Massey Hall, Toronto
Words: Kevin Gordon
We all know about the transformation of the life of Justin Vernon in recent years, from the humble beginnings of writing his debut album in a cabin to hanging out with Kanye. 2011 has built apon this emergence into a headline act, with recent Grammy nominations and bizarrely his own fitness video. On his 2007 self-released debut, “For Emma, Forever Ago,’’ Vernon emerged as an ethereal, bearded troubadour who needed little more than his delicate voice and acoustic guitar to put across his tales of heartache. However, his self-titled second album is more ambitious in terms of production and the transformation of Bon Iver as a live performer is clearly evident as his backing band was nine pieces strong, including three horns, a violinist and sometimes two drummers.
Massey Hall was built for performers like Bon Iver, the bands impeccable harmonies and soaring vocals sweep around the venue, washing over the audience. Upon taking the stage, Justin Vernon expressed his pleasure of playing this historic venue by saying that he was humbled and thanked the city of Toronto as Vernon stated that he has spent more time in this city than anywhere else this year and made lots of new friends.
The band was both sweepingly orchestral and viscerally rocked on the opener “Perth.” Vernon veered from his signature falsetto as the saturated sound was the focus featuring a delicate mix of a military snare drum and heavenly sounds that rose increasingly bolder. With the Canadian themed “Calgary”, the track is awash with a plethora of synthesizers, drums, and other instrumentation that brings the texture to its trademark sound.
In a live setting, though, the new album morphed into something more intrinsic and outright. Nothing ever sounded as expected. The trombone intro on “Creature Fear’’ was submerged, as if we were hearing it from the distance. The band wove horns, guitars, strings, and cymbals through the clicks and clacks of Vernon’s intricate arrangements to arrive at a fairly beautiful din.
On “Blood Bank,’’ the lighting dimmed to a murderous red and, led by a ferocious Vernon on feral electric-guitar solos shook the foundations of the venue. It takes a special breed of artist to twist those words, which are already fraught with melancholy and longing, into a thunderous battle cry.
Occasionally, the songs got lost in the chaos. “Beth/Rest,’’ with its collision of keyboards, saxophone, and Vernon’s processed vocals, was so diffused that it missed its target .
Once the opening chords were struck from a stripped down version of “Re: Stacks” all focus was on Vernon as he gently strummed away and serenaded with that tragic falsetto. It was enthralling. On ‘The Wolves (Act I and II)’, Vernon encouraged the audience to sing the words, “What might have been lost,” in haunting unison.
Veron opened the encore on electric guitar with three of his band mates backing him vocally and with footstomps on “Skinny Love”, as the haunting sound hovers over the crowd bringing immediate tenderness between Bon Iver and the audience. The group then covered Bjorks’ ‘Who is it’ before ending on a delicate rendition of ‘For Emma’.
Vernon’s focus and sound has widened since his debut album but his strange siren song is just as alluring.