Pulling from both For Emma and the 2011 album Bon Iver, Vernon fronted a highly flexible ensemble of multi-instrumentalists who typically fleshed out and toughened up his folk-based compositions.
That's not to say Vernon doesn't still have a predilection for bordering-on-smooth-jazz soporific sensitivity. He opened with an Auto-Tuned, all but a cappella version of "Woods," the song that Kanye West sampled effectively on 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The woman sitting next to me at the Mann did fall asleep halfway through the show.
But more often than not the 6-foot Vernon, whose excellent posture makes it seem like he would tower over most mite-sized indie rockers, led his band through yearning incantations that drew the listener in with compelling sonic detail.
Occasionally, the band rocked out in a straightforward manner. When it did, on the forceful "Blood Bank," the backbeat was most welcome. More often, though, songs were shape-shifting hybrids. "Creature Fear" started off contemplative and lonely, but the slurred trombone notes in the jazzy intro eventually gave way to a full-on, flashing-lights, scuzz-rock jam.
Bon Iver inhabits a realm in spiritual proximity to Sigur Ros, the Icelandic band that played a show at the Mann on a Sunday night earlier this summer. Vernon, who played piano and guitar, sings in English, but it was not so easy to make out what he was going on about in a diaphanous falsetto as he stood on a stage lit to look like an altar in a cave hung with animal pelts. And an element of mystery can go a long way in adding to music's transporting power.
For all his musical tendencies toward an otherworldly realm, though, Vernon comes off as highly engaging and down to earth. And he's funny, too. In an expert bit of ironic pandering stage patter, he introduced a For Emma standout as "a song about the Philadelphia Eagles called 'Flume.' It's about God giving birth to Andy Reid."
Vermont songwriter Anais Mitchell opened with a selection of chamber-folk songs largely drawn from her excellent Young Man in America (2012). With a four-piece band augmented by members of Bon Iver, she sang unsentimental story songs of genuine literary quality in a girlish voice. She's worthy of further investigation and is playing Johnny Brenda's on Dec. 6.
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.