Bon Iver

Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019

PNC Arena, Raleigh

It’s hard to describe exactly why I love Bon Iver’s music. Maybe it’s the way Justin Vernon layers his vocals to emulate a choir, or perhaps it’s how he leaves his lyrics intentionally abstract, relying on the sound and emotional weight of each syllable. It could also be his impeccable ability to craft soundscapes, hiding them just low enough in the mix that they surprise you upon further listening.

Either way, I’m a bit obsessed with Vernon’s work. I’ve listened to every recording I can get my hands on, not just the Bon Iver records, but also the live performances, the solo records, and projects such as Volcano Choir, Gayngs, Big Red Machine, and DeYarmond Edison. The Raleigh band included Vernon, on the edge of becoming Bon Iver, and the future members of Megafaun.

I have to admit that Bon Iver playing a stadium is still a bit bizarre to me. After all, it really wasn’t that long ago when Vernon was crooning Mahalia Jackson tunes at the now-defunct Bickett Gallery in Raleigh. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll probably never get to experience an intimate Bon Iver show. I missed them at Local 506 on the day Jagjaguwar officially released For Emma, Forever Ago—although, in my defense, I had only turned twelve two days before. Vernon recently played a wedding reception with Bruce Hornsby in North Raleigh, but because I’m not a wedding crasher, I had to live vicariously through brief snippets posted on Instagram. PNC would have to suffice.

Going into the show, I limited my expectations. I knew a majority of the set list would come from i,i, which was released in August. I also knew there would be a state-of-the-art light show, courtesy of Christopher Bauder. The Berlin-based designer crafted a set of kinetic mirrors to reflect beams of light into patterns along to the music. 

The band started by playing the first few tracks on the new album in order. Whereas I found i,i to be a tad underwhelming, these songs shone in a live setting. Matt McCaughan’s riotous drumming rocked the arena, and Jenn Wasner’s harmonies glistened alongside Vernon’s signature falsetto. What came next, I was not expecting—the deep cut “Heavenly Father,” which was commissioned for the soundtrack of Zach Braff’s film Wish I Was Here. A couple of tunes off 22, A Million followed, notably “715 – CRΣΣKS,” which Vernon belted through his customized Messina harmonizer.

The band continued to hop around its catalog, interspersing older tracks like “Lump Sum” and “Perth” with the new. What impressed me most about the current material was how well they replicated the synthetic elements, and yet how much room was left for improvisation. “Salem,” which sounds nothing like the Grateful Dead on the recording, transformed into a full-on jam, with Vernon’s guitar solo echoing Jerry Garcia. Another notable extension was on “U (Man Like),” when Sean Carey softly noodled on the piano before launching into the grand Hornsby riff.

Before singing “Flume,” Vernon acknowledged his connection to Raleigh, shouting out his former duplex on Fairall Drive—which, like many things in the city, has been replaced by a modern home. He also took a moment to bring awareness to InterAct of Wake County, an organization that provides shelter and services to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

I had three main takeaways. First: Jenn Wasner stole the show. I’ve been a longtime fan of her projects Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes, and her multi-instrumental talents brought a whole new level of depth to the Bon Iver lineup. It’s no wonder that Sylvan Esso has enlisted her, as well as Matt McCaughan, for their WITH Tour. Second: With or without music, Bauder’s light installation is an incredible work of art. Even as I look back at photographs, I can’t help but gawk at the heavenly neon expressionism. Finally: something more allegorical. It’s the acceptance that Vernon’s music, like Raleigh, has transformed into something much more modern and expeditious, yet still maintains all the quirks I love.

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