To give a satisfying live music performance in 2016, do you have to play instruments?
Do you at least have to sing?
You don’t, if Saturday’s Boston Calling bill is anything to judge by. But for both live musicians and DJs mixing tape, the ancient challenge of showmanship looms as large as ever.
On a hot, hazy day in the brick City Hall arena that’s been the show’s home since 2013, the standout acts were Courtney Barnett’s sardonic, as-live-as-it-gets garage rock trio, Odesza’s black-clad DJs bouncily mixing dance music in front of hypnotic projections and a trombone player, and a young MC named Lizzo, who rapped and sang gospel-tinged empowerment songs backed by a DJ and two bodacious dancers. As musical acts they have little in common but energy, talent, and a will to entertain. The audience went wild for all of them.
Where things fell apart, strangely, was with the much-anticipated headliner, the Swedish dance-pop star Robyn, who delivered a short and mystifying set in which she sang — a little, and in near-darkness — mostly to remixes of her own hits.
The show started on a sunny trajectory, with acts led by two 20-something women as qualified to be there as they seemed surprised to be. “Pretty scared! But really excited,” said Ellen Kempner, the frontwoman of local rock trio Palehound. Songs from the group’s first LP, “Dry Food,” sounded more propulsive and upbeat live.
Lizzo (a.k.a. Melissa Jefferson of Minneapolis), who was alone on Saturday in representing anything you could call hip-hop or soul, led two excellent, pants-free dancers she introduced as the Big Girls. Lizzo is graced with a huge, tuneful voice, which shone on the sincere “My Skin” and the sassy “Good as Hell.” Maybe most poised for success, though, is a generational anthem whose refrain goes, “Where the hell my phone?/ How I’m supposed to get home?” “This song is based on a true story,” she told listeners mid-song.
The afternoon brought rock, in different flavors. Battles, an instrumental trio from New York, has an aggressive, repetitive sound that is far from easy listening but drew a focused audience. The Vaccines, a six-year-old British band who sound like they’ve swallowed a jukebox of influences from Buddy Holly to Depeche Mode, were just the opposite, delivering the kind of crowd-pleasing, straight-ahead ditties that rhyme “post-breakup sex” with “forget your ex.”
The exceedingly pretty young singer Garrett Borns, who as BORNS makes shimmering psychedelic rock, at first seemed to fall shy of the high gloss of recorded songs like “10,000 Emerald Pools.” But then he launched into a strong cover of Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies)” that segued smoothly into David Bowie’s “Heroes,” and closed with a radiant version of his own “Electric Love.”
Still, Melbourne’s Courtney Barnett, whose 2015 studio debut, “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit,” ruled critics’ top-10 lists, blew them all out of the water. I left some of my hearing behind with her, and I regret nothing. Armed with a guitar (sometimes a white one with rainbow stars) and backed by drummer Dave Mudie and bassist Bones Sloane, Barnett turned even introspective songs like “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” into rockers, with her funny, acidic vocals cutting through the noise.
The last hours of sun went to the emo-country sounds of City and Colour, a bit nondescript despite singer Dallas Green’s sweet tenor, and to Swedish production-and-voice band Miike Snow, which sounded stronger on hits like “Animal” and “Black and Blue” than on the rest of its catalog.
But in the sunset slot — a magical hour at this site, with pink rays bursting from behind office buildings — Odesza made a case for the pure pleasure of electronic music. For their most popular songs, the Seattle producer duo Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight rely on guest vocalists. Here, they got accents from a couple of musicians, but created a suite of songs largely by themselves, jumping in unison at twin stations that included knobs to twirl and drum sets. It was the best dance party of the day, with shouts of delight when the beats and tinkling melodic lines gave way to radio single “Say My Name.”
Headliner Robyn was a primary Boston Calling attraction for some fans but unknown to others, especially those too young to have adored her three-part 2010 album, “Body Talk.” This performance was radically unlike a show I saw in 2011, where Robyn accompanied an inexhaustible supply of melancholy dance-pop singles with fabulously aerobic dancing.
Earlier, organizers had announced Robyn’s set would be a special one focusing on remixes of her work by other producers. In practice, this meant that the vocals on most songs had been carved down to scraps; she sang only around four songs in full, all with less appealing arrangements, plus a couple of house-music songs released last year. A few live musicians played over music spun by a DJ. Robyn danced, but her voice — arresting every time she opened her mouth — was mostly stilled. The crowd thinned out. “Yo, how does this lady make money?” asked a teenage boy behind me.
More than 10 minutes before the forecast end of the show, Robyn sang a version of her 2005 song “With Every Heartbeat,” bowed with her band, and walked off stage. The audience cheered for an encore in vain. After so many hard-working young musicians on the way up, it was a little hard to fathom what we’d just seen.
At Boston City Hall Plaza, Saturday