CONCERT REVIEW: Bon Iver lets amazing music speak for itself

Bon Iver’s first time in Edmonton was as close to perfection as any fan could have asked.

The reasons were simple. Like the Black Keys – another Grammy-winning band that played Edmonton recently – the members of Bon Iver are musicians first, showmen second, letting the music speak for itself much more than being concerned about any over-the-top light show or special effects. The show also took place in the near-perfect auditory environment of the Jubilee Auditorium. So few other venues in the city allow the listener to experience all the intricacies, the quirks, the warbles and the wobbles a band like this can deliver. It’s clear that frontman Justin Vernon specifically intends every sound that comes out of the speakers. Little is left to chance.

Vernon brought along eight other band members, including a pair of drummers and three horn players, with another multi-instrumentalist playing the more unique sounds, or adding an extra horn on some tracks, cymbals on others. The evening had an innate etherealness about it, the music so poignant and thought-provoking, and yet with such beauty that there were probably times when most of the audience of 2,500 had to remind themselves to breathe.

Vernon’s music-first, banter-much-farther-down-the-list meant that he didn’t even address the crowd until after the halfway point of the main set, prior to one of Bon Iver’s more popular songs, “Holocene.” They then followed that up immediately with arguably the hardest rocking song of the evening, “Blood Bank,” the band bathed in red light throughout as Vernon and the other two guitarists ripped into riff after riff. “Creature Fear” later in the set was another hard rocker, though Vernon remained calm and composed, kneeling on the floor twisting and turning dials and pedals while amping up the feedback and loops. The song also featured an opening focused on the horn section that was so beautiful it surely brought tears to the eyes of many audience members.

The lights were plentiful but not overly complex, the most unique being runway lights at different heights stretching across the stage in front of the first row of band members. The evening otherwise tended to favor blue lights cascading through the band, most apropos as it reminded one of heaven and picture perfect blue skies, images that come to mind with Bon Iver’s music.

The main set was concluded with an unsurprising standing ovation, which continued through both songs in the encore, including the only singalong of the night, as Vernon had the crowd repeat the refrain “what might have been lost” in his song “Wolves”, which concluded with an insane flourish the likes of which only two drummers, a percussionist, three guitars and a horn section can do justice to.

While this was first show of Bon Iver’s tour, it certainly didn’t seem like it. Let’s hope it’s not the last time the band makes it to Edmonton, either.