Sept. 19, 2011
I've seen Bon Iver triple in size since Justin Vernon released his groundbreaking debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, from a three-piece consisting of a drummer who was also a childhood friend and his guitar student, to Monday's show at the Shrine Auditorium, with nine performers onstage in all.
Now Vernon's sound is backed up by a multitude of instruments: there are two sets of drummers, and many other percussion instruments. There are multiple wind instruments: a saxophone, a recorder, trumpets, trombones. There are guitars and basses violins and samplers and keyboards galore. Almost everyone sings backup vocals.
Despite the swelling of the ranks, Bon Iver's music stays true to the starkly honest songs that he started writing one winter in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods. The only difference? Everything is presented with much more bombast.
The doubling of all Bon Iver's instruments presents a larger than life sound; the thundering of the drums fill the venue to the rafters, the chorus of voices singing harmonies along with melodies, the guitar parts moving songs forward with call-and-response solos, and chimes sweetly peeping in. It's hard to remember that at its core, these songs are folk songs, but frontman Justin Vernon constantly pulls you into the embrace of his songs and reminds you that yes, all these productions--for the songs are productions now--are made by one man and his guitar.
Somehow it felt like Vernon chose to layer the instrumentation of his songs to make him feel less solitary and alone; to be able to share them with the world, they had to take on a mega-persona.
And it worked: the show was magnificent. Although people identify most with his earlier work, most of the show's sublime moments came when the band presented the new songs, from his latest self-titled release. It was clear, in "Holocene" and "Calgary" that the whole band--all nine of them--relished the huge soundscapes they were able to play in: it was a show that was a celebration and a party at the same time, although you would never call Bon Iver's music party music. And in the narrative of a concert experience (even without a storyline as mega concerts now are wont to have) Bon Iver was able to lead the audience through a diverse setlist that culled from his past work (and even a Bjork cover) without a dull moment.
It makes sense to think of Bon Iver's live show as a theatrical production in acts, as well. In the backdrop, rods of light flickered and glowed and flashed with strobe lights in tune with the song. They flashed furiously during climaxes, and diffused on slower songs. Each time a song ended, there was no segue aside from Bon Iver's grateful thank yous to the crowd. Lights fell, and the band took on the next song. Maybe some of it seemed overproduced and affected, but even in those affectations, the songs worked. When the band was beating the shit out of everything they had on stage during "Blood Bank" (and again during the encore of "Wolves"), I (and the rest of the crowd, who gave Vernon a standing ovation) came to one realization: Who says Bon Iver isn't punk rock?
Random Notebook Dump: The most interesting parts of the night came when Vernon gave his famous falsetto a break and sang with his regular voice (like he did on "Creature Fear"). So that's what his regular singing voice sounds like!
Overheard in the crowd: Many, many voices singing along to each word.
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Let's not forget: Other Lives, the Oklahoma six-piece that proved every member was a multi-instrumentalist, was equally impressive. From the cello to the piano to guitars and violas, it seemed a fitting opening act for the expansive sound of Bon Iver. But while the main act went outward, Other Lives wound their complex songs tightly and kept audiences well within their rich melodies. It was intricate and beautiful, and I'd be interested in seeing how Other Lives evolve as they perform more often and develop more songs.
Who Is It (Björk cover)