Fans of Bon Iver know the story: In late 2006, Justin Vernon decided to hole up in a cabin in the woods outside of his home town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to put his soul and heartache into an album he was recording. When that album, For Emma, Forever Ago, came out in 2007, it was a runaway success, turning Vernon and his band, Bon Iver, into darlings of the indie-folk world.
Given the painful intimacy of the music, though, I’m guessing that Vernon didn’t start out anticipating that he’d be headlining arena shows one day; I mean, it’s not like Bon Iver fits the mold of the classic in-your-face pop and rock spectacles (think flames and confetti and hair metal) for which arenas are known.
And yet last night, April 11, thousands packed the 1STBANK Center in Broomfield for a sold-out performance by Bon Iver, as the band wraps up its 22, A Million tour, which is in support of the album of the same name, which was released in September last year.
For me, the 1STBANK Center felt like an odd place to see Bon Iver for my first time.
My experiences listening to the group’s three albums over the past decade have been mostly solitary. Sure, I might sing or hum along to “Skinny Love” when it was inevitably played in a coffee shop or when a friend put it on during a road trip. But I’ve found that a lot of Bon Iver’s music requires careful and contemplative listening – the kind of stuff best enjoyed with a good pair of headphones, late at night, when it seems like the weight of the world is bearing down on you. In other words, Bon Iver’s music feels intensely personal.
Last night the band had a different vibe. Despite being fairly close to the stage, I also felt distant from the performers. They seemed like they were in a bubble, surrounded by an expensive array of LED lighting and projection screens that were pre-programmed with the music. Vernon stood front and center wearing a trucker’s hat, not saying much to the crowd between songs and spending a large part of the concert singing with his eyes closed. I got the impression that Denver could have been any middle-of-the-tour stop for the band – lacking the excitement and flubs that characterize early shows on a long tour, or the intensity of the last few performances.
Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of good things to say about the mechanics of last night's show. The music itself was an impeccable re-creation of the recorded songs on Bon Iver’s albums, and I was surprised to find that the set list flowed rather smoothly.
That was something I was curious about going into the show; Bon Iver’s three albums are so different from each other, with 22, A Million being perhaps the most significant deviation into new sonic territory with its electronic sequencers and autotune vocal manipulations (and straight-up weird song titles like “10 d E A T h b R E a s T,” “715 – CR??KS,” and “21 M??N WATER”).
Even so, songs from 22, A Million did not clash when played next to lush arrangements like “Minnesota, WI” and “Michicant,” off Bon Iver’s second, self-titled album, from 2011, or next to the stripped-down folk aesthetic of songs from 2007’s For Emma.
This was certainly to Vernon’s credit. While he’s caused some confusion among critics and fans for changing the style of his music so drastically between albums – similar to what his friends Kanye West and James Blake have done – Vernon demonstrated during this tour that Bon Iver is indeed a unified concept and that there is a common thread between the albums.
The lament for me is that the common thread seems to be Vernon’s vulnerability and confessional lyrics,both of which were difficult to portray in an arena setting.
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In a way, Bon Iver is almost a victim of its own success. It would be best to see the band at a much smaller venue in Denver like the Bluebird Theater, but I suppose not as many people would be able to see it, and the last time Bon Iver was in Colorado was in 2012, so it’s not like the act comes around often.
Couple that with Vernon’s recent admissions that he almost ended the band after its second album came out in 2011, and you can see why the group might be trying to reach as many fans as possible through big arena shows and festivals (Bon Iver plays Coachella these next two weekends).
As Vernon sings at the beginning of 22, A Million, “It might be over soon.”
And so even if I might have preferred to see the group in a more intimate environment, I can’t really complain; who knows how long the band will last, and I did get to see it come through Colorado for a rare show and put on a mostly solid performance at the 1STBANK Center.