Live: Bon Iver Blossoms Into A Band At Prospect Park


Bon Iver w/The Rosebuds
Celebrate Brooklyn! at Prospect Park Bandshell
Wednesday, August 10

Better than: Going it alone.

The now nine-member collective known as Bon Iver has certainly evolved from its oft-retold cabin origins. At Prospect Park last night, the band showed off their chops with a live set as full-bodied as the electric guitars wielded by its lumberjack (that’s what we call him, right?) leader. From the first song, the gorgeous “Perth,” the change from a-man-and-a-guitar to holy-crap-rock-and-roll was apparent: when the song’s intermission turned from a marching drumbeat into a full-on wall of sound, it covered every inch of the vast bandshell with electric goodness. And that was only the beginning.

Clearly riding high off of the praise that their most recent release has accrued, the group kicked off with four straight songs from Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar). After the aforementioned opener came “Minnesota, WI,” one of the better songs for showing off Vernon’s versatile vocals; he easily switched between a deep, seductive tone and his trademark falsetto. Then came “Towers”; halfway through, the guitars gave way to sweet sounds of sax and trombone. After an acoustically-tinged rendition of “Michicant,” Vernon told the crowd (hanging on every single word) that they were going to play an old song.

And what an old song it was. “Creature Fear,” the short-but-sweet album cut from For Emma, Forever Ago, managed to meld the lonely, bearded man in a Wisconsin cabin with the full band he now fronts. Switching between soft melodies and a muscular chorus, the track then developed into an extended breakdown during which Vernon dropped to his knees and showed off some guitar freakouts that sounded inspired by Tom Morello. The slower “Beach Baby” and “Wash.” followed, and the smoothness of those two songs ended jarringly.

“Blood Bank,” the title track off of the band’s 2009 EP, roared to life not with a whimper, but with a crunch that was most unexpected. The track’s quietude turned on its head, as every sound was multiplied to create possibly the most hardcore moment of Bon Iver’s career. As people started headbanging (yes, headbanging) and shouting along, the lights went into Arcade-Fire-at-the-Grammys mode, further illustrating the fact that this was not, in fact, your grandfather’s Bon Iver.

Or maybe it was, for the band went back to folkiness on the next three tracks: “Holocene” sounded more like Vernon’s solo album Hazeltons than the aforementioned rock-and-roll, although it did include some slick drumming from the dual drummers. Appropriate, then, that the eight members of the band not named Justin DeYarmond Edison left the stage so he could lead a sing-along of the haunting “Re: Stacks.” For some reason, it ended at the song’s halfway mark, and all that was left was a man, his guitar, the wind, and the sound of a sold-out crowd breathing.

Although joined by the band for the next song, Vernon did not leave his metaphorical cabin, as For Emma opener “Flume” began pouring out of his acoustic guitar. Falsetto in hand, Vernon hit every note live, sending a blissful wave of appreciation through the packed-in audience. He also knew how to milk the track for the greatest emotional impact, holding the quiet intermission of the song out for a lot longer than on record, allowing for an even greater release when the final chorus kicked in. At this point, the full moon had just begun to peek through the top branches of the park’s trees, creating quite a splendid backdrop for the line “Sky is womb, and she’s the moon.”

The main set concluded with two of the most popular (by my account, anyway) songs from Bon Iver, Bon Iver; the lead single “Calgary” received a huge cheer as its first, fuzzy note was played, while the polarizing-yet-sincerely-awesome “Beth/Rest” wrapped things up. It’s important to note that “Beth/Rest” is even more epic (or hilarious, if that adjective strikes your fancy more) live, with Vernon raising his fist and striking a serious rock pose during the song’s lovely sax solo. The band lined up to take a curtain call, waved at the crowd, and left the stage.

The encore began with the most famous Bon Iver song, “Skinny Love.” Vernon, sitting down for the first time and flanked by six of the eight band members (the other two were on drums), ran through the track with unexpected pauses, teasing the crowd before allowing them to ejaculate the lyrics they sang along in earnest. More than any track off For Emma, “Skinny Love” benefited from being played live, with the drums adding a lot of rhythm.

Then it was time for a hard left turn: a cover of Bjork’s “Who Is It” that had both an intense sax solo and a beatbox solo (courtesy the trombone player). Not exactly expected, but not unwelcome either. Finally, Vernon cued up a sing-along for what seemed to be the last track, “The Wolves (Act I and II),” by telling the crowd to sing their hearts out to “what might have been lost.” What followed was the simple joy of thousands of people singing the same line, over and over, in increasing volume before devolving (at Vernon’s request) into a primal yell. The band once more lined up in gratitude and walked off stage for the last time…

Or so we thought. The ever-elusive concert entity, the second encore, followed, and any Bon Iver fan worth his or her salt knew what song was going to close out the show: The gorgeous “For Emma.” As Vernon (and the backup chorus that was the Prospect Park crowd) belted out the final line, “for Emma, forever ago,” before transitioning into one final brass-heavy breakdown, the lights shone on a thousand smiling faces. It’s time to change the narrative. Bon Iver, the man, is no more. Bon Iver, the rock band, has spoken.

Critical bias: “Flume” is the most-played song in my iTunes library.

Overheard: Couldn’t hear anything over the screams of hundreds of teenage girls (and some older ones, too).

Random notebook dump: My clothes matched Justin Vernon’s. Red flannel/jeans, so unique.

Set list:
Minnesota, WI
Creature Fear
Beach Baby
Blood Bank
Re: Stacks

Skinny Love
Who Is It (Bjork cover)
The Wolves (Act I and II)

For Emma