Last Night: Bon Iver and Kathleen Edwards at the Winspear Opera House

Bon Iver, Kathleen Edwards
Winspear Opera House
September 12, 2011

Better than: seeing this (or any other) show outside in the reinvigorated heat-wave.

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon has left the log cabin. 

Hell, judging by the full-on rock show that took place in the magnificent Winspear Opera House last night, it's hard to believe that Vernon ever made his now near-legendary trek to the lonely log cabin where he wrote and recorded his breakthrough album, For Emma, Forever Ago, a few years back, after his romantic and musical relationships had fallen apart. 

Including Vernon, there were nine members comprising the entity known as Bon Iver on this night. While Vernon served as a stoner version of Glen Miller, the stage-swallowing outfit gave new and literal meaning to the label orchestral rock. With two full drum kits to back up instruments such as French horn, baritone sax, synth and a trumpet or two, each number seemed to develop its own life-form, apart from its recorded counterpart. Even two violinists that doubled as guitar players when necessary added to the drama that unfurled with each passing song.

Prior to the show, it seemed as though Vernon's famed falsetto would certainly star in such a regal room. As it turned out, that was only true to a point: At times, the sonic fervor that became the focal point in certain tunes, such as the show opener "Perth," seemed to somewhat muddle Vernon's vocal calling-card. It was during another couple of cuts from the recently released, self-titled record, "Holecene" and "Michicant," where the rock was pulled back from arena-sized to theatre-sized and Vernon's flair for high-pitched tones was able to successfully pierce through and ring off of the ornately lit ceiling. 

Of course, when an artist as on-fire as Vernon is has a crack-band with him in an amazing hall, there's no faulting him for wanting to see if the roof can be lifted a tad. The horns that blared majestically in "Towers" were nothing short of triumphant and, with all due respect to the newer material that was primarily featured, the show's best performance came when the band went wild on "Blood Bank."

Not only did that song showcase an unexpected, husky soul in Vernon's lower register, but the raw, electric strums that open the song were given a quicker pace, adding tremendous urgency and even danger into the mix. As the band feverishly soared and the performance continued to pulsate, the strobe lighting and thin LED streams of red light (which changed color through the night to a pleasing effect) danced frenetically from behind the stars of the show. All in all, each element melded together for a six-minute window that likely will serve as the concert highlight of 2011 for many who were there.

But what would the night have been if Vernon hadn't have dusted off at least a couple of the songs that first turned indie-kids onto him in the first place? "Flume" came off as a tad over-polished as the acoustic shroud that gives the recorded version an almost haunting, ethereal haze was lost in the packed hall. On the other side of that coin, however, "Creature Fear" benefitted from the tighter nature of the live setting and gained a sincere sense of drama in the process. After a touching, seemingly impromptu story about the healing and unifying power of music in his life, a solo Vernon strummed through "Re: Stacks," and displayed a wonderful vulnerability that hasn't been lost inside of his newfound, mainstream stardom.

The encore would also reveal two songs from the early days of Bon Iver to much approval. "Skinny Love" was offered in the form of an acoustic, sing-along where the non-drumming players gathered around Vernon and hand-clapped while they harmonized with each other, giving what was likely the most faithful rendering of an "early-era" song all night.

After the crowd sing-along of "The Wolves" ended the set, the nine performers lined-up across the stage, waving goodbye to the cheering, adoring throng. 

For the smiling Vernon, the Dallas summer night had to seem even farther away from his old Wisconsin cabin than it already is. 

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: Personally, I'm a bigger fan of opening act Kathleen Edwards than I am of Bon Iver. But they're both pretty good.

By The Way: Speaking of Edwards: Her 45-minute opening set was dominated by songs that will be on her upcoming album. Flanked by two guitar players, including her longtime collaborator Jim Bryson, who also played on keys, Edwards backed up her big talk from our recent interview where she stated that the new album would welcome a new musical direction. Switching from the violin to guitar to the keys, Edwards never seemed too worried about road-testing the new material and skipping more favored older songs. Darker, more atmospheric arrangements added to lyrical imagery that's a bit denser than in the past. By any measure, her performance provided an intriguing teaser for the January release of Voyageur.

Random Note: So, the Winspear is a beautiful room (shocker!), but I'm not sure it's cut-out for a rock show. There were a couple of instances involving fans humorously breaking the silence of the quiet hall through the course of both sets last night. Each case seemed to capitalize on the awkward nature of rock fans being seemingly forced to sit down for a show in which they were ready to stand, sway and pump their fists.

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