Review: Bon Iver at the Tower Theatre - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Bon Iver held the Tower Theatre enthralled on Wednesday night. Playing with an eight-piece band, frontman Justin Vernon led a nearly two-hour long set for a house packed with reverent fans.

Seated shows are a very different experience than concerts spent swaying in sweaty, crowded clubs—and seated shows in a place like the Tower are another thing altogether. The Tower’s vaunted ceilings and vast stage threaten to swallow and diminish performers if they’re not up to filling the space. It’s a setting that asks you to sit up straight and pay rapt attention; a regal and sweeping venue fit for grand, ambitious music to match its soaring columns. Anything short of that could prove problematic. For Vernon and his troupe of instrumentalists, conquering the Tower was not so much a challenge as a given.

Bon Iver’s set was an amalgam of hushed, intimate interludes broken by loud, theatrical ones. The show kicked off with “Perth,” the dreamy, inviting first cut from Bon Iver. “Perth” showcased the sheer power possible with so many sounds and so many voices. In the hands of such a huge group (consisting of, at times, two drummers, saxophone, violin, guitar, piano, French horn, trumpet, and trombone), “Perth,” along with “Blood Bank,” “For Emma,” and “Wolves” expanded, escalating and intensifying into big, brawny rock songs.

But if Bon Iver amped-up edition was sometimes overwhelming, it was punctuated by quieter, acoustic takes that found Vernon (bearded, and clad, of course, in plaid) crooning and strumming alone. Both “Flume” and “Re: Stacks” were presented this way and were better for it. The difficulty with converting Bon Iver’s material from solo to ensemble is that many of the songs, especially from For Emma, Forever Ago, are about seclusion, about yearning and the yawning gulfs that loneliness begets—they are, after all, songs dreamed up and recorded in an isolated cabin. That mood can be hard to translate when you’ve got enough people on stage to field a major league baseball team.

Fortunately for Bon Iver, the crowd at the Tower was so affectionate and so captivated that it hardly mattered. This audience included some of the most adoring hecklers I’ve ever encountered. They took turns shouting, “I love you!” and “I love you more!” leading Vernon to implore them to stop, saying, “It’s not a competition, bro.” The true confirmation of Bon Iver’s total command? The complimentary catcalls came swiftly to a halt whenever Bon Iver began to play.

Apart from “Wolves,” the encore saw Vernon at his most affecting. “Beth/ Rest,” the quasi- easy listening jam that concludes Bon Iver, glowed. For the finale, “Skinny Love,” Vernon appeared with guitar in hand, flanked by six band members acting solely as back-up singers. The ballad, one of Bon Iver’s most effective tracks, devolved into a kind of raw, aching stomp, sans instruments and plus clapping.

During “Holocene,” Justin Vernon sang, “I knew I was not magnificent,” but in that moment, buoyed and lifted by his band and his fans, he was wrong.

Check out our photos of the Bon Iver show by Eric Ashleigh here.

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