Bon Iver at the Gibson Amphitheater: Concert Review

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Fantastic and moving, hope meets discontent in the music of Justin Vernon. 

“I love you Justin!!” a young woman cried out mid-way though Tuesday's performance at the Gibson Amphitheater. Not to be outdone, a young man's scream followed soon thereafter: “I love you more!”

But this was no pop idol performance, with nary a Justin Bieber or Timberlake in sight. In fact, in the long cultural pantheon of unlikely music-man crushes, the gangly, scruffy guy on stage deserves a spot near the top.

Justin Vernon (who goes by indie rock nom-de-plume Bon Iver), is a poet of discontented heartbreak, a falsetto-voiced harpie whose deservedly lauded 2007 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, was sparse and minimalist and moving – a mostly acoustic collection of songs as full of air as they were longing desperation.

That was then, and this is now. In the four years since, Vernon's become something of a sub-pop phenomenon, thanks as much to his collaborations on recent tracks and tours with superstar rapper Kanye West as his songwriting prowess. His recent, self-titled release breaks away from the spareness with gloss and horns and density, as did his fantastic, moving performance at the Gibson.

Gone are Vernon's days of discomfort and self-doubt; he now ably and confidently leads an eight-piece band through often complicated songs -- like the guitar-driven opener, “Perth” -- with cheekiness and sincerity both bubbling through. Kneeling down both for dramatics and to trigger an effect that pummels the overall aural sphere with an electronically-manipulated sound both enchanting and haunting, especially when he's singing double-duty with his backup band on an extended “Beach Baby,” the newer stuff has a little hint of Peter Gabriel worldliness to it. But Vernon’s arrangements do an impeccable job of imbuing his older material with that same vibeyness. The proof is in the stellar horn section taking sustained prominence on “For Emma” and a Vernon-led singalong on “The Wolves (Act I and II),” which actually gave the songs a sense of hope rather than discontent.

That his low register is as affecting as his high is almost an afterthought: Vernon's stars is clearly rising, and his ascendancy is a rare one in the music world -- able to balance his cult devotion with the decidedly mainstream ability to connect on a broad scale. Clearly, it would take someone thoroughly disheartened to show no affection towards him at all.

Set List:

Minnesota, WI
Beach Baby 
Hinnom, TX
Blood Bank
Re: Stacks
Creature Fear
For Emma
The Wolves (Act I and II)


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