“Amazing,” “awe-inspiring,” “insanely good,” “godlike”... For many fans, it was barely hyperbole to deify Justin Vernon of Bon Iver after their show in Seattle on Monday night. Within the cathedral grandness of the Paramount Theater, the band played one of the most sonically rich and lyrically emotive performances that anyone there was likely to have ever heard before. Whereas in the past, Vernon would often play as Bon Iver solo or with a few backing members, this time he brought eight other performers, who often multiplied instrumentation -- three guitar players, two sax players, two full drum kits, a bunch of horns, etc. -- to create a dense soundscape to showcase songs from the new self-titled album and to re-envision songs from his more sparse, critically acclaimed debut, For Emma, Forever Ago.
Set opener “Perth” (also the new album opener) revealed exactly what the at-capacity audience had in store for the night as it built from a glacial calm to a martial rhythm to an explosive and then sax-mad freakout. Within the setlist, songs varied from sounding as big as you can imagine nine performers making, as on “Creature Fear,” to gentle, folky strummers like “Flume.” Even when doubled or tripled up on instruments, the band members never seemed step on each other’s toes or generally muddle their parts, and most importantly they let Justin Vernon’s etherial voice soar, as on “Holocene,” one the new album’s two best tracks. Perhaps because they lend themselves to the full arrangements, songs from Bon Iver dominated the evening and drew loud cheers from the audience. Apparently, everyone was confident that For Emma‘s hits wouldn’t be forgotten, and they certainly weren’t -- after closing the main set with the album’s title track, Vernon returned, sat on a chair, and performed “Skinny Love” with the band surrounding him and boisterously singing the chorus (much like they did on Colbert). As a final gesture, Vernon invited the entire audience to sing along to “The Wolves (Act I and II)” and we all ended the night in a strangely unifying moment chanting the song’s repeated plea for solace (“don’t bother me”).
For his own part, Vernon was not only gracious in his between-song banter but seemed genuinely surprised by the crowd’s size and enthusiasm. “This is the ‘smack me in my face’ tour,” he said, and repeatedly thanked the audience for their support.
Personally, I wanted to be one of those fans searching for the right words to describe one of the most glorious musical experiences of my life, as the arm-waving young woman two rows in front of me was apparently having, but ultimately I found myself a bit overwhelmed and ultimately underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong -- the band was outstanding, the arrangements tight, and the song order seemed well planned to emphasize show dynamics -- it was just a lot to take in at once, and honestly, the overall same-y-ness of the songs made my ears glaze. Better song familiarity on my part surely would have helped, but there were moments when the cheesiness of Vernon’s “soft rock” leanings (I haven’t heard that much sax since the 70′s!) kept me from entering any possible of epiphanic dreamstate. I’d rather he had left the Michael McDonald (Bolton?) influences with Gayngs, but fortunately these moments often phased quickly enough into sonic breakdowns and then into pure noise. Yacht rock for hipsters, indeed!
And I don’t mean to bash the show’s saxiness too much because reed-meister Colin Stetson, who also plays with Arcade Fire, provided one of the best moments of the night with a breathtaking circular-breathing transition between “Holocene” and “Bloodbank” that seemed unbelievably long. Another surprise: during his shows, Vernon often likes to include some sort of cover song (he played Bjork’s “Who Is It?” in Kansas City earlier this month), but this time, President Obama’s appearance onstage at the Paramount just the night before at a Democratic fundraiser inspired a timely and rousing rendition of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.”
I was just as eager to see openers Other Lives as I was Bon Iver. The Oklahoma band were not only the perfect “tour support” for this show but really deserve their own Paramount-filled adoring crowd, which should happen in the next year or so if they keep following their current trajectory. Band leader Jesse Tabish may be relatively short in stature (at least compared to Justin Vernon’s woodsman build), but his voice is deep, rich and sonorous, much like the instrumentation on all of the band’s songs, and an easy match for the venue’s large size. Other Lives are one of those bands -- and Bon Iver might be included in this group too -- whose live shows add a powerful energy that is difficult if not impossible to capture on album. Other Lives’ latest album, Tamer Animals, comes close, but just hearing them in the vaulted room of the Paramount was a joy. The audience seemed to think so too, as the main floor was filled more than usual for an opening band, and people cheered nearly as loudly for them as for Bon Iver. After the show, the band waited by the merch table to meet fans, and in the short time I stood there I heard many “You guys were great, I never heard of you” comments. Hopefully, that will all change soon enough.
By the way, you can watch videos from Other Lives’ session at KEXP this past summer here and you can hear them perform live on KEXP during our first international broadcast during Iceland Airwaves on Friday, October 14, at 6:00AM PST.