Back in June, The Awl compiled a long list of the adjectives (and a few adverbs) used by music journalists to describe the new self-titled Bon Iver album. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the words chosen seemed more apt for describing a coat or a lumberjack than music: plaid-clad, wintry, warm, pretty, layered, rustic, wooly, enveloping. It was an Onion article waiting to be written. (Oh wait, that kind of already happened.)
When the origin story of an artist is as pronounced as Vernon's was with his debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, figuring out the next step can be challenging--especially when the reception was so warm the first time around. Would Vernon continue in a similar vein or break free from the web of adjectives that had carefully been sculpted by publicists and journalists? Even after The Blood Bank EP came out, the question loomed.
Vernon may not have shaved the beard, but judging from last night's show at the United Palace Theatre and the far-flung locales of the song titles on the new album, he has ventured out of that cabin in the Wisconsin woods. Though his music still has a hushed, intimate air about it, it is definitely no longer the work of one man.
But before Vernon and his band assumed their positions, The Rosebuds came out to showcase a handful of songs from their recent release on Merge, Loud Planes Fly Low, in addition to a few old favorites (like "Leaves Do Fall" and "Boxcar" from 2005's Birds Make Good Neighbors). Laced with boisterous choruses, pleasant duets, and anthemic guitar riffs, their set was lively, if not a bit out of place.
After a lengthy set-up (or maybe it just felt like forever), Bon Iver kicked off their set with "Perth," the opening track on the new album. Nine white spotlights cut through the darkness on stage, casting magnified shadows of each of the nine men against the backdrop. But it wasn't long before the lights began to flash rapidly and the colors came streaming in, as if to mirror the unfolding intensity of the song.
Here, of course we have the same earnest falsetto and mysterious lyrics. But the sound is boisterous and the tone, hopeful. I don't think it's an accident that Bon Iver came out, not during the cold, dark months of winter like its predecessors (including the Blood Bank EP), but on the first official day of summer, long after all the residual ice had melted. The hefty brass section (trumpet, trombone, bass sax, French horn), and the crashing percussion quickly revealed that this would be no sleeper of a set.
Justin Vernon and his talented cast of musicians (which included Colin Stetson, Rob Moose, Sean Carey, and others) played through the first four songs of the album before switching it up a bit with some cuts from Blood Bank and a cover by Björk ("Who Is It") to help mix things up. The older songs came later, including a beautiful solo rendition of "Re: Stacks.".
Between songs, Vernon addressed the crowd warmly, though not often. He didn't have to. Old and new songs alike brought thunderous applause from the undiscriminating crowd.
After wrapping up the initial leg of the set with "For Emma," Vernon and the band returned for a gorgeous three-song encore. Before launching into "Wolves," Vernon stopped to give a pep talk. This would be more than your typical sing-a-long. "When we come back on that down beat, that's when you have to just start screaming. Just no more singing words, no more thinking thoughts [...] You just start screaming," he instructed the audience.
After the mad fervor of "Wolves" died away, Vernon finished with a stripped down version of "Skinny Love" that included just a single guitar and percussion, leaving the remaining musicians to leave their instruments behind and gather around a couple of microphones to sing backing vocals. Then after a generous standing ovation, they were gone.
If you missed last night's show, you can check out the band tonight at Prospect Park's Celebrate Brooklyn or stream last week's gorgeous show at the 9:30 Club, courtesy of NPR Music.
The full setlist, a video of the Bjork cover from the Boston show, and more picures from NYC, below...
Bon Iver - covering Bjork Who Is It @ HOB Boston
Bon Iver Set list
Who Is It (Björk cover)
Wolves (Act I and II)