Some bands transcend the limits of genre of and category. Some bands defy definition. Eau Claire, Wisconsin's Bon Iver is one such band. Frontman Justin Vernon and his trademark falsetto-folk-funk has been championed by everyone from NPR to Kanye West. It's hard to listen to his albums (2007's For Emma, Forever Ago and this year's self-titled follow-up) and not be transported to someplace magnificent. Last Friday, I got the chance to see him perform for a sold-out crowd at The Uptown Theater.
The show was predictably epic; colossal and intimate at the same time. Opener Kathleen Edwards set the tone with her earnest ballads and her adoration of all things Americana (ironically she's Canadian). Her charm was insuppressible, despite the sullen, poignant tone of her songs. She sort of had-me-at-hello when she cracked wise, “Well, aren’t you all on your best behavior?” I especially loved her cover of The Flaming Lips' 'Feeling Yourself Disintegrate".
Once Bon Iver started to play, the on-stage universe seem to expand. Edwards' three-piece shindig was replaced by a nine-man army of sound. Everyone in the band played at least two instruments, giving the set an orchestral feel throughout. Vibrant lights intensified already electrifying songs like "Perth" and "Creature Fear." All evening, Vernon projected a powerful stage presence tempered by a genuine appreciation for the crowd that had gathered to partake in his dynamic expression. The show was a series of saturated moments building up to the peak, an Olympian rendition of "Calgary". It's been nearly a week, and my ears are still ringing from the sheer power in this song. I was way up in the balcony but still felt the bass pressing on my chest like I was on the ground level, right up against a subwoofer.
The band cranked out a couple more songs before saying goodnight taking a break. They re-emerged to an invigorated crowd and gave them what they'd wanted all night: a sing-along version of "Skinny Love" (arguably Vernon's best song), complete with hand-clapping and foot-stomping.