Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon decided a long time ago he wasn’t going to be another guy with a guitar. Even when he first burst onto the indie scene in 2007 with For Emma, Forever Ago
— written supposedly Thoreau-style in a secluded winter cabin in Wisconsin, his home state — he won over hearts with sparse instrumentation and melancholic lyrics of a usual singer-songwriter, but paired with an unusual and somewhat mumbled falsetto.
Even then it seemed like he wanted to make immersive music that changed boundaries and moved people, but also pushed toward a new sound. Of course he could have cashed in then, written a couple more “Skinny Love”-esque songs that required little from his fans, or even jump into the pool of more radio-friendly pop and become the next Coldplay. But as you most likely already know, and if you were at last night’s sold-out State Theatre show downtown Cleveland, Vernon chose instead to create music that interested him.
One of the best parts of Bon Iver’s Cleveland concert, only the second stop on the group’s recent tour, was its live-ness. There’s no way the most recent record, 2016’s 22, A Million
— with all of its stutters, chirps and layers of Autotune — could have been replicated on the stage, so the five-piece band didn’t try. What we were experiencing was something wholly its own. Not all of the layers, done live, worked perfectly and the band wasn’t always 100 percent locked together. But those imperfections made the songs better, showing the humanity in the music.
Beginning with the glorious first track off the new record, “22 (OVER SooN)” (yes, even the song titles ask for a leap of faith), each band member looked like they were sectioned off into a shadowy kaleidoscope piece, making for a trippy and beautiful effect.
“Thank you to everybody, it’s been so long since we’ve been back to the Land,” Vernon said from the stage, taking a break.
As songs went on, the lights and sounds grew. It was like being inside some sort of machine, where you were strapped into a seat with no way to combat bright flashes and loud noises. You had to accept what was being given, or leave.
With the third song, “715 – CREEKS,” two lights shone directly on Vernon while he layered his electronic vocals intentionally into something chill-inducing. Wearing headphones, he looked like some sort of fantastical beast orchestrating his perfect plan on the audience.
After just 40 or so minutes on stage, the group took a quick break so audiences could go fill up on beer. The second half, then, proved more palatable with songs that more people were familiar with, such as “Woods” and “Blood Bank.” Throughout, instrumentations were stretched and experimented with. Having two drummers with full kits on stage kept things moving, while the addition of a live saxophone to many of the tunes brought plenty of cheers from the crowd.
At one point Vernon told the audience, “Let’s take a few minutes to realize we’re in a building and free and we’re safe. There are people who aren’t.” He then went on to talk about supporting the work of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, which had a booth near the merchandise table.
Moving into the expansive “Holocene,” off the band’s sophomore self-titled effort, some around me put their hands into the air, like they were trying to fly away with the sound. This made way for the song many had come for, “Skinny Love.” Played with just a guitar and light drums, we let it wash over us. Some sang along, but others stayed quiet and swayed. It probably should have been the encore. (Instead then the encore brought out a slow-turned-sizzling “Creature Fear, ” and that worked fine, too.)
Last night, fans were sold on a mish-mash of music, including industrial and jazz, and were dared to like it or not. It remains clear, no matter where Vernon takes his sound next, he will has an audience willing to follow.
Entire Setlist Below:
22 (OVER SooN)
10 d E A T h b R E a s T
715 - CREEKS
29 #Strafford APTS