Maybe he was a little looped on the Rare Vos; or maybe Justin Vernon just knows his audience really well. “Anyone out there just starting college?” he asked, as if he too had been stuck in the absurdly slow-moving line to get into Ommegang’s concert grounds during opener Anais Mitchell’s set, amid white, middle-class couples discussing new classes and semesters abroad. The response from the 18-22-year-old market was audible. “Oh shit,” he clowned and then moved over to the microphone he uses exclusively for falsetto.
The great con of Bon Iver is not that Vernon’s backstory is disingenuous. He probably did get mono, bummed out, and moved back to his father’s rural Wisconsin cabin to write the devastatingly lovely For Emma, Forever Ago, which put him on the map in 2008. But, as last year’s eponymous follow-up suggested and Monday night’s show affirmed, Vernon (much like Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam before him) is actually a closet rocker underneath the beard and flannel, secretly aspiring all along to a big-stage show. A surprise Best New Artist Grammy has largely dashed this rustic mystique, as Vernon took to the stage in a suit and bandana headband, but, pandering stage banter aside, the development might actually be for the best.
The iconic guitar riff of “Perth” started things out, as it does on the record, and the show itself seemed uncannily to take its arc from Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Several dozen lanterns glowed and flashed onstage according to each tune’s oceanic build-up and, on “Minnesota, WI,” projections on hanging swatches of burlap gave the stage a cavernous feel for one of the few moments when Vernon dipped into his lowest vocal register. With a sizable band of multi-instrumentalists behind him, each song felt more like a baroque-pop set piece rather than a forlorn missive from a faraway fireplace—which is the charm that many listeners must let go in order to dig the live show.
Vernon negotiated this tension on album single “Holocene” by stirring the hyper-ballad into an explosive coda before resolving into “The Wolves (Part I and II).” This became trickier late in the set, when he returned to a couple tunes from Emma solo-acoustic. As moving as “Skinny Love” and “Re: Stacks” were to hear live, it diminished the intimacy of such tunes to know that everyone of your demographic has formed equally affecting romantic associations with something that was powerful because it was yours. Even Vernon admitted on “Beach Baby” that the “snuggly divorce song” has become a genre unto itself.
And so Bon Iver were at their best the less Vernon played the part to which most listeners were drawn on record. A post-rock orchestra at their core, the band used ethereal violin segues and bari sax freakouts to stitch together one of the tightest and frankly musical sets I’ve seen in quite a while. “Hinnom, TX” unfolded from a shimmering start to a thunderous climax, and Vernon even took a guitar solo or two between all that falsetto crooning. By the time “Beth/Rest” arrived near the end, as it does on the album, the much-maligned Phil Collins-kitsch ballad actually felt welcome. I’ll admit I pumped my fist a bit, like it was the closing sequence of a John Hughes movie—or whatever this generation of white college kids has instead.