There’s a tendency among Bon Iver fans to romanticize singer Justin Vernon as a man perpetually alone in the woods, singing his heartbreak in a mournful falsetto. And while there’s truth to the myth surrounding the band’s breakout disc, “For Emma, Forever Ago” — the cabin and the breakup were both real — Vernon was also dealing with some other things. The dissolution of his former band, for one. And a minor gambling problem and a liver infection, for others.
But as Bon Iver’s success has grown and relationships with artists like Kanye West have blossomed, Vernon has moved farther away from the folklore. Almost four years after self-releasing “For Emma,” he’s no longer the same sad sack.
Bon Iver returned in June with “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” an adventurous LP that bends folk and pop conventions without abandoning them. Vernon’s artistic scope has widened and so has his band — swelling to a nine-piece ensemble, full of multi-instrumentalists, horn players, two full drum sets, strings and more.
With less than 10 shows under their belts, Vernon brought the new, big band and the record’s fresh batch of songs to the first of two sold-out shows at the 9:30 Club on Monday night. Coming exactly three years to the day of Bon Iver’s last appearance in Washington, purists might have left with a tinge of disappointment. With 16 songs spread over 90 minutes, only four came from “For Emma.” Nine of the new disc’s 10 songs made the cut, as did two from the EP “Blood Bank.” A cover of Bjork’s “Who Is It?” rounded out the set.
But those willing to embraces Vernon’s indulgences got a real treat. The new band is a force to reckoned with — capable of soaring, heavy arrangements, like on an extended “Blood Bank” — but is also able to capture the subtleties of the more tender recordings. Vernon assembled the full band to do justice to the new songs, and cuts such as “Perth,” “Holocene” and “Calgary” were faithful to the studio sessions.
The night’s only misstep came during “Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s” divisive closer, “Beth/Rest.” A Bruce Hornsby- and Phil Collins-indebted homage to the Korg M1 synthesizer, “Beth/Rest” is a love-it-or-hate-it track. Live, the synths overpowered Vernon, washing out his vocal and losing momentum before regaining it for the song’s epic breakdown.
It was quite a contrast to the next song played, set-closer “Skinny Love.” Probably Bon Iver’s best-known song, the rest of the band gathered around Vernon in a semi-circle, signing, clapping and stomping along.
For all the sheer power and precision of the backing band, it was moments like “Skinny Love” and a gut-wrenching, sublime solo reading of “Re: Stacks” that stood out the most. With no one else on stage, Vernon poured his soul out, stretching his voice out with nothing to shield it but an electric guitar. Vernon may have moved on from the cabin in the woods, but in that moment, it felt like he never left.
» 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; with the Rosebuds; Aug. 2, 7 p.m., sold out; 202-265-0930, 930.com. (U St.-Cardozo)
Photo by Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post
Aug. 1, 2011
“Who Is It” (Bjork cover)
“The Wolves (Act I and II)”