Nearly seven months later, Vernon was back in the District on Thursday to support that album with his most ambitious tour yet. Bon Iver is an arena rock act now, and Vernon has the songs and band to prove it.
In Washington, however, Vernon scaled down the show for the 6,000-capacity Anthem — one of the few venues on this tour that isn’t an arena. (The intimacy came with a tradeoff: The mirrored, moving arena light rig that was touted in a pre-tour mini-documentary was absent Thursday night.)
No matter — the two-hour set, the first of two sold-out shows at the Anthem, still had the arc and power of an arena show. Vernon and his five-piece band (including Jenn Wasner of the Baltimore duo Wye Oak) performed behind angular, cube-like structures that wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Daft Punk concert. His songs have gotten bigger, too: “Perth,” “Blood Bank” and “Naeem” all swelled to anthemic heights.
In many ways, “i,i” is the first Bon Iver album to build on all that came before it. In concert, paired with a handful of songs from past records, it was easy to draw parallels. The simple, almost tossed-off “Marion” recalled the guy-with-guitar confessionals of 2007’s “For Emma, Forever Ago.” “Faith” had the propulsive beat and big-tent sound of 2011’s “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” showstopper “Holocene.” “Jelmore” was angular and odd, like much of 2016’s “22, a Million.”
Vernon also had an arena-worthy surprise in store. After “(U) Man Like,” a gospel-influenced song from “i,i,” Vernon paused to tell a story.
“So that last song,” he said. “It’s really written not by us. The whole idea of the music was written by our friend and hero Bruce Hornsby. . . . When we tried to learn the song we couldn’t really play it how it was meant to be played. So we couldn’t really play it with him when he showed up here today.”
Hornsby, who had been watching from the side stage, walked out to a piano at center stage and played the riff he wrote. “See what I mean?” Vernon retorted. Hornsby then accompanied Vernon and Co. on a gorgeous reading of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” for which Hornsby played on the original recording.
Later, Vernon invited Hornsby back for “Salem,” which deviated from the recorded version as Hornsby led a short jam that found Vernon channeling Hornsby’s sometimes Grateful Dead bandmate Jerry Garcia’s unmistakable guitar tone. Here was Vernon, with all eyes on him, blissfully jamming with one of his heroes to a capacity crowd.
Nearly 13 years after Vernon escaped to a remote cabin in the woods and came out as Bon Iver, the singer-songwriter seems to have finally learned to embrace his place as one of indie rock’s biggest stars.