For an awfully quiet, bearded little Wisconsin singer-songwriter, Bon Iver puts on an incredibly raucous live show. The Grammy Award-winning band-led by Justin Vernon, who sings and plays guitar and piano-exploded onto the forefront of the cluttered music world with the release of its second full length self-titled album in 2011. The showman and his 10-piece band brought its blend of rock, soul, and folk to Boston for “the last time for a while,” according to Vernon, who claims the group’s current mini-tour will be its final one for some time.
Audiences settled in at the Bank of America Pavilion to the dulcet tones of Anais Mitchell, a folksy Joni Mitchell-type who surprised audiences with her crystal-clear voice, a plucky ensemble of musicians backing her up, and some perfectly quirky charm. The 31-year-old singer, who hails from Vermont, rolled quietly through her hour-long set with a promised return to the Brighton Music Hall in December.
Although the band’s set was heavy with newer cuts, Bon Iver made sure to sprinkle in the older hits along the way, many reinterpreted, stripped down to their bare bones, which exposed their raw beauty. Frontloaded with newer hits like “Perth,” “Minnesota, WI,” and the effervescent “Holocene,” the band riffed and improvised on extended intros and kept the tunes rolling along long past their expected length.
Band members like S. Carey-whose intensely simple but spectacular solo albums are mini-masterpieces in their own right-were granted ample time in the spotlight, with Vernon ceding the stage and attention for some saxophone and guitar solos that, while a nice gesture, often bordered on gratuitous.
The audience was there to hear Vernon’s voice above all else, and the flannel-wearing front man delivered in every way possible. “Towers” evolved into an all-encompassing masterpiece that brought a reverent hush over all in attendance, complete focus bestowed upon the logic defying vocals. His falsetto wavered between deeply emotional-especially on crowd favorite “Skinny Love,” a song chanted by each and every audience member-and simply impressive, a combination of Michael Jackson’s highest-pitched wails and Mick Jagger’s swagger-laden squeals from the seventies.
More than anything, however, Vernon proved himself to be more than capable of controlling a crowd despite the seemingly meek persona he’s built up on the band’s releases. He was funny and self-effacing, going into detail about the inspiration behind many of the band’s songs that fleshed them out and made their inclusion all the more worthwhile.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing to occur during the concert wasn’t actually on stage, but instead was the mass-exodus of people following the angelic performance of “Skinny Love.” At that point, the band was at nine songs out of its 15 song set list-hits like “The Wolves Act I and II” and “re: Stacks” were still to come, and the crowning glory of every Bon Iver concert, “For Emma,” hadn’t even been hinted at by the band. Why, then, did so many supposed “fans” flee after this song in particular?
The phenomenon hints at the changing face of the musical culture at large. It goes without saying that listeners flock to singles en masse, forgoing the forgotten album format for their favorite tracks, the singles that hit radio, and the songs given the music video treatment. It’s destructive, and for albums like For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, it means the canonical exclusion of sleeper hits like “Hinnom, Tx.” from the casual fan’s experience.
“Skinny Love” is a beautiful song, one covered to excess by artists only lightly touching upon the greatness of the original’s majesty. Is it Bon Iver’s best? That’s clearly up for debate, but tracks like “Calgary” and “Beth/Rest,” played at the tail end of the consistently engaging show, truly deserve their moment to shine just as much as the record label’s chosen singles.
Vernon himself clearly understands the plight of the dedicated “true fans,” apologizing for the “crappy t-shirts on sale at the merchandise booth.” He has taken the music industry to task for its reliance upon the single and its dedication to Top 40 over any other genre. His concert proved to be a entirely visionary reflection of the old-world musical experience-his vocals vibrant and inspiring, his band all-inclusive and multidimensional, never once appearing anything less than classic. It was an experience from the past, for the ages.