“Stop calling us an acoustic rock band,” half-joked Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon early in his band’s launch of a two night stand at Massey Hall on Tuesday night.
Vernon had just exchanged an electric guitar for an acoustic one (and would later play keyboards too) before beginning the first highlight of the night, Flume, which Peter Gabriel most recently covered.
The tall, lanky, and bearded singer-songwriter from Wisconsin definitely had a point given the enormous wall of sound generated by him and eight touring musicians.
Over the course of a dramatic, epic, and often improvisational 95 minute set, Vernon and company conjured up equal parts experimental folk, jazz, and orchestral-space rock and were aided by a trippy light show heavy on strobes courtesy of nine light stands behind the players.
There were two drummers, as many as four horn players (one of them was a multi-instrumentalist also on percussion), two violinists, who also played guitars, and Vernon himself creating a glorious cacophony of sound.
Even if it was the quietest song of the night, re: Stacks, from Bon Iver’s 2007 breakthough debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, that packed the biggest emotional punch.
It was the only tune performed solo by Vernon, whose voice alternated between a sweet falsetto and sexier lower register, and dedicated by him to “Kitty,” Canada’s own Kathleen Edwards, whose upcoming album, Voyageur, due Jan. 17, he has co-produced. The couple is also dating.
“It’s okay to dream,” said Vernon as he was leading up to the Edwards dedication before adding: “What a thing to say.”
Touring in support of their critically acclaimed 2011 self-titled second album, which just nabbed four Grammy nominations last week including in the top categories of best song and record for the single, Holocene (another of Tuesday’s highlights), and best new artist, Bon Iver arrived in town when public interest in them has probably never been bigger.
They played at Sound Academy back in August when only the hipsters were the wiser and no one knew the band name Bon Iver was derived from the French phrase bon hiver meaning “good winter.”
But the latest mainstream exposure didn’t make Vernon any less humble about his surroundings.
“Whoa,” he said on Tuesday night. “Did you guys know this is Massey Hall?”
Later, as the show wound down he added: “We’re very humbled to be here.”
Other highlights included Blood Bank, Calgary, Beth/Rest, and the set ending Skinny Love, which featured Vernon seated and surrounded by six musicians on vocals, hand claps and footstomps while the two drummers bashed away.
It all perfectly culminated with the powerful encore duo of For Emma and The Wolves (Act I and II), the latter which saw Vernon encouraging the audience to sing the words, “What might have been lost,” in what ultimately amounted to a group hug between the performer and the crowd.
For once, believe the hype.