As many people who have followed Justin Vernon’s career know, he is always evolving. His trajectory has always been something of a lifecycle. From his earliest iteration of the bare stripped-down sounds of For Emma, Forever Ago to the strangely accessible experimental sound that subverted the first two records on 22, A Million, Vernon has always challenged his fans and asked them to grow with him.
Many have compared the evolution of Bon Iver to the changing of seasons. However, there was clearly a stage of infancy that Vernon needed to go through. On For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon was ready to hang it up. His career hadn’t gone as planned and was in a low place emotionally. So he locked himself away in a cabin in his home of Eux Claire, Wisconsin, and created the Nebraska-ESC album that became arguably the most influential record of the next 10 years of folk music. Songs like “Skinny Love” and “Flume” challenged the way artists' creative processes worked at the time. The raw four-track recordings capture every sound and emotion Vernon felt in that cabin and at that time in his life.
On the self-titled follow-up, Bon Iver would expand that sound. With adding a backing band the sound became big. However, Vernon is able to create this isolating feeling on this record. A grand sweeping epic, that has the grandeur of The Joshua Tree and the isolation of being stuck in the frozen tundra that is Wisconsin in the winter. Songs like “Perth” and “Holocene” offer the same emotional payoffs while sounding larger than life.
But then came the cocoon stage. After a five-year break between records, Vernon had time to figure out what Bon Iver would become. Would they be a band that continued the same formula with the “sad cabin music,” for lack of a better term, or would they become a band like Radiohead? A band that challenged themselves and their audiences while soaring to new highs each time they came back.
Vernon had to overcome a depressive stink and a fear of getting back out on stage. What came from that was the jaw-dropping shift in sound on 22, A Million. Abrasive, loud, and difficult at times, yet the music was also incredibly accessible, melodic, and rewarding. Songs like “10 dEAThbReast” and “33 “God”’ gave Vernon the ability to be cathartic as a songwriter and showcase his producing abilities that he had been honing over the years.
Finally, in 2019, Bon Iver would release i,i, a gorgeous and beautifully crafted record that one could say was Vernon’s butterfly stage of his career. The record sounds like an artist entirely sure of himself and his sound. Someone who knows what he wants to do as the next stage of his career begins. While keeping the experimental and industrial sounds of 22, A Million, Vernon uses influences from past collaborators like Aaron Dessner and most notably Bruce Hornsby. Songs like “U (Man Like)” and “Faith” bring the use of beautiful piano that clearly references Bruce Hornsby and the Ranges’ run in the ’80s and early ’90s.
The album also offered Bon Iver, the ability to be a fully formed live act that can play arenas, at festivals, and venues for years to come.
On Tuesday night Bon Iver played the PromoWest Pavilion at OVATION. Musical collective Bonny Light Horseman opened for Vernon and company, serving as the perfect warm-up to Bon Iver. Coming off their pandemic-era debut, Eric D. Johnson of the Fruit Bats, singer-songwriter Anias Mitchell, and composer Josh Kaufman brought the perfect golden hour acoustic sounds as they get ready to release their second studio record Rolling Golden Holy.
As the sun began to set Bon Iver took the stage. Each musician was surrounded by these light fixtures that would play a big part in their live stage show as the evening went on. Opening with the beautiful “22 (Over Soon)” Vernon reminded fans of the gentle aspect within their new electronic-folk sound.
As the show went on Bon Iver found a balance perfectly between the loud and quiet aspects of their catalog. Every time you’d feel soothed by the harmonizing and ambient autotuned voice of Vernon, the band now very comfortable with one another, would come barrelling in with these blistering drums, the sounds of the tenor sax, and Vernon’s surprising ability to shred on the guitar.
The highlight of the show probably came when Bonny Light Horseman guitarist Josh Kaufman joined the band on stage for what was clearly Vernon’s full admission of his love for jam bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead. Using wah effects throughout Vernon and Kaufman played off each other as any great jam band would. A six-minute jam-filled piece had fans all around saying “This is incredible!” “I had no idea they were this amazing live.”
Justin Vernon seems incredibly comfortable with where he is now in his career. He has gone from an artist alone in his cabin, to a frontman of a very legitimate touring act that could go on for years. Even on their 22, A Million tour the band was not as fully formed and as finely tuned as they are now.
There are very few shows on planet earth with the same emotional payoff that a Bon Iver show offers. You can get the beauty of Vernon’s songwriting and singing while fully understanding his vision of what this solo project could become. A stadium rock band with the gravitas of a quiet singer-songwriter.