Live performances must be a challenge for Justin Vernon and the raggedy, shifting collection of musicians who form Bon Iver. Their music (particularly on 2011’s excellent self-titled second full-length effort, #26 on my top albums of 2011) is subtle, with flavors from multiple genres, including jazz, rock, folk and electronica, blended into something unique. “Subtle” doesn’t always play well to the back rows, so I was curious as to how they’d convey this sound live, particularly in the always challenging setting of an outdoor venue, in this case Boston’s Bank of America Pavilion.
The answer, like so much involving Vernon, is simple: they just said, “Fuck it,” and played their music the way they think it should be played, with all the dynamic range and subtleties intact, without pandering, but with great passion and heart.
These choices were evidence in the first song “Perth,” a song that I wouldn’t think of as a “classic” concert opener. (Typically bands choose something that pumps people up, no matter how lame.) The moody opening guitar figure echoed through the venue, then the harmonies hit, sharp, lovely and spot on, and the groove built from there into “Minnesota, WI” and then the lovely and haunting “Holocene.”
Throughout the band demonstrated an admirable range of musical abilities and a sense of dynamics, although some of the mellower bits – a jazzy sax breakdown here, a moody bit of guitar noodling there – escaped the crowd, at least at first, and they kept a lot of noise up through these quieter moments (of which there were many) of the set. The audience eventually caught on and settled into the groove, lulled into the ebb and flow of the band, which played remarkably tightly for a nine-piece – and one with two drummers at that. When they went loud, say in the kick-ass version of “Calgary,” they did so without losing the full range of the sound in a wash of noise.
The staging helped maintain a woody, intimate feel, with a series of ragged burlap-like material hanging from the top of the stage and capturing parts of the imagery flashed onto them, and then a series small lights on poles like candelabras that surrounded the stage, closing the band in to a certain extent and creating a moody, dark ambience that’s perfect for the music.
Vernon’s voice held up well, with the exception of “Skinny Love,” where it lifted off into an unknown key on occasion. The contrast between his falsetto and his deeper range served him well in the live setting, as it does on the albums. “Creature Fear” was a standout, as was the final “Beth/Rest” and the encore of “Wolves (Parts 1 & 2)” and “Emma.”
All in all, an excellent performance from one of the few bands out there that’s doing something new – without creating music that’s unlistenable!