Gratitude, grief and hope dwell in close proximity these days. Perhaps it has always been this way, or maybe the ongoing pandemic has just made it easier to discern. Regardless, a strange feeling hangs in the air, a sense of loss and bitterness, but also a hint of renewal and optimism.
Few musical acts better capture and process such a conflicting blend of emotions as Bon Iver, an alt-folk collective that expands and contracts as needed. Originally started by singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, alone with an acoustic guitar, sifting through the ashes of a relationship, Bon Iver has grown: Sunday’s stop at the Pavilion at the Toyota Music Factory, the band’s first in over four years, found Vernon backed by a quintet of musicians (Sean Carey, Andy Fitzpatrick, Mike Lewis, Matt McCaughan and Jenn Wasner), all of whom contribute indelibly to the often-overwhelming sonic spectacle.
Precisely defining Bon Iver’s sound has become an exercise in stacking up adjectives, as Vernon freely pulls from a variety of genres to create the band’s specific style. Suffice to say, with every passing year, Vernon wanders further afield from the cold, lonely cabin of For Emma, Forever Ago
, out into the world, where messy complications rough up Bon Iver's gorgeous sound and make it fit with the swirling chaos of life.(It was also amusing to consider Sunday’s performance in the context of the 64th annual Grammys, which were unfolding concurrently in Las Vegas, as Vernon is now a decade removed — and light years away from — having won Best New Artist.)
Vernon’s appreciation for those willing to take that journey with him was evident throughout. “We really appreciate you coming out tonight,” he said as “Heavenly Father” concluded. Later, Vernon again offered thanks: “This is incredible, to have so many people listening.”
That thread of acknowledgment underpinned the songs, which could spin from bleak to beautiful in an instant. “Jelmore,” from the band’s 2019 album i,i
, began as a glitchy, scattered cloud of sounds — a song that felt and sounded shattered before it even began — before Vernon, wearing a bandana and black headphones clamped securely over his ears, stepped to the microphone, and began to sing, his voice warped and distorted: “We’ll all be gone by the fall/We’ll all be gone by the falling light.”
The frontman of Bon Iver is not actually named Bon Iver, but Justin Vernon.
Rap Photo Company/Live Nation
A gently strummed, acoustic guitar mashed up against layers of digital samples and processed horns, a pair of drummers rumbling beneath as Vernon’s exquisite falsetto, often smeared and snipped and stretched, soared above. The set list leaned heavily on i,i
, but took care to pull from most of Bon Iver’s catalog, climaxing in the encore with the masterpiece “Beth/Rest,” which Vernon described as a “psychedelic leave-you-for-the-evening song.”
Over the course of four albums, Bon Iver has widened its scope to consider the whole of the human experiment, placing words and sounds together to capture the ineffable, grasping at that which is not intended to be held.
For nearly two hours Sunday, to watch and listen to the amiable Vernon lead a near-capacity venue — practically religious in its attentive stillness — through a carefully modulated series of moods was to feel something akin to ecstasy.
Vernon and his collaborators were alone together on the sparely dressed stage, each standing on their own platforms, ringed by lights that pulsed and glowed and dazzled in tandem with the lighting rigs suspended on either side of and above them.
There were numerous moments, particularly during “Blood Bank” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T,” when the music and the lights synchronized to create a visceral overload, a riot of vivid colors and intense moodiness. The sensation mimicked Bon Iver’s knack for wringing feeling from machines and digital manipulation — mining the gap between artificial and real, and emerging with something that feels true.
“We need to take care of each other,” Vernon said, late in the evening. “There are too many lines, too many divisions, and not enough taking care of each other.” Naked in its earnestness, the sentiment was echoed as the band returned to the stage for its final song: “Make sure you spread love,” Vernon told the cheering audience, which stayed seated for nearly the entire performance, standing only as “iMi” and “Beth/Rest” were performed.
No single concert can necessarily repair all that’s ruptured within us and around us, but letting Bon Iver’s exquisite art wash over and through you certainly made a strong case for as much. Not unlike the extraordinary music itself — refracted and reflected and synthesized — there was a sense, filing out into the cool spring evening, that Bon Iver had, however briefly, found beauty in our broken places.