Concert Reviews

Bon Iver Gave Emotional Rock 'n' Roll Performance, But There Was Too Little of It

Justin Vernon's emotion during "____45_____" drew tears.
Justin Vernon's emotion during "____45_____" drew tears. Mike Brooks
Most people consider time efficiency a good thing; you can tell by the number of apps and gadgets designed to keep us on time and on task. That’s all well and good, except when it comes to concerts where the music is  meant to be savored like a fine glass of wine.

Bon Iver’s music is contemplative and emotional, which felt out of sync with the brisk clip the band maintained throughout its hourlong show at the Bomb Factory on Tuesday evening. The band barely gave the audience room to enjoy the music.

The 10-piece ensemble sampled many of its longer tracks at about two minutes. Lead singer Justin Vernon kept interaction with the crowd to a minimum, except to sprinkle platitudes such as, “Spread love. Be good to each other,” and insert nonsequiturs like how the band would bring out Eminem for a mini-show during the set. (Perhaps that was his tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of how disjointed the show felt.)

After the band played fewer than 20 songs at less than their normal length, the show ended abruptly. The final song of the set, an anticlimactic version of “22 (Over Soon),” was aptly titled punctuation to a show that was over much too soon.

Most of the crowd stayed, ushering the band to return to the stage for a 15-minute, three-song encore in which Vernon’s vocals and the band’s emotive power shone brightest for “Perth,” “____45_____” and “00000 Million.”

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The Bomb Factory crowed remained surprisingly silent during the set.
Mike Brooks
During the show, Bon Iver showcased its virtuoso musicians better than on the recordings. The band comprised a quintet of trombone players and another five multi-instrumentalists, including a standout saxophonist who doubled as a keyboardist and bass player; two drummers, one of whom moonlit on the keys; and Vernon on synth, guitar and piano.

At the top of the set, Vernon got roaring cheers for “715-Creeks” off Bon Iver’s newest album, 22, A Million. The audience remained completely hushed for the entirety of the song — a rare occurrence in the Bomb Factory. The attention was well deserved; Vernon’s spotlit solo split open the darkened auditorium as he pleaded, “Turn around, now you’re my A Team/God damn, turn around, now you’re my A Team,” with more emotion than on the album version.

The person running sound for the Bomb Factory should also be applauded; the bass was turned up high enough for certain songs that it rattled fixtures and sternums, yet it wasn’t too loud on the ears. Its power was a delight to experience, like watching a waterfall crash into rocks from a safe distance. It also was a stirring departure from Bon Iver’s quiet and oftentimes understated melodies. The band brought out its inner heavy metal spirit for the live show, which lifted Bon Iver's sappy love songs to new rock 'n' roll heights.

For example, “33 ‘GOD’” from the new album sounded completely different live. Bon Iver’s characteristic layers, especially on the newest release, are best experienced in person. The live setup allowed all of the disparate parts to be appreciated as separate yet coordinated entities, a stream often muddied by digital compression.

Masterful lighting design pulsed and strobed in time to the songs, enhancing the thundering bass. A sped-up and rocked-out version of “Blood Bank” was appropriately eerie, with red lighting bathing the stage, audience and performers in a crimson sea.

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Bon Iver's musicianship shone through during the live performance, more so than on its albums.
Mike Brooks
A solo acoustic version of “Skinny Love” had a lot of heart and received the most intense crowd reaction of the night. Before it began, an audience member yelled “Thank you” in the hushed venue, to which Vernon replied, “You’re welcome, man.” It  was a perfect segue for his next thought: “Have you guys ever taken something for granted before?” Such quiet self-reflection makes Bon Iver’s music potent.

Despite the main set feeling sped through, the band dropped the pace down a couple of notches during the encore. Thankfully, “Perth” was not sped up. If anything, it was slowed down while Vernon and team relished the dissonant opening chords. Delightfully ear-splitting feedback screeched across the auditorium to lead into the chorus. By the time the song was in full swing, the crashing symbols and guitars’ reverb (matched to the pulsating lights) challenged the crowd to check its preconceptions of Bon Iver as a folksy alternative band — this was a full-on rock show.

Although the crowd loved the band's earlier hits and some of the more showy tunes on the new album, “____45_____" — an inconspicuous song on the new album — stole the show during the encore.

The lingering intro duet by the sax player and Vernon on synth announced that this song was different. Vernon broke the lengthy instrumental interlude to preach, “I been carved in fire/I been caught in fire/I stayed down/Without knowing what the truth is/Fire.” Vernon called on the dead when he screeched “FIRE” with the vigor of a Southern Baptist preacher.

Vernon seemed to be working through personal struggles on stage. Marveling at someone’s pain feels weird, but it was a cathartic experience for the viewer, and his gut-wrenching emotion drew tears from the audience.
“At any point if you’re in trouble, you're going to get out of it again,” Vernon said as he introduced the song. By the time it was over, the audience had to believe him; he was too convincing.
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