Review: Bon Iver enchants and awes at the Straz Center

A wrap-up with photos from the Thurs., June 7 concert.

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click to enlarge Justin Vernon, Bon Iver - Phil Bardi
Phil Bardi
Justin Vernon, Bon Iver

Justin Vernon's exquisite falsetto captured my subconscious first, on an evening several years back that found me napping on the couch while my husband listened to For Emma Forever Ago. The music was just loud enough to enter the landscape of my dreams and provoked such profound feelings of melancholy and loss that I woke up thinking something was wrong. For Emma literally drew me from my slumber with its intense heart-squeezing beauty and made me fall in love almost instantly. [Text by Leilani, photos by Phil.]

I like to picture Vernon all alone in the secluded cabin where he produced this 2008 debut as Bon Iver, using only a few mics, some pedals and antiquated recording equipment to loop and multi-track his voice and guitar, creating all those layers of sound with only a bit of help from his friends. Fast forward five years and Vernon now fronts Bon Iver with support from a full-scale (eight-piece) band, tours with a road crew of a dozen, and enjoys Grammy winner bragging rights by way of the two awards he took home for his lushly instrumented sophomore full-length, 2011's Bon Iver. The wins verified what some of us had known all along – Vernon isn't your typical singer-songwriter but a man with expansive and extraordinary artistic vision.

And no amount of rain could keep his fans from experiencing what he had to offer as the near-capacity (2,234) crowd that filled Carol Morsani Hall at Tampa's Straz Center proved on Thursday night.

From the thunderous opening of “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI” (the first two tracks off Bon Iver), it was apparent that the band's gentle alt folk style was transformed into propulsive art rock in a live setting. All those quiet introspective moments still made their obligatory appearances, but almost lagged in comparison to the completely enveloping explosiveness of the rest of the set.

The lovely understated staging helped set the mood. Torn and frayed netting hung from the rafters, and a projector shot flurries of colored light, patterns and abstract projections against it that made for rather breathtaking visuals, especially when paired with rows of glowing blue lights rising from the floor like candelabras, about waist high and snaking in front of and amid the instruments. Sometimes they were dimmed, othertimes they glowed softly, and occasionally pin-points of light blinked on and off amid the dimmed ones, synching with select instrumental flourishes.

The band members were scattered in a half-circle around Vernon's post front and center, and imbued the music with a rich grandiosity. A pair of drum risers positioned on either side of the stage featured the parallel and complementary rhythms of Matt McCaughan and Sean Carey, the latter adding sporadic keys to the mix. Mike Noyce (Gayngs, Polica) brought his axeman chops and lent vocal support, Rob Moose (Antony and the Johnsons, The National) traded between classy strains of violin and guitar, Mike Lewis (Andrew Bird) filled in on bass and occasionally sax, Colin Stetson (Tom Waits, Arcade Fire) displayed some truly hardcore chops as the resident bass sax player, taking the spotlight briefly with one of the most free-form solos I’ve ever witnessed, and additional brass contributions were provided by Reginald Pace, who jumped between trombone, percussion and backing vocals, and trumpeter C.J. Camerieri (Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens), who also added French horn and keys to the mix.

Despite his recent popularity, Vernon still came off as rather humble, talking to the crowd in scattered bursts of "How is everyone doing?" that seemed genuine despite their obligatory nature, and near the end of the show, he commented "I get used to sleeping in a different bed every night, but I never get used to seeing all of you guys out there every night," and gestured at the adoring crowd. "… and I can't thank you enough for the support." He even got the room to sing "Happy Birthday" to his tour "boss" and even had a cake brought out for the man.

As far as the setlist goes, most of the tracks were culled from the 2011 LP – "Holocene" and "Calgary were particular highlights — and a handful of tracks off For Emma were also represented. My favorite, "Flume," was sadly absent, but he did squeeze in some other tasty treats; early in the set, the band turned "Creature Fear" – a rather quiet and stripped down number – into a huge, powerful opus that built to a rather epic climax; and during the encore, "The Wolves (Acts I and II)," he got the crowd to join him in the ascending "what might have been lost" chorus that rises higher and louder until the songs screaming close.

As much as I love Bon Iver, I was concerned about seeing the band live, afraid I'd be enchanted but ultimately bored, or so moved I'd be brought to embarrassing tears. Thankfully, I was never bored and those moments I did get all choked up, the guy singing off-key loudly and unabashedly beside me helped keep the tears in check. I still can’t decide whether this was a good or bad thing, but at least I was able to enjoy the show. And I did, immensely.

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