang That” from their two albums. Along with their bass-heavy music came a light show that recreated the skyscraper landscape.

Simmering on Saturday

Mike Diskin

Melbourne rocker Courtney Barnett delivered a powerful late afternoon performance on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Mike Diskin)

After a solid start from Allston-based rockers Palehound and Minneapolis rapper Lizzo, much of Saturday drifted along sleepily in the sweltering heat. Courtney Barnett’s late afternoon set provided a much-needed kick in the teeth. The Melbourne native thrashed her electric guitars barehanded over unstoppable drums and bass, energizing the sunburnt crowd with a raw wall of sound.

Barnett made it clear she was there to perform by not interrupting to address the crowd during her set, so each song could flow into the next. Her witty and relatable presence was captured on stage both lyrically and musically. At one point she lay on the ground during a guitar solo; later she sang “give me all your money and I’ll make some origami, honey” in “Pedestrian at Best” from her 2015 album “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.”

Robyn closed out Saturday night with an exhausting set of live remixes. One certainly cannot fault her clear commitment to the busy, dance-filled 90 minutes, but the extended beat-stuffed versions of the tracks she performed eventually felt wearisome, especially following two other clubby sets from Miike Snow and Odesza.

Friday night spectacle

Mike Diskin

Sia’s performance felt like a unique cross between cinema and minimalist theater on the festival’s opening night. (Photo courtesy of Mike Diskin)

Sia brought an elegant minimalism to her headlining spot Friday. The pop songstress belted hits like “Diamonds,” “Titanium” and “Chandelier” from atop a small platform and underneath her trademark two-tone wig. More like a theatrical experience, her performance included “Breathe Me,” a nod to her first taste of fame in 2005 after it appeared in “Six Feet Under.”

As Sia sang, her dance company (including her frequent music video star Maddie Ziegler) acted in sync with short film segments that played on the large screens adorning the stage, moving to match onscreen avatars portrayed by Kristen Wiig, Paul Dano and Ziegler herself.

Clad in amusingly garish day-glo jumpsuits, Sufjan Stevens and his band – two backup singers cum dancers and three horn players alongside a guitarist and rhythm section – enlivened their 75-minute middle set with boisterous, funky arrangements of songs from throughout his catalog. Trippy footage from the large onstage video screen, bouncy choreography and elaborate additional costumes furthered the wild, colorful verve of the music.

Gentle indie folk from Lisa Hannigan and Aaron Dessner preceded Sia and Stevens’ sensory one-two punch, opening Friday night’s shorter program in quieter style.

Boston Calling 2016’s broad musical palette served as an apt preview for the festival’s expanded programming, which will include more music, a film festival curated by actress and Harvard College alumna Natalie Portman, a larger comedy segment and visual art.

Here’s hoping next year’s scaled-up event maintains the balance between superstar spotlight and homegrown charm that the festival has enjoyed since its beginning. If this year is any indication, the future of Boston Calling is only looking brighter.

Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @nathanfrontiero. Emily Johnson can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @emilyannejo.

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