Live Review: Bon Iver at Merriweather Post Pavilion, May 24th

By Jon Fuchs, Music Director

22, A Million, the newest record from Bon Iver (aka ACRN’s favorite record of 2016) is one of the strangest transitions of musical styles in years. From a simple lo-fi folk project to an electronic outfit echoing The Age of Adz, the band masterminded by multi-instrumentalist Justin Vernon feels as strange and diverse as ever before with the ability to switch up musical styles in a heartbeat.

This being his first live show since Coachella, as well as having a lack of live performances following the release of 22, A Million, it felt almost mysterious not knowing exactly what Justin had up his sleeves.

Vernon and Co. began the set by performing the entirety of 22, A Million in order, with the exception of its final track, “00000 Million.” The full band, a 10-piece ensemble consisting of a 5-person saxophone section, two drum sets and a shitton of synthesizers, felt almost overwhelming to look at – similar to what it’s like to listen to the record. From the vocoder layering and harmonies to the masterfully chopped samples cued live, the live versions of every track on the record were unbelievably close to the studio versions.

“21 M◊◊N WATER” was the standout track of this part of their set. Unlike the others, it sounded almost nothing like the studio recording. What was a calming interlude turned into utter chaos when performed live, with tons of improvisation and live sampling that shook the entire venue with ear-shattering bass. The piece felt like a noise set performed by someone going through a mental breakdown.

Another highlight was “715 – CR∑∑KS,” an acapella track with heavy amounts of vocoder to add theatrics to such an emotional melody. The ground vibrated with every note change in the bass, and Vernon’s intense vocal delivery helped make the song even more emotional than it already was, which didn’t even seem possible.

After playing fan favorites “Minnesota, WI” and “Brackett, WI,” the group took a break with synth-heavy tracks to play older songs like “Blindsided,” “Holocene” and their most popular song, “Skinny Love.” Taking a break to focus on older, folk-oriented tracks made everything a lot less overwhelming and brought the project back to its original sound and roots, creating a calmer atmosphere for the set. The encore brought the band back on to play the 80s-sounding “Beth/Rest,” with the extreme amount of autotune and everything, which was a great, light-hearted way to close out such an emotional set.

Watching this new, fleshed-out live version of Bon Iver honestly felt a little surreal. Seeing a project that began with one guy recording an album alone in the woods now play a 20,000 capacity venue was awe-inspiring and showed just how wide of an audience Vernon really has. Bringing multiple different styles of music to the table, he has proved Bon Iver is a lot more than what it started as, and that he most likely hasn’t stopped experimenting with what it could be.

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