How do you even begin to manage a daylong music festival like Boston Calling on its fully extended weekend installments? Confronted with a schedule including no fewer than 18 acts on three different stages — two close together, one tucked away at a distance — and spanning 10 hours, what strategies do you employ in order to take in everything there is to see, hear, and do?
Your answers to those questions probably say something about what kind of music consumer you are. Boston Calling is a tightly run operation, with acts that hit their marks within minutes of when they’re supposed to, which enables playing favorites. If you came to the festival’s final production on City Hall Plaza to see the indie-punk band the Front Bottoms play at 4:50 p.m., you had opportunity to stake out a prime position — provided you weren’t also hoping to get up close to the veteran soul man Charles Bradley, who poured out his heart on another stage until 4:45 p.m. That five-minute interval could translate into yards and yards of distance.
If, on the other hand, you wanted to move around and dabble, to take in as many different styles as the festival had to offer, it was easy to do. Strolling City Hall Plaza on this unusually chilly Sunday felt like an ambulatory Spotify playlist spun with algorithms attuned to a broad-minded listener’s potential tastes.
Both strategies worked well enough. Both also likely forced you to miss something you probably wished you hadn’t. Midway through the day’s first set, by Michael Christmas, an excellent Boston rapper, I headed across the plaza to ensure a good view of Christine & the Queens, the French dance-pop group whose show involves a great deal of choreography.
This was a win-win. Christmas played oversize: jumping, shouting, enjoying himself in a way that carried. And Héloïse Letissier, the petite firecracker at the core of Christine & the Queens, was viewed best up close: the better to see her quirky expressions and locked-in dance moves with a four-man corps. A compelling singer, Letissier mixed messages and languages, borrowed bits from Prince, Kanye, and Stardust, celebrated being offbeat, and encouraged listeners to follow suit.
Employing the same strategy later came at some cost. Parked close to the stage that Janelle Monáe would occupy later meant watching Elle King from a distance. True, there was no questioning the advantage of proximity when Monáe and her crack ensemble landed a string of one-two combinations — “Q.U.E.E.N.” into “Electric Lady”; James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” into the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”; “Cold War” into “Tightrope” — then sealed the T.K.O. with Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” dedicated to “my hero, my mentor . . . the greatest rock star of all time.”
Beforehand, from across the plaza, King’s big voice and loud look (blue hair, eye glitter, fringed leather jacket) had traversed the distance easily. Less so her between-song banter, which could have provided clues about what it was that made her frown through several songs and then extract her in-ear monitors. Deeper into her set — Johnny Cash and Beatles covers, her own ubiquitous “Ex’s and Oh’s” — King found her footing and unleashed her fearsome Wanda Jackson growl.
Likewise, if you were strolling casually while listening to Haim, the trio of California pop-savant sisters whose show followed Monáe’s, you heard the group’s faithfully scintillating cover of another Prince song, “I Would Die 4 U,” just fine. But if your back was turned at just the wrong moment, you might have missed seeing Christine & the Queens joining Haim onstage during that song. (Guilty.)
Haim proved ably that big-festival mode is yet another thing these sisters can handle with aplomb. Slick, hooky cuts from “Days Are Gone,” the group’s 2013 debut LP — “Don’t Save Me,” “Forever,” “The Wire” — retained their allure; new songs “Give Me Just a Little of Your Love” and “Nothing’s Wrong” proved that album’s staying power was no fluke.
Balancing urges to linger and to roam played out similarly all day. Charles Bradley’s old-school revue — besotted with vintage Brown and Percy Sledge, even in a sublime reworking of Black Sabbath’s “Changes” — demanded presence. But Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s easygoing grooves floated, and you could, too. The Front Bottoms had anthem-ready hooks and sufficient charisma to reach wherever you were. A spare, sharp set from the rapper Vince Staples delivered a welcome jolt whether up close, where pulverizing bass lines did a chiropractor’s work, or from a safe distance.
As for Disclosure, the chart-topping EDM duo that closed the festival, the further you were from the stage, the better. When a group’s work mostly takes place behind consoles and its star voices — Sam Smith, Lorde, the Weeknd — are prerecorded, close-ups provide no real advantage. From a distance you got a better view of the group’s dazzling lights and projections. And when a generous set reached its peak with “Bang That,” “When a Fire Starts to Burn,” and “Hourglass,” you certainly had a lot more room to dance.
At City Hall Plaza, May 29