Last monday I caught Bon Iver at Sound Academy in Toronto. Justin Vernon and his new small army of an 8-piece band put on a great show. The new band cycled through all manner of instruments from two drum kits and additional percussion to guitars, synths, horns, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones and more. They kicked off the night by opening with the first two tracks from their most recent self titled record, Perth and Minnesota, WI, and all the mutli-instrumentalists on really brought the lush orchestration of the new record to the live setting. The lights show was pretty amazing too.
Before I continue however, a word on the venue. I loathe Sound Academy as a music venue, and apparently I’m not alone in these sentiments. Some complain about the sound quality, others the painfully out of the way location all the way down in the dock district. For me personally, it is the thousands of people they crush into the narrow concert room with barely a space for breathing, and at best a fractional view of the band if you’re tall and stand on your toes. I recorded a few of the earlier songs in the set but because I was so far from the front and had same tall people in front I mostly got HD footage of the back of peoples heads, and it was near impossible to focus for decent photographs. Still, you can have a look/listen and the playlist is down the bottom of this post.
The first half the set featured heavily from the new record until about six songs in Justin went into a new rendition of Creature Fear making use of the now larger touring band. I was impressed with how they updated the spares acoustic songs of the first record to the fuller sound of their latest LP. One thing that always gets me about Vernon is his amazing vocal range, one line soaring into a falsetto tenor register before plummeting into a smooth baritone in the next. Some singers wouldn’t be able to pull off such a feat live but Justin’s singing was flawless and while he mostly stuck to his ethereal falsetto, all the layered vocal harmonies of the recordings where taking up by the ample number of additional musicians on stage.
One nice moment in the middle of the set was Hinnom, TX, which started with a beautifully haunting violin solo. Further in an afro-endowed band member took up the falestto harmony “All this time, with your heart in mind” to cheers from the audience. After recording this and its follow up a girl behind me asked if I could stop holding my camera up for a song. Not wanting to ruin anyone else’s show I agreed. Of course the next song up was Blood Bank, my personal favourite and one I really wanted to record. But a promise is a promise so I let it go. For Blood Bank the stage was bathed in a appropriately blood read light, however the large band version didn’t quite have the raw energy of the live versions I’ve seen from when Bon Iver toured just as a 3 piece. I still liked it more than the sedate EP version.
The tail end of the set with filled with songs from For Emma, Forever Ago, and it sounded like the band was having fun fleshing these out with a richer textures of sound. Shortly after finish up the band walked back on for a 3 song encore which opened with Justin doing a solo version of Skinny Love while the rest of the band surrounded him in a semi circle singing the harmonies. It was a nice moment. Unfortunately there was no surprise guest appearance of Kanye West for the encore, I guess that deal only goes one way.