The Greek Theatre has a way of reminding bands that they’re doing something right — that, in a sense, they have arrived, and can count themselves among a group of musicians who have put their footprint on the history of pop music. So you’ll have to forgive Justin Vernon, bandleader of the small town act-gone-ubiquitous Bon Iver, for taking a moment Thursday night to reflect on the significance of it all, his indie majesty perched atop these ridiculously hallowed grounds. “…we feel lucky,” he concluded. It was the #humblebrag of the year.
Indeed, the WTF-quotient is high when you consider the project’s story to date. In a nutshell: dude gets heartsick, secludes himself in remote cabin, records touching solo album, meets Kanye West, reaps benefits of Kanye's notoriety, assembles band to record follow-up album, follow-up album rises to No. 2 on Billboard chart, music industry is turned on head.
And now America has an Amish-looking rock star with a small but remarkable collection of poignant pop songs. He stood before us on Thursday with his signature neck beard still intact, disheveled hair strewn about, and denim long-sleeved shirt with collar popped, stolen from Kanye's wardobe, no doubt.
His fans were screaming like the Beatles had just arrived at Shea Stadium, which was a bit of a thing to reconcile. There were few songs that, when initially recognized by the audience, didn’t send the ladies into a heated frenzy. When the band came out for their encore and played “Skinny Love” — in which the band gathered around Vernon campfire-style, stomp-clap/stomp-clap-clapping — the shrill crescendo of the audience hit peak shriek (copyright @ChrisTrenchard, 2011).
But it’s possible they were just taking cues from Vernon, whose countertenor hits notes that few Adam’s apples can handle. His pitch is reliably high, and his lyrics are often abstracted either by that or by a range of other vocal effects. In “Perth,” the first song of the night, he jumped right into his one-man vocal harmonizing, despite having eight other bandmembers onstage.
The nine-piece band was a revelation to hear in this context, particularly on deeper cuts from For Emma, Forever Ago and the Blood Bank EP, which turned spare ditties into robust, fully realized chamber pieces. The oh-no-you-didn’t-titled “Michicant,” from For Emma, was one such number, starting faithfully with Vernon’s ever-so-faint guitar strum, accented by Rob “Mooooose” Moose’s atmospheric violin section, then exploding into a spazzy jazz jam, with Vernon conducting, back to the audience. For “Re: Stacks,” however, he called off the band and sang a devastating lullaby about desperate isolation, appropriately alone. I saw people crying.
As much as this was a lighter-in-the-air affair, it was also a spectacle of a rock concert. Two drum sets, multiple guitars, bass, trombone, synths, more horns, and an intricate light show were all at Vernon’s disposal. More than a few times, he led furious experimental-jazzy outros, taking a page out of fellow Midwesterner Sufjan Stevens’ book in “Blood Bank” and others.
The winner, for my money, was “Holocene,” a celebration of instrumental momentum, subtly epic- and anthemic-sounding in all the right ways, particularly when Vernon belts out the jolting chorus: “And I can see for miles, miles, miles.” Indeed, the vision is good from the peak where Bon Iver resides.
Text by Chris Trenchard, @ChrisTrenchard