Pasted on every door of the venue were warnings of extreme strobe lighting. The heavy promise of a twisted psychedelic dream that would channel both the cabin fever seclusion of Bon Iver’s early music and the cryptic auto-tuned voice of 2016’s 22, A Million grew closer with Feist’s preparatory words, “Your hearts will be turned into a flock of pastel geese flying into the future,” at the end of her opening set. With the sudden darkness and quick flashes of hallucinatory art across stage-bookending screens as the i,i intro “Yi” played in the background of Bon Iver’s entrance, that vision seemed like it might actually become reality.
For all of his new Kanye-inspired vocal tracks and synthesizer experimentations though, Justin Vernon will probably never live down his reputation as that guy who made a record by himself in the woods one time. But after releasing i,i, with Bon Iver, he and the band announced that they would embark on an arena tour in support of the record – a far cry from his falsetto coffee shop origins in a disparity that was dishearteningly obvious last night. While Vernon’s newer music undoubtedly deserves its place at the same level as its inspirations in other electronic, rap, and metal arena acts, the ubiquitous promise of Bon Iver’s dramatic mind-altering showmanship was only half full.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the performance was its stagnation. Each band member stood atop a pedestal, somewhat caged in by triangular frames of light on each platform. Given the complex instrumentation, looping, and layering that Bon Iver’s music requires, the musicians probably would have had difficulty moving around in any setup, but these beams of light trapped them in a way that enforced a separation, a notion that they were to be watched rather than engaged with, especially in a venue where every member of the audience was seated.
Arena rock is a hard adjustment to make without seeming corny, so Vernon chose to let the music speak for itself. A slightly refreshed lineup, now including the first woman of the band with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, gave new life to songs like “Holocene” off of 2011’s Bon Iver, and adjusted the studio-polished vocal parts of “iMi” and “715 – CREEKS” for a live setting, highlighting harmonies from Wasner and house-shaking saxophone solos from Mike Lewis, who’s been a member of the lineup since Bon Iver. Vernon himself erupted in guitar solos that evoked the foundation of the Grateful Dead, now given an amplified power that threatened a bursting lysergic liftoff while always keeping its cool.
Certainly, the strobe light warnings held some merit. Though not the life-altering soul-upending experience I had hoped for, an arrangement of square mirrored panels hanging above the stage and sets of special effect spotlights on either side painted the arena in fans of warm sunset shades and icy blues, changing color and pattern in synchronization with the music. From soft yellow light directed toward the band members to retina-burning reflections from light bent through the upper mirrors, the intention and effect of the pattern was an acid-induced craft that prompted Vernon to ask his favorite concert question: “Who here is on LSD right now?”
The show, just as i,i, was often ritualistic and prayerful, though Vernon’s role as spiritual leader was sometimes shaky. His limited interactions with the audience were comprised of an endless stream of gratitude, with an occasional infusion of politics and goodwill, pausing between songs toward the end of his set to ask the audience to recognize their privilege in having the opportunity to feel assured in their safety, at least for the duration of the concert. “Most people are not safe,” he continued, and asked fans to consider donating to Women’s Way, a domestic abuse prevention organization with representatives at the concert last night.
Bon Iver’s encore included two songs from both sides of his career: a revved-up version of 2009’s “Blood Bank” that took off into a whirring build of guitar work, uplifting its quietude to the heavier dimensions of the band’s current music, bathing the stage in red and white light as deep as the blood and snow Vernon sang of. Before ending with “RABi,” the conclusion of i,i, Vernon spoke to the crowd one last time, stumbling over his words as he said, “I want to leave you with this sentiment. I’m not going to try to explain it. We can just listen to this song together.” He paused before drawing close to the microphone one more time to say, “I just hope you can walk out of here not as much afraid to die.” Whether a true communication of this sort of intimate faith can ever really work in an arena setting, Vernon’s soothing baritone over glistening guitars in the soul-calming prayer of this final song nearly transported the room to that idyllic world of candy-colored skies and pastel geese that was promised, the sound echoing into the crisp October night beyond. — SOPHIE BURKHOLDER