Bon Iver, led by Justin Vernon, has always been regarded as minimalist.
But after watching the band headline at Red Butte Garden on Tuesday night, it would be difficult to call them anything but maximumist.
On a magical night where a brilliantly white half-moon hovered overhead and the lights of the sleeping valley flanked the cool lawn of the amphitheater, Vernon was backed by eight musicians who turned his stripped-down songs of despair and desperation into would you believe it? anthems of hope that could inspire sing-alongs and hand-claps.
For all of Wisconsin-based, red-shirted Vernon's gifts, he has a nuanced falsetto where the words of his songs are hard to make out. And even if you were looking at a lyric sheet, he writes in such a cryptic way that his words fall short of illumination.
But even at its slowest and mellowest, the songs of Bon Iver are about places, and conjuring up the mood of those places, whether it be Perth or Brackett, Wisc. And with four horn players and two percussionists, the band (which only includes four official members) transformed the lovelorn song sketches heard on the band's two albums into symphonies of bombast, volume and depth. As songs flowed into songs with little to no break, the nine musicians, playing as one, would experiment with dissonance that would keep many of the songs from being impossibly pretty. The challenge for listeners was no crucible, but one that engaged the mind as if there was a thematic narrative.
Vernon and company showed great thought with the set design, where close-up, the stage seemed festooned with as many as 50 glowing organ pipes. Far away, the lights looked more like jars of fireflies. Best of all were large scraps of lightweight paper or rags that hung from the rafters, billowing in the wind and serving as backdrops to abstract images of waves and wheat. The large scraps brought to mind the haunting Spanish moss that hang from cypress trees in the deep South, whispering secrets that you can sense but not express.
This early in the season, the high elevations of Red Butte Garden are where warm days go to die, and there was a chill throughout Bon Iver's set. But since Bon Iver is a French variation of "good winter" or "have a good winter," it was a fitting theme for a night where the verses did not follow choruses as in standard songs. But it was a night where the exhilarating songs paved a path not just toward Wednesday, but toward the knowledge that sometimes, Grammy voters can select the right Best New Artist, and that we have a lot to look forward to.
Bon Iver with The Staves
When • Tuesday, May 29
Where • Red Butte Garden
Bottom Line • Magical show of visuals and music set the stage for grand year at Red Butte Garden