Gratitude, grief and hope dwell nearby these days. Maybe it has always been that way, or maybe the ongoing pandemic has just made discernment easier. Either way, a strange feeling hangs in the air, a sense of loss and bitterness, but also a hint of renewal and optimism.
Few musical acts capture and process such a conflicting mix of emotions better than Bon Iver, an alternative folk collective that expands and contracts as needed. Originally launched by singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, alone with an acoustic guitar, sifting through the ashes of a relationship, Bon Iver grew: Sunday’s stop at the Toyota Music Factory pavilion, the first of band 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 sound spectacle.
Precisely defining Bon Iver’s sound has become an exercise in adjectival stacking, as Vernon freely draws from a variety of genres to create the band’s specific style. Suffice it to say that with each passing year, Vernon moves away from the cold, lonely cabin of For Emma there is alwaysin the world, where messy complications rough Bon Iver’s beautiful sound and adapt it to the whirling chaos of life. (It was also amusing to consider Sunday’s performance in the context of the 64th annual Grammys, which were happening simultaneously in Vegas, when Vernon is now a decade away – and light years away – from winning the award. best new artist.)
Vernon’s appreciation for those willing to take this journey with him was evident throughout. “We really appreciate you coming tonight,” he said at the conclusion of “Heavenly Father.” Later, Vernon thanked again, “It’s amazing, to have so many people listening.”
This thread of recognition underpinned the songs, which could go from dark to beautiful in an instant. “Jelmore”, from the band’s 2019 album I, Istarted out as a cloud of scattered, glitched sounds – a song that felt and sounded broken before it even started – before Vernon, wearing a bandana and black headphones strapped tightly over his ears, walked over to the microphone and begins to sing, his voice distorted and distorted: “We’ll all be gone in the fall / We’ll all be gone in the falling light.”
Gently strummed acoustic guitar crushed against layers of digital samples and processed horns, a pair of drummers rumbling below as Vernon’s exquisite falsetto, often smeared, cut and stretched, hovered above. The setlist relied heavily on I, Ibut was careful to pull from most of Bon Iver’s catalog, culminating in the encore with the masterpiece “Beth/Rest”, which Vernon described as a “psychedelic song to be left for the evening”.
Over four albums, Bon Iver has widened his scope to consider the whole of human experience, combining words and sounds to capture the ineffable, to grasp what is not meant to be held.
For nearly two hours on Sunday, watching and listening to the lovable Vernon lead a nearly full house – practically religious in his watchful stillness – through a series of carefully modulated moods was to feel something akin to ecstasy.
Vernon and his collaborators were alone together on the scantily clad stage, each standing on their own platform, surrounded by lights that pulsated, shone and dazzled in tandem with the light fixtures hanging either side and above them. .
There were many moments, especially during “Blood Bank” and “10 d EAT hb RE as T,” where the music and lights synced up to create visceral overload, a riot of bright colors and intense mood. . The sensation mimicked Bon Iver’s talent for extracting sensations from machines and digital manipulation – driving the gap between the artificial and the real, and emerging with something that feels real.
“We have to take care of each other,” Vernon said late in the evening. “There are too many lines, too many divisions and not enough care for each other.” Naked in earnest, the sentiment echoed as the band returned to the stage for their final song: “Make sure you spread the love,” Vernon told the jubilant audience, who remained seated for most of the performance. , billing only as “iMi” and “Beth/Rest” were played.
No concert can necessarily mend all that has broken in us and around us, but letting Bon Iver’s exquisite artistry wash over you and flow through you has certainly proven that. Much like the extraordinary music itself – refracted, reflected and synthesized – there was a sense, pervading the cool spring evening, that Bon Iver had, however briefly, found beauty in our broken places.