Not since I saw Wilco back in 2006 have I been so transfixed by a live band as I was tonight by Bon Iver at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Bon Iver founder/frontman Justin Vernon seems to have picked up where Wilco left off long about “Kicking Television,” deconstructing traditional folk songs until they’re unrecognizable as such, then putting them back together as something both completely familiar and foreign—somehow at the same time.
Vernon is touring off the band’s eponymous CD from 2011, which won him two Grammys earlier this year. This fall tour feels like both a victory lap and a farewell tour, because I can’t see how this maelstrom of a band can keep this magic going for a sustained period of time. I missed out on their shows last year at the 9:30 Club, so I was determined to make sure I saw this performance, in person, before it went away, perhaps never to be heard from again. Vernon alluded to much the same notion tonight, saying they were going to “go away for awhile,” hole up in cabins, and “grow their body hair out.” It was a joke, sure, but it rang true in that this is a special group of musicians creating special music for a special, specific span of time; I don’t know how Vernon could possibly recapture this vibe again, but I hope he can.
From the plaintive opening strains of “Perth,” through the closing moments of “For Emma” 90 minutes later, Bon Iver put on a show that left me stunned in my seat. No, I didn’t stand up (much); no, I didn’t yell (much) and I didn’t clap (much). I just, sorta, … sat. Mesmerized. Hypnotized.
Much of this has to do with the sheer number of musicians onstage, as Vernon is joined by nine players, several of whom play multiple instruments. At any given point in the show, there could’ve been two drum kits, at least one piano/synthesizer, a violinist, multiple guitars, and a full horn section; one guy even beatboxed during a cover of Bjork’s “Who Is It.” It’s a lot to take in, and can be overwhelming at times.
I felt the same way tonight as I did with Wilco during the “Kicking Television” tour—the way I described it then was a “sense of pure, intense musical adventure and endeavor.” Because Vernon’s soundscapes are so complicated, these guys can’t simply go through the motions; they all have to be right at the peak of their powers, all night, every night or the whole thing would fall to pieces.
I came into the show fully expecting the songs from the latest album to be powerful—they were written as such and the players onstage were involved in their creation; “Perth” and “Beth/Rest,” in particular, wowed. However, it’s Vernon’s older material—when it was mainly him and a guitar—that really blew me away. He’s re-arranged several of these tracks into full-band versions that, when presented in this fashion, are almost entirely new songs. “Blood Bank,” in particular, was transcendent with its extended hard-rock instrumental outro that sounded like something Led Zeppelin forgot to write.
Going from a thousand people inside the 9:30 Club to nearly filling Merriweather Post all the way to the top of the lawn is quite a jump for one band in one year, but Bon Iver has just seemingly grown with their burgeoning popularity, and that includes the stage presentation. The lights and projections were just right, not only complementing the music perfectly but also adding something to the overall aura of the evening. When the first fanfare in “Perth” crashed into existence, the strobe lights pulsing in time with the melody brought a rise from the crowd; this would happen often as each new lighting trick unveiled itself.
That’s not to say Vernon couldn’t still command an audience with a simplified approach. “Re: Stacks” saw him alone with his acoustic guitar, and the audience was just as rapt. Beloved early cuts such as “Skinny Love” and “For Emma” offered comparatively little instrumentation from the band, and they were plenty effective.
And that gets at the heart of what makes this Bon Iver lineup so special—they all know when to push and when to hold back. They understand there can be just as much power in a trombone solo as a thundering drum slap, and they use both swings of that pendulum perfectly.
Bon Iver is a strange brew, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. I only catch about half of Vernon’s lyrics, and of those understand less than half. He’s a rather burly guy who wears a beard and a headband, drops f-bombs like it’s nothing, and yet sings most of his songs in a falsetto and sometimes through a vocoder mic. It shouldn’t work, but it so, so does. This band he’s assembled is just that good; they swept me away. I went in hoping for greatness and my expectations were far exceeded.
So maybe it’s not too much to hope, then, that after this tour is over they can somehow find their way out of those cabins and back to one another. Because a band this great deserves more than just one victory lap.
Merriweather Post Pavilion
Who Is It (Bjork cover)
The Wolves (Act I & II)
Show Time: 90 minutes