Photo by D.L. Anderson
Bon Iver Play Mesmerizing Set
Friday, July 29 — Downtown Raleigh Amphitheater (Raleigh, N.C.)
Reviewed by David Menconi
Standing centerstage, Justin Vernon leaned into his microphone to emote while the other eight musicians in Bon Iver worked the groove. Reggie Pace had put down his trombone for this song to set the rhythm as human beatbox, the band’s two drummers falling in behind him as the rest of the horn section played jazz riffs. A couple fiddles were sawing away. And the sonic cherry on top of it all was Vernon’s own freakishly high yelp of a voice — covering a song by Bjork, of all people, 2004′s “Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right).”
“Who is it that never lets you down?…”
Cramming so many seemingly clashing elements into a single song and making everything work takes something akin to alchemy. Somehow, Vernon made it look easy. Playing outdoors on a sweltering night for an adoring throng in his former hometown (where Vernon lived for a spell before departing back north for the frigid wilds of Wisconsin), he and the rest of Bon Iver played a 90-minute set that was mesmerizing despite the oppressive heat.
Vernon made a splashy debut as Bon Iver with 2008′s striking, deathly quiet For Emma, Forever Ago, an album of nine solitary ruminations on love, loss and guilt that unexpectedly sold well into six figures. He called the recently released second full-length Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar Records), an eponymous title implying reinvention or redefinition, and it’s definitely that. Where Emma‘s quiet freak-folk felt like music for cabins, Bon Iver, Bon Iver sounds as if it was built for arenas and maybe even stadiums.
Like the album, the show opened with “Perth,” pitting Vernon’s clarion-call guitar against martial drums and the declaration, “This is not a place.” Many of the songs on Bon Iver, Bon Iver are named after places both real (“Calgary,” “Perth”) and imaginary (“Hinnom, Tx,” “Michicant”), but Vernon’s invisible republic is more a state of mind than a state on a map.
In this expanded incarnation, Bon Iver’s cathedrals of sound build from hushed murmurs to explosions, and Vernon is not above showing off influences most hipsters would deride as far too uncool for indie-rock. The live version of “Blood Bank” concluded with guitar heroics that brought Carlos Santana to mind. And a couple of “Bon Iver” songs bring back vintage sonics that were in vogue during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
“Calgary” and “Beth/Rest” are both built on waves of synthesizers recalling the likes of Bruce Hornsby, the Top Gun soundtrack, Howard Jones and the David Foster-produced mid-’80s hits of Chicago. That’s not a promising recipe, and yet it works onstage as well as on-record — mostly because Vernon’s idiosyncratic falsetto is so arresting that he can make anything work. His piercing wail evokes The Band’s Richard Manuel, all haunted visions from a shadowy place.
The 16-song live set included most of Bon Iver, Bon Iver with songs proceeding at a stately glide (the gently chiming “Towers”) or even a waltz (“Michicant”), and the live renditions were just as reverie-inducing as the studio versions. It wasn’t all big-band bombast, either. Vernon’s bandmates retreated late in the set to let him do the Emma song “Re: Stacks” alone, and it was beautiful.
The encore concluded with Vernon playing “Skinny Love” solo acoustic and battling a microphone that conked out as his bandmates gathered behind him to look on. But he wasn’t performing unaccompanied, thanks to several thousand backup singers out in the audience.