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Bon Iver began NYC run at Pioneer Works; Lonnie Holley opened night 2 (review)

UPDATE: Watch a full-set video of the show.

Bon Iver began their ten show NYC-area run in support of their new album 22, A Million on Saturday (12/3) at Pioneer Works and continued it on Sunday (12/4) at the same venue. We caught night two, and a few photos are in the gallery above.

The heavily electronic new album is huge departure from Bon Iver’s earlier material, and the live show changes things up for Justin Vernon and co. too. For the For Emma / Blood Bank era tours and the self-titled era tours, the live Bon Iver setup felt very much like a band. Justin still has tons of musicians on stage with him (including longtime members Sean Carey and Matthew McCaughan), but this version of the live show has Bon Iver feeling more like a solo project than it has since the very early days when it really was one. He takes the stage front and center with a rack of electronics and his guitar, and the other members all stay in the shadows. He also has a lot of his backing vocals as pre-recorded tracks this time around, compared to the harmony-filled live shows Bon Iver used to play.

None of that is to say the current band isn’t highly impressive and crucial to his sound. He plays with a line of horn players directly behind him, a drummer on each side of the stage, and one multi-instrumentalist on either side of him (one of which controlled a large chunk of the electronics). They created the perfect atmosphere for the new record, and they helped re-arrange some of the few old songs they played to fit the vibe of the new ones (like the new lengthy electronic intro of “Minnesota, WI”).

Bon Iver didn’t really need to touch the old songs too much to make them fit though. 22, A Million may be very different on the surface, but Justin’s approach to songwriting is mostly unchanged. (And mixing somber acoustic songs with pounding electronic ones is nothing out of the ordinary in a post-Kid A world.) The choice of old songs really added to the fact that this show, in this venue, was much more an artistic statement than a crowd-pleasing “hits” set. In addition to “Minnesota, WI,” they did other non-singles like “Creature Fear,” with its heavy post-rock ending that’s always made the live interpretation superior to the album version. They didn’t play “Holocene” or “Skinny Love” and they didn’t do an encore, which really worked out for the best. Those songs probably would’ve distracted from the vision of this show. Even on the Bon Iver, Bon Iver tour, “Skinny Love” felt tacked on.

With the absence of their most popular songs, the song that got the biggest crowd reaction was “715 – CR∑∑KS” off the new album. The version of Bon Iver that always seems to touch people the most is the For Emma / Blood Bank era, as it’s the most personal. “715 – CR∑∑KS” really brings you back to that era — in particular it brings you back to “Woods,” one of Bon Iver’s most beloved songs, which, like “715 – CR∑∑KS,” is constructed only of Justin’s manipulated vocals. (He also didn’t play “Woods,” which would’ve been really nice to hear in this environment.) “715 – CR∑∑KS” was the one moment of all the new songs where Justin’s band took a break and it was just him the whole time. The crowd was cheering during every pause.

Bon Iver at Pioneer Works, night 2 #boniver #pioneerworks

A photo posted by Brooklyn Vegan (@brooklynvegan) on

Not only did the construction of the setlist feel like a very artistic choice, but the decision to perform at Pioneer Works did too. His first five of the ten shows are at this venue, which Justin talked about on stage. He praised the unconventional space for going way above and beyond being a concert venue, and for really looking to help the community. It’s a space with an admirable mission, and it’s also a really nice looking space. Justin and co. performed in front of the venue’s brick walls, which they projected images (mostly pulled from the new album’s artwork and themes) onto during their set.

Justin also shouted out opener Lonnie Holley, the cult artist who was opening just this one of the ten shows. Justin said he felt blessed to see him perform, and also admitted he stole a line from Lonnie for one of his own songs. “It turns out that’s how some of the best music gets made… from stealing.”

Lonnie’s set really was something special. It was introduced by someone telling the crowd that every Lonnie Holley show is literally different, that the show we saw on Sunday night was never performed before and won’t be performed again. He had a cellist and an electric guitarist on stage with him, who both seemed well versed in jazz — particularly the cellist, who often played his cello like a jazz-style upright bass — but who could experiment with all sorts of sounds. Lonnie’s a real powerhouse as a singer, sounding soulful at times and very trippy at others (and he could be very lyrically topical, like in his song about Standing Rock that got a lot of cheers from the crowd). Justin Vernon said it best; anyone with the chance to see Lonnie play is blessed.

Bon Iver’s run continues with three more Pioneer Works shows, followed by shows at the Capitol Theatre, Hammerstein Ballroom, Kings Theatre, and Music Hall of Williamsburg. All dates here.

Bon Iver
Bon Iver at Pioneer Works (photo via Lindsay DelGrosso)

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