Bon Iver at Radio City Music Hall: On the scene

Image Credit: Bob D’Amico/ABC

Last night, Bedford Ave. awoke to find itself in the heart of midtown.

Radio City Music Hall, that gilded palace of pop, teemed with flannel and fitted jeans, nose rings and horn-rimmed glasses, as Brooklyn’s poster children amassed to see their ambassador to planet earth: Bon Iver.

Anaïs Mitchell, whose 2010 folk opera Hadestown featured Iver’s Justin Vernon as the mythical bard Orpheus, opened the night with a short set that was pleasant but unremarkable. Her voice, a perennially youthful coo, lacks emotional range; happy or sad, every song sounds like it’s sung by your perky younger sister. It makes for an endearing stage presence—she totally pulls off phrases like “super rad”—but isn’t particularly affecting. Only when she closed with Hadestown’s funereal “Why We Build the Wall” did the material reach beyond typical indie folk.

Bon Iver’s set, the second of a multi-night stand at Radio City, began with the sound of wind chimes – a suitable entrance, given For Emma Forever Ago’s front-porch intimacy. But this tour isn’t supporting that record; it’s supporting last year’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, an album whose approach to folk is decidedly maximalist and layered. As such, Vernon took the stage accompanied by eight other musicians: two drummers, two guitarists, a bassist, a violinist, and three horn players. To recreate the album’s grandeur apparently requires a small army.

What caught me off guard the most was the show’s volume. After For Emma, you’d go see Bon Iver expecting to cozy up in front of a hearth while Justin Vernon sat cross-legged on the floor in front of you, mournfully strumming a beat-up acoustic guitar; it would all smell like pine and tea leaves. And artisanal beardo erotica.

Not so anymore. From the get-go this performance was rock & roll: “Perth” opened the set thunderously, strobe lights pulsing in time with the song’s concussive, militaristic drum line. The band moved seamlessly into an energetic “Minnesota, WI,” which closed with a single spotlight on bass sax player Colin Stetson—himself one of the most impressive musicians around—rocking savagely to and fro, sustaining a sinister tremolo that introduced “Holocene.”

From there it was a breathless transition to “Blood Bank,” a pensive early track that the band brought to a searing climax, Vernon wailing—yes, wailing—on his electric amid a rapturous cacophony. Later on he quipped, in a wry understatement, “this is a song about college,” before launching into a shout-along rendition of “Towers.” This, too, departed from the studio version and concluded in a maelstrom, with Vernon channeling Hendrix as he knelt before his effects pedals and summoned otherworldly distortion from his guitar.

In a word, it was melodrama. Each song was imbued with such sweeping emotion that, with Vernon’s unintelligible warble overhead, it felt at times like Sigur Rós at their most cinematically overwrought. As a result, the quiet moments made the biggest impressions. “Beach Baby” was a languid, bittersweet respite from the intensity, spare enough to lend the subtle cry of a violin a chilling effect. And Vernon truly shone on his solo electric performance of “Re: Stacks,” demonstrating his masterful dynamic control and the wrenching sincerity that made For Emma so moving. Alone on stage for the first time all night, it was clear that this was the real heart of Bon Iver: soft, solitary, almost painfully intimate.

Early in the set, a fan shouted out, “Skinny Love!” to which Vernon responded, “Yeah, we’re probably gonna play that. We’re not complete dicks.” And play it they did, finally, in the inevitable encore. Few people are guilty of calling “Skinny Love” a lively romp, yet this foot-stomping live performance—managing, miraculously, to involved all 9 musicians on stage—got the audience up and dancing.

If anything, it was a welcome change in tone from the gravity of the main show. And the final song, “For Emma,” with its bright, harmonizing horn lines, had a quality of euphoric release. It’s funny – Vernon worked so hard to make the concert explosive and intense, and in the end the two best songs, by a long shot, were the simplest.

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