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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 30, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 39
Bon Iver gives raw, intense performance at Paramount
Arts & Entertainment
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Bon Iver gives raw, intense performance at Paramount

by Jerry L. Peerson - Special to the SGN

Bon Iver
September 26
Paramount Theatre


Stillwater, Oklahoma, sextet Other Lives are about as buzz-worthy as they come. Opening with the intense 'As I Lay My Head Down' from 2011's Tamer Animals album, lead vocalist Jesse Tabish set the mood for what was to become a highly passionate evening. Steeped in everything from dreamy, cinematic anthems to galloping spaghetti-western themes, Other Lives quickly captured its virgin audience. Starting promptly, the house was far from packed, but those fortunate enough to catch the band were obviously transfixed, not only sonically but also visually. Nearly every member performed on three to five instruments, many times switching flawlessly in mid-song. Playing trumpet and guitar simultaneously seemed like child's play to multi-instrumentalist Jonathon Mooney, and for the young women sitting next to me, the visual stimulation most likely peaked as cello player Jenny Hsu revealed a set of bell-strung antlers for the song 'Tamer Animals,' thus far my personal favorite of 2011. When they played the final number, 'Dustbowl III,' which Tabish states is about Oklahoma, any doubt left lingering of the audience's enchantment with Other Lives was soon put to rest as a rare occurrence happened: a standing ovation for, yes, the opening band.

The intensity of Other Lives' moving, multi-instrumentalist performance could have easily made them seem like a co-headliner with Bon Iver. Having been absorbed by the raw, melancholy sound of their records, I was expecting an emotionally intense, but more intimate and acoustic performance from Bon Iver. Instead, frontman and 'genius' (as one audience member proclaimed) Justin Vernon reinvigorated his secluded, homey sound into an unexpectedly rock-heavy show. Vernon's ensemble opened the set with 'Perth,' the same song that opens their latest, self-titled album. Each of Justin's nine bandmates were illuminated in a way that gave the iconic Paramount stage the ambiance of an old castle; snowflake-shaped spotlights made each band member seem to be standing on Persian rugs while lit by soft candle-like light. The whole show utilized lighting in a way rarely seen by indie-folk acts - strobing in a deep, rich yellow as 'Perth' ended to give the impression of massive flickering candles; pulsating with a metallic red violence during an intense transition into 'Blood Bank,' and providing an ethereal, icy-blue patina of nostalgia over the intro into 'Hinnom, TX.'

Vernon's voice resonated with passion and energy throughout the show: ranging from an intensely masculine, gruff baritone to a vulnerable, innocent, almost pleading boys' choir falsetto. There was seldom a moment when he was singing that the crowd wasn't entranced by the raw emotion of his voice, whether exclaiming above clashes of instruments, or during acoustic moments when the rest of the band left the stage like during 'Re:Stacks.'

Bon Iver's masterful instrumental prowess was exemplified in the middle of the set by an incredibly emotional, Stravinsky-like instrumental performance: As 'Creature Fear' ended, double drum sets and violins increased both in volume and in intensity to create the semblance of a tremendous winter storm, culminating in an explosion of sound, suddenly ending with a bright flash, signaling the end of the musical storm. Gradually, with an almost cautious curiosity, French horns, violins, and bells chimed in from different parts of the stage. Each member was slowly illuminated by his own spotlight as individual sounds expanded and blended to form and fill the body of the piece. It seemed as if a calm, frosty, spring morning were emerging from the havoc of the previous night's storm.

Nearing the end of the intital set, Vernon referred to this experience as his 'smack-me-in-the-face tour,' alluding to his own surprise at the grandeur that his small Wisconsin cabin-based project has attained. He was gracious throughout the show, often expressing his thanks and love for the audience and his fans. The high point, and the moment that confirmed my respect and appreciation for him, was when he played a unique rendition of Bob Dylan's 'God On Our Side,' a song he and his band had learned only days before. As an introduction to the cover, Vernon remarked that President Obama had been in the same room the previous night. While not wanting to discuss politics, Vernon told his audience, 'People should think about some shit. This is kind of about that.' The remarkably beautiful version of the song gave us a glimpse into the artist's social and political thoughts, something seldom seen in the rest of his work.

The passion, exuberance, and illustrative nature of Bon Iver's musical performance transcended the entirety of the show. The sound was bigger, more raw, and more explosively emotional than that on the albums themselves. It is always exemplary of a musician's talent when the live performance exceeds the expectations of even the most devoted fans of their recorded material.

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