Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has consistently built upon the niche success of his 2008 debut album “For Emma, Forever Ago.” In 2009, he released the critically-acclaimed “Blood Bank” EP, which revealed a spectrum of songs far more restless and sonically adventurous than was displayed on the lovelorn, pseudo-acoustic “Emma.” Next came Kanye West, and the seemingly leftfield partnership that blossomed on West’s transcendent 2010 “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Vernon added guest vocals and contributed songwriting to the album, which allowed him access and exposure to an incredibly broad base of pop music fans. As a result of these steady triumphs, 2011 has been a breakthrough year for Bon Iver.
Tuesday’s performance at the Gibson was an encore of sorts — announced on the heels of a sold-out Monday date at the Shrine Auditorium. The theatre was full, but certainly not sold-out, with the top rafters nearly empty. The audience seemed lethargic in general, as though many had attended the prior evening’s performance and were somewhat dubious about the idea of sitting through it again.
As the lights dimmed, Vernon’s 9-piece live ensemble took to the stage and immediately launched into “Perth” — the opening track on the group’s self-titled, 2011 full-length. At the song’s core is a wiry electric guitar riff, which slowly gains momentum and ultimately releases in a triumphant swell of drums and horns. It is an abstract piece of pop music that is far more atmospheric than any of Vernon’s early work. Live, the tune is a force to be reckoned with, making full use of the band and its various multi instrumentalists.
Vernon’s voice was razor sharp throughout the evening, shifting smoothly between a piercing falsetto and a wild, soulful drawl. The early portion of the set leaned heavily on the new album and showcased the overall dynamic range of his songwriting. “Wash” found Vernon channeling “Astral Weeks”-era Van Morrison, with unpredictable vocal incantations and an utterly romantic piano groove. “Holocene,” was a study in patience and pacing, with horn players descending into subdued, free jazz squeaks, while the percussionists locked together in a focused snare and hi hat groove.
“Beth/Rest,” was given a blown-out, Peter Gabriel-esque reading, replete with epic, treated drum sounds and an emotional guitar solo. Many have criticized this track as a typical piece of ironic, internet-era reappropriation, but the conviction of Vernon’s performance proved otherwise. He seemed truly possessed by the emotive power of the lyrics, extracting fresh life from the seemingly vacant sonic trappings of ’80s Muzak purveyors.
The latter portion of the set was loaded with older tracks and the band capped the night with an encore of “Emma” staples “Flume” and “Skinny Love.” The crowd, though initially sluggish, seemed to quickly transform into a reverent congregation, suspended in awed silence for nearly all of the performance. Vernon was given complete freedom to employ pauses and musical downtime to the songs. These blank spaces and decrescendos heightened the dramatic effect and lent an intimate feeling to a seemingly more remote concertgoing experience.