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Bon Iver fans who showed up for the band’s Come Through show with Tu Dance on Sunday night at the Hollywood Bowl were confronted with a litmus test. No, Bon Iver would not be doing any songs from its latest album, 22, A Million, nor would it play numbers off its 2006 debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. In fact, fans would barely be able to see the band. That’s because it was in the shadows, upstage on a riser, providing music and sonic backdrops for Minnesota’s Tu Dance, a company of nine dynamic dancers that took center stage.
Undergoing significant evolution since its beginning as a folk indie band, two-time Grammy-winning Bon Iver is the creative brain trust of Justin Vernon, who was joined Sunday by B.J. Burton, Michael Lewis and J.T. Bates. As with 22, A Million, the music for Come Through is laced with fissile programmed beats, auto-tuned vocals and cacophonous rhythms, with Vernon alternately employing his soft falsetto or growly tenor and acoustic chords where needed to remind listeners of the band’s earlier days.
In recent years, Vernon has committed to partnering with other artists, ranging from Kanye to the Blind Boys of Alabama, engaging various musical muscles from blues to soft rock. Later this month, he has an album with Aaron Dessner of The National coming out. The 75-minute collaboration with Tu Dance was commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and has been workshopped at MassMoCA in Boston and performed only in St. Paul, making the Hollywood Bowl show the West Coast premiere.
“NAEEM 2” is emblematic of the broad energetic ensemble pieces that open and close the show, with projection designers Aaron Anderson and Eric Carlson’s words and patterns flashing on a massive backdrop. Government buildings and messages connoting power assault the audience as dancers whirl in a combination of choreographer Uri Sands’ modern ballet, African-based and urban vernacular dance moves.
In “1867,” Vernon croons in his faulty falsetto and the band returns to its folksy roots as a sensuous duet plays out beneath the band shell bathed in blue. Moments later, the minimalist “SDIAH” featured modern choreography for the ensemble backed by an organ and echoey sax solo that took flight over the Hollywood Hills.
Musically, Come Through ranges from folksy guitar picking to wall-of-sound compositions, with Vernon pulling out at least one David Gilmour-inspired guitar solo. Through it all, a pas de deux becomes a pas de trois, a solo dancer blends with the ensemble, hip-hop moves mix with modern choreography as impressions of flames and flowers fill the stage. Raindrops and a sapphire proscenium envelop dancers writhing lazily as if waterlogged. Later, a painting by Jackson Pollock and classical sculptures are glimpsed, and words that could have been painted by artist Barbara Kruger – “Freedom,” “Elevate,” “I’m a Free Spirit” – back up a balletic soloist.
During one number, we hear actor Viola Davis’ speech from January’s Women’s March in L.A, and in another, Vernon’s soulful intonations carry over raging wildfires, dying dogs and garbage bags while a dancer’s creepy laugh continues throughout her routine. “It’s about humanity, what we are, who we might want to be, where we are, where we might want to be,” Vernon explains in a video about the collaboration.
No hits and no encores are to be found in Come Through, just 14 arresting and daring new compositions and a cover of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” which was sung over a duo of veiled dancers in a slow, anxious pas de deux set to another out-of-this-world sax solo. Casual Bon Iver fans may have felt cheated. Indeed, some walked out. No doubt they came expecting to hear “Skinny Love” or some other hit single. Instead, they got something better.
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