Flanked by talented multi-instrumentalists and standing in front of two drummers, both of whom played kits so sprawling they resembled Neil Peart's smaller setups in the '70s, Bon Iver compelled the packed Red Rocks crowd with songs from across its powerful catalog. Bon Iver and Feist are both touring with eight-piece bands, sharing a few horn players, but Justin Vernon's compositions are even more drastically transformed in concert; far from the spare, layered, vocal-driven basement ballads of his recordings, they were suddenly huge swaths of arena-rock dynamics.
There was a sort of engineered cacophony in Bon Iver's set that brilliantly became elegant as all the instruments blended in and out of each other, intermittently creating walls of sound or cutting out completely in favor of a spotlighted violin solo. Vernon's "wilderness hip" (he's been called indie-rock's hunky Walt Whitman with his Paul Bunyan look and poetic R&B sensibility) suddenly became darkly melodic execution -- swirling Sonic Youth-type fireworks morphing into gentle regaling -- with the help of his large band and an emotive light show one of my showmates dubbed "The Candle Effect."
Under the moon and between Red Rocks' legendary massive red shards of earth, Vernon and his two drummers at times summoned arguably the most meaningful elements of the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead - their explosive, quasi-wicked nods to Miles Davis' first electric bands - in a way that made modern jambands seem feeble; even more so when realizing the controlled big-band mayhem actually had a habit of landing on high-quality songwriting, notably "Skinny Love."
Like Feist, who shared this bill, Bon Iver has found mainstream success by writing and performing music that admirably seems to have no aim other than self-expression. You wonder exactly when and how Vernon -- who once covered Feist -- came to realize the capabilities of his strikingly versatile voice, which -- to get a little hyperbolic -- is possibly becoming the singular romantic foghorn of a generation, so very deep and very malleable, both in its texture and its message.
While Bon Iver has released three albums, only a few songs, such as "Blood Bank," stand out as memorable in the most literal sense of the word. But, like Radiohead, even when you don't quite understand what Vernon is singing, the feeling is so tangibly translated as to remind listeners what it feels like to be born, or fall in love, or lose a loved one.
"We finally got to come to the best venue in America!" Leslie Feist said last night as she took the stage just before Bon Iver's set. The alternately fist-pumping and heart-wrenching Feist and her band, notably including the three incredibly talented young female Vermont singers known as Mountain Man, musically transported the sold-out crowd to Big Sur, where Feist's latest album, Metals, was recorded.
Mountain Man, somehow equally nerdy and sexy in robes and with wreaths around their heads, added strong, unique harmonies, impassioned drumming and quirky choreography to Feist's new sound, which is a kind of ominous pop. The execution displayed by Feist's eight-piece band was remarkable. Everything - down to the smallest tambourine shake - was obviously rehearsed for countless hours. Some of the more moving moments of the evening came when Feist and Mountain Man reinvented older material, like "My Moon My Man" and "Mushaboom," and co-opted the previously silky pop of those songs into ominous orchestrations.
Playing distorted-but-sweet lead guitar on a Les Paul Junior and a few other gems, Feist used her crucial Big Rock experience with the dudes of Broken Social Scene to carry the band on the symphonic sing-along romance of the newer songs, including "How Come You Never Go There?," and preen Johnny Thunders style while building the romp of "I Feel It All" and "Sea Lion Woman" (popularized in the '60s by Nina Simone).
Feist, who cut her teeth touring in the Calgary punk band Placebo (which opened for the Ramones) as a teenager twenty years ago, is a seasoned pro. The 36-year-old Nova Scotia native is an onstage dynamo comfortable winding up a huge audience, embracing her band members - literally and figuratively - while impressively beckoning her audience to jubilantly join in the choruses of songs about heartache, playful confusion and missed connections.
"Are you feeling lots of it?" Feist, in a unique purple dress and red stockings, asked the capacity crowd near the end of her hour-long set. "How much of it?" And then the poignant and previously lulled "The Limit to Your Love" was transformed, in partnership with Mountain Man - whose three young voices sometimes sound like a dozen - into mesmerizing, jagged, almost Bjork-esque electro-pop, which led nicely, after a long intermission, into a longer set by one of the most original voices of our time, the Grammy-winning Wisconsin singer-songwriter Bon Iver.
Personal Bias: Mountain Man might be my favorite American band at the moment, and I longed to hear them play a set of their own. I heard through Boulder's Language of Fish collective that Mountain Man, a worthy current hipster favorite, played a house concert in Evergreen last night, immediately after serving as Feist's backup singers at Red Rocks.
Random Detail: Feist's 2008 show at the Fillmore was the first concert my partner, Irene, and I attended together. That night, Feist seemed frustrated with an overly talkative Denver crowd. At Red Rocks, she seemed comfortable and energized, kicking the front of her drummer's bass drum and running to the edge of the stage to play simple but stirring guitar solos.
By The Way: If the ongoing highway 93 detour back to Boulder gets you down after a show at Red Rocks, throw on some Patsy Cline, drive slow and enjoy the stars.
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