Live: Bon Iver at the Shrine Auditorium
That performance featured a sunrise benediction by a group of orange-robed monks who chanted to a few thousand half-asleep, half-hallucinating fans spread across the field on blankets; as if on cue, a fog rolled into the graveyard and across the tombstones as the band took the stage. It was one of the most memorable concerts I will ever see, and seemingly tough to top.
A lot has changed in Bon Iver’s world since then. In the intervening years, Vernon’s profile has gradually risen, much like his songs’ crescendos. Most famously, Kanye West heard his beguiling AutoTune folk song “Woods” and invited Vernon to Hawaii to work on West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” The Wisconsinite who a few years earlier had locked himself in a cabin with a wounded heart, mononucleosis, musical instruments and a recorder and crafted “For Emma, Forever Ago” was singing vocal hooks for West and smoking blunts with Rick Ross.
But as Vernon sat onstage Monday night halfway through his adventurous set, during a solo acoustic version of his stunning “Re: Stacks” from “For Emma, Forever Ago,” the fact of West’s anointing couldn’t have mattered less to the 6,300 fans, who watched man-made fog swirl within the spotlights as Vernon sang in sweet falsetto, more Curtis Mayfield than Bee-Gee, of “the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.”
The effect -- the silence, the hum, that voice, the curlicue fog -- somehow captured a moment nearly as profound as the outdoor natural world memory, no small feat. That wasn’t the only such experience of the night.
But, then, it is the Shrine, which is the perfect vessel to contain Vernon’s increasingly cosmopolitan and ornate music, the kind on display on the group’s recent second album, “Bon Iver.” The band performed six songs from it, and just as many from “For Emma.”
On record, the main difference between Vernon’s cabin music of earlier years and his newer, more baroque chamber folk is structural; where on "For Emma," Vernon crafted songs that relied on simpler, more immediately magnetic repetitions, on his recent work, especially the waltz "Michicant," he is thinking in grander terms, building more complicated arrangements, using his band to create sonic cathedrals.
Live, most impressive was what Vernon did with those earlier songs, which he pushed in fascinating and unexpected new directions. He sang longingly of being “teased by your blouse, spit out by your mouth” on “Creature Fear,” as he did on the recorded version, but midway through, the song collapsed in on itself for an extended instrumental pause featuring all 10 musicians dropping tiny notes like autumn leaves.
At another moment, saxophone player Colin Stetson, best known for his work with Arcade Fire, pulled a Rahsaan Roland Kirk and blew a long, circular-breathing tenor solo that gradually melted into “Blood Bank,” from Bon Iver’s 2009 "Blood Bank" EP.
Throughout the night, silence and hesitation begot volume and emotionally charged epiphanies. Unlike loud-quiet-loud rock bands that strike emotion with surprise, Vernon and Bon Iver's power and amplitude are a more creeping kind; volume and tension rose gradually both onstage and through the crowd, the music swirling and Vernon pushing his voice in gymnastic vocal runs that moved from bass to alto to falsetto and back again. It was beautiful.
Opening was Oklahoma group Other Lives, which are quite obviously the real deal. The six-piece band crafted a smart, dynamic sound that relied less on guitars than on strings, brass, percussion and vibraphones, and suggested a group with potential to spare. Performing music from its recently released album, "Tamer Animals," Other Lives was a perfect opener for Bon Iver. Both tapped into the sublime through nuanced suggestion, not necessarily by force of will or volume -- though that never hurts -- but by force of spirit.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Justin Vernon of Bon Iver performs at the Shrine Auditorium on Sep. 19. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.