Bon Iver found its way into my ears back around 2009. I was spending a lot of time on Twitter, talking with newfound friends and sharing our different tastes in music. Somehow, I was exposed to the magic of Bon Iver’s falsetto, and the eponymous For Emma, Forever Ago record that cemented Justin Vernon’s place into the history books as quite the influential musician. Off the heels of his latest effort, 22, A Million, this new cast of the Bon Iver project converged in NYC for the first of a record 10 consecutive sold-out nights. Pioneer Works, an art and performance space located in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where Vernon is also a part of the advisory board would be the kicking off point for this tour. This would also be my first of 6 nights on this run that I would have the opportunity to watch them perform.
Inside the space, projections of the glyphs that adorned the Bon Iver record cycled along the wall above the stage. Lights in hues of blues, greens, purples and oranges lit the room, while fog pumped in from the crevices to help set the tone of anticipation for the night. Long before any of the Bon Iver crew set foot onstage, crowd-goers caught glimpses of the band through windows behind the stage, exploring the space and conversing happily with friends and staff. Opening act, yMusic, another personal favorite of mine, showcased their unique take on classical arrangements, easily showcasing that classical music can be appreciated anywhere. Having seen them perform the previous night at Carnegie Hall, the Brooklyn crowd keenly acknowledged the difficulty of those arrangements, echoing the same sentiment that Vernon would express later on in the evening.
A little bit after 9pm, the band took the stage to raucous applause. Beginning with the album opener, “22 Over Soon,” Vernon’s signature falsetto rang out and entranced everyone within earshot. Having seen him numerous times over the years, each time his voice sounds stronger and more pronounced. Shifting quickly into the next song, “10 Deathbreast,” bass drops, and bone shattering drums provided by dual drummers Sean Carey and Matt McCaughan won here, leveling any semblance of solace the song before provided.
Old favorite “Heavenly Father” found its way into the set list along with one of my personal favorites “715 Creeks.” Rendering the room silent for the entirety of the song is no easy feat when folks are bursting at the seams to yell out their adoration, but there was plenty of time for that during “29 #Stafford APTS” when Justin introduced it fondly as a country song, which the crowd clearly approved of.
Even older selections appeared shortly thereafter, “Beach Baby,” and an amped up version of “Creature Fear,” that found Justin on his knees shredding guitar, alongside guitarist Andrew Fitzpatrick, upping the volume and intensity tenfold. Coming back down afterward with “8 (circle),” and “45,” one of the musicians from the last Bon Iver cycle, Michael Lewis brought his impressive sax skills along for the ride along with 6 additional sax players comically named the “Sad Sax of Shit.” With Lewis feeding his sax tones into the homegrown vocoder, “The Messina,” it transformed into an orchestra of sound that was absolutely breathtaking.
One of the many highlights of the show was one of the closing selections, a revamped version of “00000 Million.” Instead of the somber tone of Justin playing piano, drums took their place instead, uplifting the song and the audience to close out the night on a very high note. While this is the first of this run of shows, the feeling of spontaneity and experimentation loomed strongly in the air. I wouldn’t be surprised to see if more and more revamped versions of old favorites found their way into the setlist in the future. But from what I’ve seen and heard so far, Vernon has managed to successfully prevent Bon Iver from being pigeonholed into a singular genre. For someone like him, who has a long track record of having the midas touch when it comes to music, 22, A Million was a monumental gamble in terms of its sound and delivery. The new ideas and soundscapes were unexpected, but the integrity, artistry and honesty of the music ultimately shone through, carving out a new path of exploration. Armed with a bevy of world-class musicians at his side, I’m excited for the next step.
Article: Lesley Keller