Pleasant surprises at Boston Calling opening

(josh reynolds for the boston globe)

From the moment the lineup was revealed, Jack Johnson seemed to be the odd man out at Boston Calling, the music festival that launched last year and gave this town a welcome jolt of youthful vitality. Johnson's easy, breezy take on soft, acoustic rock stood out from the varying shades of indie rock and alt-country slated for this weekend's third installment of the event.

When Boston Calling kicked off Friday night, taking over City Hall Plaza with the addition of an opening concert, Johnson headlined a bill that also included the sprawling ensemble Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and the brooding singer-songwriter Cass McCombs. (At press time, Saturday and Sunday's events were still in progress; a review of those days is forthcoming.)


It turned out to be an evening of pleasant surprises, though. Johnson was more loose-limbed, sturdier than he's given credit for, and the unrelenting focus on groove was something he and his three-piece band shared with Edward Sharpe and gang. McCombs and his backing band were tight but seemed lost on a crowd expecting big, buoyant songs to dance to.

With their sunny choruses that amble down the middle of the road, Johnson's tunes are often equated with summertime reverie, a fact he noted from the stage under an overcast sky with a sharp chill in the air.

"I like the beach ball. That's optimistic," he remarked on the one bouncing about the crowd. "It's good to keep spirits high, but I can see my breath right now."

Johnson leavened the mood with bright, nimble renditions of his hits, from "Sitting, Waiting, Wishing" and "Good People" to "Breakdown" and "I Got You." The masses swayed in synch.

Led by Alex Ebert, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros were even more in tune with the audience, with Ebert wading into the sea of outstretched hands. In sheer white fabric with his nest of hair piled high, Ebert trades on the idea that we're all in this together and no particular voice is more important than someone else's. He and his band kept their set freewheeling, open to the possibilities; it mostly worked, until Ebert lost his focus, and his vocal firepower, toward the end.


They reappeared during Johnson's encore, and together they barreled through covers of the Beatles' "Rocky Raccoon" and Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." It was further proof that, no matter the difference in styles, salvation was just one singalong away.

James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.