Justin Vernon and his band held court over a packed house.
Bon Iver has been playing in New York since December 3rd, starting the East Coast leg of a tour that's played Justin Vernon's native Wisconsin, California, and a celebrated set at Berlin's Funkhaus alongside The National.
Vernon and his band's New York City tour dates have been set in Brooklyn for the most part, starting with a week of sets at Pioneer Works, moving up to Port Chester's Capital Theatre, and then last night's sold out affair at the historic Kings Theatre in Flatbush—as of now, the only Manhattan venue they've played is the Hammerstein Ballroom. As the ostentatious theatre began to fill, the excitement was palpable; it would be interesting to see Vernon play his intimate music in such a grand venue.
Minneapolis-based indie rock band Fog served as the openers, their set dominated by bass and pounding synths. The same atmospheric elegance of Bon Iver could be heard in their sound. At one point, they brought Mike Lewis onstage, adding his hauntingly airy saxophone to the organized cacophony. Lewis was a nice segue to Bon Iver, as he played a big part in recent-release 22, A Million, lending his sax to several tracks as well as additional lyrics. Along with all the work he did, he's credited on the record as "The Oracle."
Before Vernon took the stage, a Louis C.K. quote was aired on the screen above the stage, alongside several arcane symbols: "Don't text or Twitter during the show. Just live your life. Don't keep telling people what you're doing. Also,
it lights up your big dumb face."
The band started with "22 (Over Soon)," the opening track of his latest record. Vernon's gained renown for his reverberated, garbled, Autotuned vocals, which remain extremely expressive, especially when bolstered by his lyrics. Live, Vernon really shows his vocal chops, allowing himself the freedom to improvise and really perform. Backed by a powerful band, and by the near-mystical sound of Lewis' sax, Vernon held court over a huge, golden theater. The sold-out crowd fidgeted in their seats, fingers twitching. Were the seating open-floor, there would have been dancing.
Each part of the electrifying performance was flanked by shifting, esoteric visuals, taking Vernon's stage presence to a psychedelic high. He stuck mostly to new tracks—"715 (Creeks)" is as spine-chilling live as it is recorded—but his forays into the soft-spoken, whispered tracks that made him famous drew applause and tears from the crowd. "Calgary" and "Heavenly Father" were particular show-stoppers.
Every once in a while, he spoke to the crowd, thanking them, complimenting Fog—"I have a lot of opinions on that motherf*cker," he said chuckling—and plugging the 2 A Billion gender equity campaign the band recently launched. Vernon's sobering reminder to be aware that "[it's] great to have a sold out show, but there are people surrounding us who are suffering" drew rousing applause as he encouraged the crowd to visit the organization's booth after the show.
Near the end, he briefly talked about encores, proclaiming them to be bullshit, solidifying the show's cohesiveness as not needing to be compensated by extra songs. It made it feel that much more important to be present, to pay attention.
He smiled. "We're gonna play a couple more—here's one me and [Lewis] made up accidentally." The ensuing instrumental take segued into "00000 Million," with Vernon alone at the piano, slowly consumed by bright, white light and clouds from a smoke machine. The slow-burning closer, which also closes his latest record, felt like the perfect wrap to the set, and the show's most solemn beautiful moment was met with a standing ovation from the entire theatre.
It's incredible, how intimate big venues can feel in the hands of the right musician.
Bon Iver is set to play two more shows in Brooklyn's Kings Theatre and Music Hall of Williamsburg before starting the formal European leg of the tour at Le Zenith in Paris, France.