When Justin Vernon first emerged from his cabin in Eu Clair, Wisconsin with an album’s worth of fractured, soulful acoustic guitar led ballads, the likes of which would make up his debut as Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago, it can be assumed that effectively no one, including Vernon himself, could have ever imagined Bon Iver would be playing in a 2,300 seat capacity opera house backed up by an eight piece experimental rock orchestra. How things can change in just a few short years as what would have once been thought of as a ludicrous idea has become Vernon’s reality nearly every night as he and Bon Iver have been out on the road touring behind their excellent sophomore release, the self titled Bon Iver. Bon Iver’s second full length sounds to be almost a world away from where the band was on For Emma, Forever Ago, with Vernon expanding the band from a three piece to include a murderers row of guitarists, horn players, drummers, and multi-instrumentalists and expanding the band’s sonic palette far beyond the reaches of simply acoustic guitar and voice. Bon Iver has been the subject of massive critical acclaim, representing a surprising but highly effective evolution in Bon Iver’s sound, as Justin Vernon’s compositions have become more complex and gratifyingly challenging without losing their emotional heft. When Bon Iver took the stage on Tuesday, September 13, at Austin’s Long Center for the Performing Arts, the band brought that emotional heft along with an intensely personal and affecting concert experience that made the set feel intimate despite the sold out theater.
Bon Iver opened the set with the one, two punch of “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI”, the two songs that open Bon Iver and feed into each other on the record. From the minute they began, the band was extremely tight but allowed the natural give and take between band members to flow evenly throughout their music, creating a perfect blend of musical professionalism and group dynamics. The range of instruments on stage perfectly captured the sound and mood of the band’s recorded songs and even added an additional punch to each song’s weight. Though it was clear that Bon Iver has become much more of a group effort than it was in the past with a great reliance and trust in composition and group performance, Justin Vernon still remains a central figure with his angelic falsetto that suggests the very earliest stasis of soul music. Vernon commanded the stage in his place fronting the band, providing lead guitar and using his voice to express an incredible amount of feeling, likely connecting with every member of the audience on a level much deeper than the average singer can delve to. Bon Iver showed off their improvisational chops as well with occasional transition jams between songs, including one stunning performance from Colin Stetson, the man redefining the saxophone, in which a fluttering bari-sax drone gradually morphed into the sound of an angelic choir.
The band played songs mostly from their sophomore album, but included selected cuts from their debut and from their Blood Bank EP, along with a super fun and uplifting cover of Bjork’s “Who is It?”. But these songs were not simply played straight as the average band would have performed them, Bon Iver has taken it upon themselves to rearrange what were once simple folk songs into exploratory compositions that are more in tune with their current place as a band. For Emma opener “Flume” incorporated horns and atmospheric guitar flourishes and “Blood Bank” was overhauled into a propulsive rocker that ended with a clash of instrumental noise and sonic dissonance, being the loudest track of the nearly two hour set. Bon Iver closed the main set with “For Emma” which ended with battling free jazz trombone, trumpet, and saxophone solos. Bon Iver then went on perform an encore made up of fan favorites “Skinny Love” which featured Vernon on solo acoustic guitar with his bandmates circled around him accompanying him with backing vocals and keeping time with handclaps and footstomps, and “Wolves (pt. I and II)” which gradually increased in intensity as Vernon got conceivably every member of the audience to sing along to the words “What might have been lost” in the song’s coda. Perhaps the most arresting moment of the entire concert however was when the band left the stage to leave Vernon completely alone to play “Re: Stacks”, For Emma‘s closing track. As Vernon played the highly personal and intimate track with only his voice and guitar, a pin drop could have easily been heard, as the audience was completely silent and several members were openly shedding tears as Vernon played.
At their set at the Long Center, Bon Iver brought out a thorough mix of high musical proficiency, lighting that was used for tasteful and subtle showmanship, and deep connections that likely cut to the core of every audience member whether they are longtime fans or had only heard of the band twenty minutes before the show started. Bon Iver’s live show is the kind of performance that you don’t want to ever end, as I found myself completely enraptured by Vernon and his band’s performance, with the newer songs like the somewhat controversial Bon Iver closer “Beth/Rest” acting as exuberant sheddings of positivity and hopefulness against what are sometimes painful emotions that can be conveyed in Bon Iver’s earlier work. Tracks like “Calgary”, “Towers”, and “Holocene” translate incredibly well when played live, with the band never missing a beat and Vernon intoning with all the appropriate strength and tenderness those songs convey. By the concert’s end, it was clear that Bon Iver’s live show is more than simply music being played before an audience, it is a full on experience that grabs hold of your full attention from its opening note and hangs on even after the band has left the stage. The fact that Bon Iver clearly represented so much more than simply music for so many people present attests to the band’s incredible power as a unit and is solidifying Bon Iver as one of the best bands working today both on stage and in the studio. From the looks and sounds of Tuesday’s performance, Justin Vernon’s wild ride with Bon Iver can only shoot skyward from here.