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photos by Amanda M. Hatfield, words by Andrew Sacher
Justin Vernon walked onto the dimly lit stage at the sold out Celebrate Brooklyn show in Prospect Park last night (8/10) with his 9-piece Bon Iver, picked up his guitar, and quietly began playing the guitar riff of album opener "Perth." The band slowly began building the song into its borderline-heavy metal ending, letting us know immediately that Bon Iver are not a 9-piece band for no reason. Justin's obviously a guy who has been part of a lot of collaborations (though he needs a break from all of that), but this new lineup is far more than another collab for the record books. I mean these guys sound huge. What started out as a folk-leaning, acoustic guitar based project with sparse accompaniment from other instruments, is almost entirely the opposite now. The band that was once backed mainly by a bass drum now has two drummers behind fully structured kits and an auxiliary percussionist. Fluttering horn lines that are often indiscernible on their own, come together to create deftly beautiful atmospheres throughout the songs. Justin also now has the freedom to make as much noise as he wants on his guitar, and he definitely uses it.
On the album's second track, "Minnesota, WI," Justin was joined by the crowd on the "never gonna break" refrains, before taking the song into the funk-edged middle section driven by Colin Stetson's bass sax and pounding drums from Matt McCaughan and Sean Carey. Skipping "Holocene," the band continued to play straight through the album for a couple more songs, touching on the country-tinged "Towers" and the eye-watering beauty of "Michicant." Justin and band then took a break from the new material to dive into some older stuff. They fleshed out the older songs to fit in with the new setup, adding textures and dynamics not heard on the original recording, and managed to not lose any of its delicacy. Lead by band member Reginald Pace on trombone, the band delivered a soulful soft-rock interpretation of For Emma, Forever Ago's "Creature Fear." By the song's building second chorus, when it would normally fade into the companion track "Team," they took the song in an entirely different direction with explosive post-rock crescendos and layers of noise guitar from Justin and Mike Noyce. The band amped the older material up even more later on when they went into "Blood Bank" off the 2009 EP of the same name. The members were soaked in red light as they propelled into a heavy distortion-ridden rendition of the track. They kicked things up even harder at the end when they took the song into a double time rock bit with more noise guitar from Justin.
After "Blood Bank," they calmed things down with the much-anticipated "Holocene" that was skipped earlier on. The audience piped in on, "And at once I knew I was not magnificent," and "I could see for miles, miles, miles." Then the entire band except Justin left the stage, and with no more than an electric guitar he played the For Emma, Forever Ago closing track, "re: stacks." As a musician whose romanticized backstory is centered around lonesomeness, taking relief from the now-large band to perform with the vulnerability that his first album was written with made as large of an impact as the orchestrations of the rest of the set did. After the song, Justin was again joined by his band for "Flume" and "Calgary" before an audible count-in lead into the new album's closing track "Beth/Rest." Say what you will about this song and its '80s lite.fm-leaning tendencies, the performance was absolutely beautiful. The band played with far too much confidence to call it "ironic" and too much genuine emotion to call it "cheesy." About halfway through, Justin stretched the song a bit with some reverb-laden vocal scat before going into the guitar/sax solos that take up the ending. He then thanked the crowd, took a bow with the band and left the stage.
The stage crew wasted no time preparing the set for 9-piece Bon Iver's rendering of "Skinny Love." Once that preparation was complete, the guys walked back out on stage to tremendous applause, Justin sat down with his resonator guitar, Matt McCaughan and Sean Carey sat behind their drum kits, and the other six members took to microphones for backup vocals, stomps and claps. The song comes off as something the band knows they can just have a ton of fun with, and that's totally fine, because with an hour and a half of really heady melancholic music, nothing is wrong with three minutes of fun. The band members then all returned to their instruments and covered Bjork's "Who Is It," like they'd been doing on tour. Reginald Pace handled the blips and clicks with some pretty impressive beat-boxing and the horn and string players interpreted Bjork's electronic textures, as Justin strongly delivered Bjork's vocal parts. The band ended the encore with the crowd sing-along "The Wolves (Act I and II)" and again bowed and left the stage. Though the "Skinny Love" setup assured us of the first encore, much to my surprise, the band returned for a second encore to play one last song -- "For Emma." The song, which is already the fullest of all the For Emma, Forever Ago tracks, fit so perfectly with the new material, that it would have convincingly been a b-side to the new album if the song had never been heard before.
The show began with a great opening set by The Rosebuds. They were joined by Justin Vernon on guitar and backup vocals for the song "Leaves Do Fall" off 2005's Birds Make Good Neighbors. Justin's bandmate Mike Noyce also came out towards the end of the song to help out with more backing vocals. Bon Iver bassist Mike Lewis also joined the band later on for a song. Their set wasn't too long, but every song was solid and the guest appearances were the perfect way to warm the crowd up for Bon Iver's headlining set.
More pictures and the setlist from the show below...
Bon Iver Setlist:
Who Is It (Bjork Cover)
The Wolves (Act I and II)