Bon Iver keeps it fresh at the Wilbur
A review of Bon Iver at the Wilbur Theatre on December 13
Justin Vernon’s most notable musical project to date, Bon Iver, brought its indie-folk stylings to the Wilbur Theatre this weekend. The Theatre proved to be a pretty good place to catch the show – ample room was provided for those who wished to stand, but finding something to lean on during the quieter songs wasn’t difficult. While initial expectations may have been for little more than a vanilla mix of Vernon’s trademark falsetto with a live band with a few acoustic showcases thrown in, the group ended up venturing out there on more than one occasion, keeping things musically interesting and doing really well to enhance the set.
The band took stage and immediately started to build themselves a thick mass of sound, looping ambient pads and maneuvering through them smoothly as they brought things to a boil. Things came to a head quickly before the band settled down into a nice country-flavored tune, "Lump Sum", which was driven forward by a persistent marching snare roll. What would really become a staple of the evening was the wonderful guitar work done by Mike Noyce, who remained crouched at the front of the stage for the entire evening. Noyce would add a nice layer of slide guitar to songs that risked becoming repetitive, not allowing them to devolve into simple guitar strums with a simple beat in the background. This became particularly notable during "For Emma" off the band’s only full-length album.
The exceptional part of the set came from a brief showcase of some new material off of the band’s recent vinyl-released EP, Blood Bank. The song "Babys" would be a highlight of the evening, starting off normally and proceeding without incident. Then the band started to slowly build, snare drums getting pounded louder and louder as the song started to work itself towards an inevitable explosion. The audience stood listening with rapt attention as intensity continued to mount until the song reached its absolute breaking point. Of course, once this happened Bon Iver simply stopped, depriving the crowd of the payoff it had been hoping for. It was one of those moments that makes you glad the band is trying something new, but I’ll be damned if they couldn’t just give us that explosion we were all hoping for. Two songs later, though, the band did provide that climax, getting ever-more powerful until things just exploded into an all-out post-rock jam. It was impressive, Bon Iver’s ability to get as loud as they did without a full drum kit under any one performer’s hands (it was there in full, just scattered around the stage).
Vernon engaged the crowd in conversation after nearly every song, including a little tongue-in-cheek comment towards "the bloggers" (I’m not repeating it here, Mr. Vernon, because I know you’ve said it at other shows in this tour, though maybe I’ve already done enough just by mentioning it). "Here’s one you might know", he said, encouraging those in attendance to sing along. Bon Iver then proceeded to play a really well-imagined cover of The Outfield’s "Your Love", slowed down and turned into a country tune. There wasn’t a shred of 80s pop rock to be heard, and it was great. Hearing a band play a cover, straight-up or reinterpreted, is always a treat, and Bon Iver pulled this one off incredibly well. The audience, at least the older members, laughed and clapped and started to sing along, leaving us young’uns to scratch our heads and wonder why we didn’t know the apparently quite famous song. To be fair, the original is much more recognizable, and this only speaks to Bon Iver’s ability to morph the song into something completely different.
To close the set, the band played "The Wolves (Act I and II)", a cut from For Emma, Forever Ago. Before starting, Vernon instructed the audience to sing along, which prompted a chorus of hundreds of people to repeat "What might have been lost" over and over again. Singing along is fine and certainly fun to do, but it was a little embarrassing to be a part of this one, especially when things were still quiet and everyone was drawing out the "s" in "lost" and the "vocalists" in the room decided to stand out by harmonizing up a third (secretly one of the easiest things to do in music). Still, to hear everyone singing while the band built towards a climax was pretty neat, and when they exploded one last time, everyone started screaming and shouting in raucous noise – admittedly planned by Vernon, but nonetheless still cool. They came back for an encore of "Blood Bank" off their new EP before wishing us well and leaving the stage.
It’s nice to hear Bon Iver do something different live than in the studio. Clearly Vernon is an adept enough musician to know what he’s doing, and adding new layers of sound is always a great way to keep things fresh. There weren’t any immediate shortcomings of the show – aside from the post-rock moments it was pretty standard fare, but what they did do they did well. The band’s new EP sees a CD release in January, and, if it is any indication, Bon Iver are continuing to expand their sound into something that is going to keep them on the map for a long while.