“Stay dry out there,” quipped Bon Iver’s humble mastermind, Justin Vernon, as rain dripped on the crowd surrounding the stage at Mountain Park. “Or don’t. It’s your choice.”
Backed by a nine-piece band including trombones, violins, two drum kits, racks of digital synthsizers, and avant-garde saxophone beast Colin Stetson, Bon Iver brought the heavy to Holyoke. Beginning their set with “Perth,” the opener from their new self-titled album, they summoned clouds of double-bass-pedal drums and dissonant electric guitars. A chorus of crystalline vocals rose above the din, as golden rotoscopic light panned around the stage like a rapid-shutter camera. The final notes seamlessly blended into “Minnesota, WI,” with a twinkling banjo breakdown and syncopated stabs of Stetson’s bass saxophone.
Saturday’s show was heavy on new material, but the middle of Bon Iver’s set was dotted with nuggets from yesteryear. Wielding a gold-top Les Paul, Vernon led the band through a hard-driving version of “Blood Bank” from his 2009 EP of the same name. Some of the whisper-shout dynamism of the recorded version was lost in the heaviness of the arrangement, but the cathartic guitar freak-out that serves as the song’s coda remained and the audience gawked with wide eyes as Vernon kneeled down to pray at the altar of the electric guitar. When the refrain, “I knew you well,” washed over the audience, the crowd put on their bravest face and sang defiantly into guitar fuzz.
The bare-bones folk from the band’s 2008 debut For Emma, Forever Ago was given flesh by the big band, who embellished the heartbreaking essence of Vernon’s work of staggering genius. In the cathartic pauses of “Flume,” pedal steel guitar and plangent violins slid around Vernon’s quavering falsetto, until the whole band came to a halt before delivering one last resounding chorus.
Even with the thunder Bon Iver were supplying, the crowd was rather subdued. Vernon’s gut-wrenching vocal textures and flashes of confessional poetry inspire an intensely personal connection among his fans that taps the trunk of sorrow. It’s no surprise that a fair number of those in attendance were contemplative and supine and only a handful of folks gathered up front. There was even a marriage proposal somewhere in between the ballads “Towers” and “Holocene.” Rather than the expected surprise, members of the band wryly reacted to the couple’s good fortune with quips like “That’s a good-looking man” and “Go for it.” It’s safe to assume that this is not the first time someone has popped the question at a Bon Iver show, but it’s still slightly perplexing considering that 50 percent of their repertoire is a total bummer.
Despite the newly engaged couple and the buoyancy of the band’s new material, the mirth was short-lived. In the home stretch of the first set, the band left Vernon alone under a spotlight to sing “Re: Stacks.” If there is an equation for making someone weep like a child whose turtle just ran away, the dissonant chord that Vernon struck as he sang, “When your money’s gone and you’re drunk as hell” represents X. Solve for Z and you have the season finale of Six Feet Under to the Nth degree.
Forming a circle around Vernon, the band joined him to encore the divisive closer to Bon Iver, “Beth/Rest,” an easy-listening ballad with auto-tuned vocals, ’80s romcom montage synthesizers, and Colin Stetson blowing something resembling a Kenny G solo. If Bon Iver’s performance last Saturday proved anything, it is that Justin Vernon is a man who truly follows his muse, whether that leads him to easy-listening schmaltz, post-rock, bare-bones folk, or the heavy; and judging by the size of the crowd, we’re willing to take the ride even if we have to listen to a little Phil Collins on the radio.