Bon Iver tames the savage beast

Photo: Erik Kabik

If you watch bad teen dramas, you’ve heard a ballad from For Emma, Forever Ago. You may have seen the send-up on Saturday Night Live, the viral “Who the !*@& is Bonnie Bear?” meme and frontman Justin Vernon’s endearing discomfort at the Grammys. But you don’t know Bon Iver until you stand in the glow of the band’s amazing Technicolor cheesecloth (for real), heart rising behind your ribs with Vernon’s aching, threadbare falsetto.

The Details

Bon Iver
Four and a half stars
April 12, the Joint

Even those who love For Emma’s graceful brooding wondered how the sound would play inside the cavernous Joint. Sophomore album Bon Iver shakes off some shadows, but the effect is more consuming-soundtrack-for-lonely-drives than rock show. It’s music you listen to alone.

All Tiny Creatures opened with a set that was melodic and charged, the lush instrumentals punched with electronic manipulation, reverb stretched to near-silence and Thomas Wincek’s stirring howls.

The between-band lull snapped with one strum of Vernon’s guitar, naked melody layering with military snare and a horn chorus into Bon Iver lead-track “Perth.” Here was the purported prince of sorrow, dancing his band into the exuberant “Minnesota, WI.” Enveloped by lights like candles in a church, he alternately cooed and hammered through plaintive poem “Michicant.”

Colin Stetson was a downright animal on saxophone, and Rob Moose stood out on violin and guitar. There were times when all of the instruments braided so tight with Vernon’s voice that there was just one sound, full and penetrating. Even a woman who’d been yammering about her H&M sweater shut the hell up and said, “This is, like, legitimate music.”

For Emma faithful were treated to “Creature Fear,” a roughed-up “Skinny Love” and lullaby-tender “re: Stacks,” the only song that featured Vernon solo in white stage light. B-side “Brackett, WI” was a mellow surprise, and EP title track “Blood Bank” showcased mind-bending visual projections and the band’s knack for crescendo.

Vernon played on his knees. He swooned away from the mic to let a song possess him. He compared Vegas to the dirty subconscious. And he asked us to sing a line—“what might have been lost”—louder and louder until we were screaming. From dead center of the baying mob, a pair of hands shot skyward in worship or joy or some kind of surrender. Alone but surrounded.


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