It was midway through the second song Wednesday night at Radio City Music Hall — the first in a series of shows at the historic New York City landmark, and the inaugural night of a new international tour — that Bon Iver fully unveiled all the new bells and whistles. The mellow and ethereal pop group, which originally brought a neo-folk twist to singer-songwriter heartbreak in their somber viral debut “For Emma, Forever Ago” before striking a broader chamber pop sound in the Grammy-nominated “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” has been rising in prominence quickly over the last year (Pitchfork singled out their sophomore effort as the best album of 2011). And in response to this surging fame, they invested in their stage show, adding projected movies, faux candles, elaborate lighting cues and extensive distortion effects to a performance that used to be comprised solely of two acoustic guitars and two drummers.
For a band that started with such a small sound, the cavernous Radio City Music Hall must have seemed like foreboding space to play. And yet Bon Iver’s new set finds inspiring ways of bridging the band’s two halves, and reminding fans (some more familiar with his back catalog than most) that what has always distinguished this group was a soft and organic sound that contrasts wonderfully with the digitally altered noise now clogging the radio airwaves. On one extreme of the performance were cuts like “Perth,” with its horns, marching drums and exclamatory harmonies, and the layered electronic sprint “Calgary,” but on the other were moments when the faux candles went dim, the band left the stage and we were left with frontman Justin Vernon strumming away on “re:Stacks” (see above), singing of tough times, toggling between soft baritone and aching falsetto, every consonant slicing through a silenced crowd that seemed to appreciate this yearning more than the polished bombast.
In fact, for any longtime fan who has been following Vernon since 2007 or 2008 when his first CD leaked online, caught the ears of the Internet, and launched a most unlikely music career for a musician who had nearly thrown in the towel, the concert was a trippy affair. I first saw the band in a small, cramped Williamsburg venue, when they only had one album’s worth of material to work with and joked about running out of things to do. Even as the stages got bigger through the years, the band remained focused on small songs sung beautifully. And yet most of the world now knows them best for “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” (see my review) a much bigger sound that arrives at musical peaks and troughs through wildly complicated compositions.
Vernon seems well aware of this irony. He joked onstage Wednesday that they were now going back to an early song in their extensive discography (Bon Iver only has two full-length albums) as he started strumming “Flume” — the definitive, haunting cut that captured the attention of his first fans. It was startling to hear Vernon explain the backstory of his best-known hit, and even more jarring when the percussion faded in (the original song has no drums) and turned the searching, weary song into something of a pop march.
Between album one and two, Bon Iver made a quantum leap. Now a group comprised of nine different musicians that can hold court four consecutive nights in a venue as large as Radio City while hitting lighting cues and improvising transitions, one can feel the band struggling to come to grips with where they are now versus where they come from. And there’s also a fair amount of debate as to where they’re going next. In a notable aside, Vernon said that this tour will be the last for the band in quite some time, that it’s important now for him to go home for a bit. Speculation still swirls about where they will go next. It took four years for the group to produce a second album (during that time Vernon collaborated with the likes of Kanye West), and he has publicly said that it could well take longer for the next album. There’s even been speculation that the band could split, and call it a wrap after these two critically acclaimed outings.
Bon Iver’s Friday night performance, part of “Fuse Music Week,” will be livestreamed on the web (see details here), and if fans are looking for clues as to what direction the band may choose next, watch Vernon’s repeated dropping to his knees, flicking buttons on the devices that can distort the instruments and modulate his voice. Few musicians are as successful at striking a mood or capturing a sound as Vernon — he has said that “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” in large part, started with ideas of sounds that he loved, and then wrapped songs around those conceits — and if his first fixations were acoustic heartbreak and then swelling orchestras, I’m betting the third chapter will veer closer to Radiohead’s Kid A, as he looks to computers and software to expand upon the sounds of the recording booth.