by Jordan White
There are two iterations of Bon Iver: there’s the Bon Iver of “For Emma, Forever Ago:” minimal, mostly acoustic yet gut-wrenching , and the Bon Iver of “Bon Iver, Bon Iver:” bombastic and near-orchestral in nature. Both of these iterations took the stage in Tulsa on Saturday night, and both were equally mesmerizing.
Before I go any further, however, a few words must be said about the opening band, a three-piece sister group from Watford, England named The Staves.
We all have moments in life filled with such pure, raw beauty that they are forever ingrained in our memories. One of those moments, for me, was seeing the northern lights. The lights I saw weren’t the ones so often seen in magazines, waves of green or blue or purple flowing like a river in the stars, but rather wisps of pale white light streaking through the night sky. Some of the wisps looked like the pattern of a heart monitor, at first running flat but then popping up periodically. Others looked like scribbles written on the blue and black canvas of the sky, while another set of wisps moved up and down, as if they were visualizations of radio waves. And while they were all stunning individually, the most captivating sight was all of the wisps swirling into a milky white nexus. I couldn’t tell where one wisp ended and where another began.
Such were the voices of the Staves. Each of them had an individually gorgeous voice, but the true beauty of their music was the moments when the three voices became one. It wasn’t just a simple three part harmony. Their voices flowed together so naturally that, like the northern lights I saw so many summers ago, I couldn’t tell where one voice ended and another began. One voice would enter while another would fade, then all three entered simultaneously before two could suddenly cut off, leaving just the one to finish the song. At the beginning of their set, they claimed to be a mere pallet cleanser before Bon Iver. But when their all-too brief set ended, and the crowd gave them a standing ovation, it was clear that they were, and will be, much more.
Which brings me to the main act: Bon Iver. I say act because Bon Iver’s portion of the show was not just a concert, it was a performance. Everything about the show had a touch of the theatrical: the instrument changes during or immediately after a song were like costume changes in a play, while the musical transitions were akin to scene changes. The lights and projections on stage would change with every song or even with a shift in tempo, always befitting the mood of the current song. And at the center of it all, in the roles of both director and star, was Justin Vernon, the front man of Bon Iver.
Very rarely did Vernon introduce the songs. He let the music introduce itself, the end of one song morphing into the beginning of the other. Sometimes, the transition was expected, such as “Perth” flowing directly into “Minnesota, WI,” just as it does in the album. But other transitions were less expected, and because of that, more enjoyable. As “Holocene” ended, it broke down into a cacophony of instruments, with what appeared to be little direction or pattern. The audience was left to guess what this seemingly unorganized clash of sounds could possibly lead into, only to be surprised when everything blended together to form the beginning of “Blood Bank.”
Vernon’s complete mastery of his most powerful instrument, his voice, was on full display during an intimate and gripping performance of “re:Stacks,” as he effortlessly shifted from his baritone-bass to his haunting falsetto. “Creature Fear” perfectly incorporated Bon Iver’s new sound with the old. The opening riff, instead of being played on the guitar, was played by the trombone, while more horns, as well as a saxophone, joined in on the chorus. The continuous rise and fall of “Towers” enveloped the audience in a musical roller coaster.
It was “Skinny Love,” however, that made the evening truly special. As he did with “Creature Fear” and to a lesser extent “Beach Baby,” Vernon again blended new instruments into an old song, only this time, that instrument was the audience. Normally, I’m against the audience singing along, even when prompted by the band. But when the “my, my, my…” part of the song came around, it just felt right to sing, a feeling the entire crowd shared. There was no prompt by Vernon, yet he knew it would happen all the same. The rest of the song belonged to Bon Iver, but for those brief moments, we were as much a part of the song as Vernon and his guitar.
There’s an undeniable power in music. It has the ability to bring together those who would otherwise never meet. It can lift us up and move us in ways no other medium can. Bon Iver’s performance, from the opening riff of “Perth” to the closing notes of “For Emma,” was an exercise in the beauty and power of music.