Songs of yearning intimacy from Bon Iver at the Mann

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver was backed by an 8-piece band that fleshed out his folk-based compositions.
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver was backed by an 8-piece band that fleshed out his folk-based compositions. (ANDI STEMPNIAK / AP / Eau Claire Leader- Telegram)
Posted: September 19, 2012

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver made his reputation with his 2007 album For Emma, Forever Ago, a set of songs recorded in virtual isolation in a cabin in the woods in northwestern Wisconsin while recovering from a bad case of mononucleosis and a broken heart.

Vernon played all the instruments on For Emma, and he most often sang the songs of loss and longing on the initially self-released album in a stirring falsetto that conjured visions of one bearded man and his search for meaning deep within the frozen-over Walden Pond of his soul.

But it's a funny thing about music that shares innermost feeling with startling intimacy: It tends to create a community around it. And when Vernon led Bon Iver - whose name means "good winter" in French, intentionally misspelled - into the Mann Center for the Performing Arts on a chilly end-of-summer Sunday night, he arrived with an eight-piece band behind him and was greeted by an audience of reverent admirers several thousand strong.

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, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at

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