After listening to Bon Iver’s latest self-titled album several times leading up to Friday night’s sold out Uptown Theater show, I had an idea in my head of what their performance might be like.
I figured it’d be a quiet, intimate show with lots of instrumentation, lots of ambient noise, and precise musicianship. And of course, Justin Vernon’s unique falsetto vocals that combine one part Prince and one part Beck from Midnite Vultures.
You know, some mellow nap-rock that would take me away to my own cabin in the winter woods of Wisconsin, where I could grow a beard and contemplate things by myself.
I couldn’t have been more wrong…
Bon Iver set the tone right away, opening with Perth, the first track off the new album, which features a lilting guitar line that slowly builds into a rhythmic march. Only instead of approaching the song with a tasteful and balanced restraint as it is on the album, the band took a more aggressive approach, noted immediately by Vernon’s
buzzing electric guitar line that kicked things off.
Backed by eight musicians including a bass saxophone, French horn, trombone, two percussionists, keys, and a bunch of other stuff at different times, it was clear that this night would not be one of quiet introspection as I’d thought.
Instead it would be a celebration – a party really. No moping around here. In fact, only once or twice in the whole show did Vernon do the whole guy-onstage-by-himself-with-a-guitar thing. When those quiet moments did come, the Uptown crowd stood still and at attention, with only a few shushes reminding everyone to pay attention, that something really cool was happening up on that stage thingy.
Sonically, Bon Iver sounded powerful and balanced. Vernon’s vocals – which on the album sound almost too high and clean and pure – impressed for a couple of reasons. First, his range is astounding, at times conjuring Jeff Buckley’s sweeping falsetto. But the other thing that really stood out was how expressive his voice was live. There was an edge to it that seems to get a little lost on the record due to slick recording and layering techniques.
The combination of two percussionists was also executed particularly well, with props going out to the sound guy for getting such a snappy snare sound and blending everything together so seamlessly.
After Perth, the band slid right into the second track off the new album, Minnesota, WI, which was followed by Towers, Brackett, WI, and a cool version of Blood Bank that saw Vernon at his most demonstrative, on his knees wailing away on his electric guitar in a Wilco-esque noise buildup and fadeout.
The crowd responded wildly and the band basked in their glow. Vernon, who is somewhat awkward in his stage banter,
repeated (all night long), "Thanks a lot, you guys are awesome, we really appreciate it."
The next song, Holocene, was the highlight of the show. Just like some of the others, the band stepped this song up a notch from the brooding album version, and instead provided a loud and lush backdrop of horn chords and guitars to complement the poignant lyrics.
When Vernon sang the chorus, "And at once I knew, I was not magnificent," it was the confession of a man finally coming to grips with his long-running denial. But the crowd was there for him, with furrowed brows of understanding and acceptance.
The band swelled as the snare snapped out a rolling half trot.
"And I can see for miles, miles, miles..."
A few songs later Vernon thanked the crowd again and said, "We’ve got a few more for you guys."
Whoah! What gives?
I looked at my watch. It had been an hour and a half already. You know, sometimes, after seeing so many shows – including shows from bands that I’m not super familiar with – it can be a welcome thing when the frontman utters those words. Other shows, for whatever reason, seem to drag on and on.
Not this one, though, because Bon Iver offered just the right amount of everything, at all the exact right times. Kinda like Einstein said:
"Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it
seems like a minute."
Bon Iver seemed like a minute or two with a pretty girl.
Closing the set strong with keyboard heavy Calgary, the oddly ’80s Beth/Rest, and then For Emma, the band waved and walked happily off the stage to a constant roar from the crowd. They re-emerged about thirty seconds later and launched into one of the band’s best-loved tracks, Skinny Love, that got the crowd pumping fists and smiling.
Next was a Bjork cover, Who Is It, which featured all the horns and no guitar, followed by the final song of the night, The Wolves (Act I and II) which displayed Vernon at his most plaintive.
When the lights came on, Vernon offered his last awkward ‘Thank you,’ and, like a Boy Scout in the north woods, left the Uptown crowd better than he found them.
Photos by Alex Jinks
Who Is It (Björk cover)
The Wolves (Act I and II)