Review, Photos and Video: Bon Iver at the Santa Barbara Bowl

Apr 24th, 2012 in Music

Bon Iver brought their supremely musical magic to the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday.  What a long, strange trip it’s been for Justin Vernon and crew.  The last time we “saw” Bon Iver in Santa Barbara was in March 2008 from the sidewalk (sold out, failed) outside Muddy Waters with the fantastic Phosphorescent opening (keep your eyes and ears open at all times folks).  Even then, with their soulful songwriting and live delivery, you could tell Bon Iver would likely go big.  And now with its bigger sounding second album and its nine touring members, not only has the band gone big and swollen in number, they are also putting up big numbers across the musical spectrum (No. 1 ranked album of 2011 by many critics, No. 1 ranked concert of 2011, huge selling tour, Grammy Award, etc.). And they had absolutely no problem selling out the Santa Barbara Bowl.

On this foggy night, Bon Iver warmed the crowd with as powerful and moving a show as we have seen in quite some time.  Sure, Radiohead can’t be touched for sheer inventiveness and performance brilliance, but Bon Iver’s sound and Justin Vernon’s way with words captivate like few can.  And if you’re not careful during their shows, a particular line or two (with perfect accent from accompanying trombone, clarinet, sax or guitar) might resonate deep within.  You might even find yourself fighting (or not) off eye-secretions. The pin-drop crowd at the Bowl sat in reverential attention the entire main set until being involuntarily lifted up to their feet at set’s end to applaud and rave through the encore.

Following an enjoyable opening set by Bon Iver’s Wisconsin pals, All Tiny Creatures (with similar melodic resonances as Bon Iver, but leaning a little harder on their electronic influences and adding some dirge-jam elements), all nine Bon Iverians sauntered onto the stage, including Justin Vernon and regular Bon Iver members Sean Carey (he of the scarey-great 2010 solo album and new EP on violin, guitar, keys and drums), Mike Noyce (guitar) and Matt McCaughan (drums), with the addition of Rob Moose (violin and guitar), Mike Lewis (bass), and a horn section that included the Canadian horn colossus Colin Stetson (who has played with seemingly everyone including Tom Waits and Arcade Fire), Reginald Pace, and Carmine Camerieri. As the band wondered onto the stage we couldn’t help comparing the lighting to last week’s Radiohead show. While the stage lighting and sound were comparatively subdued for Bon Iver, it meshed perfectly with the band and their delivery. Their entrancing ensemble playing would ultimately carry the night.

Throughout their 90-minute set Bon Iver thoroughly enamored the Bowl crowd with songs from their entire discography, including newer material from last year’s bountiful Bon Iver” album, as well as favorites from 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago, all of which meshed well with the more obscure Beach Baby from the Blood Bank EP and a cover of Bjork’s Who Is It (see setlists at bottom).  The songs from For Emma have been enlarged and enhanced by the big band and new arrangements.  The sequencing and transitions between songs were perfect, with (thankfully) minimal stage banter. Vernon spoke best through the music while vacillating between electric (Thoreau can play, people!) and acoustic guitars, and keyboard/effects to great affect. But we were most surprised by the strength and versatility of Vernon’s falsetto vocals. At times he even invoked the ghost of Marvin Gaye. Yes, he’s that good live. In addition to Vernon, Colin Stetson nimbly strutted on bass, baritone, and alto sax, and even tossed in some clarinet for good measure. Sean Carey was MMVP (Most Musically Valuable Player), adding instrumental accents (his violin-see the penultimate photo below-and guitar playing were particularly adept) to go with stirring harmony vocals. The rest of the band filled in and enhanced sublimely (the dual-drumming, Mike Noyce’s guitar and sonorous harmonies, and Reginald Pace’s trombone segments and intricate percussionisms were especially appreciated). It all added up to estimable ensemble playing.

After settling in on stage, the band kicked into the memorable opening riff of Perth before moving into the TV-on-the-Radio-meets-banjo sounds of Minnesota, WI. Up next was one of the best songs written in this millennium, Holocene. We’d be lying if we told you it did not move. Contrary to the lyric, the band and song were truly magnificent.  After came the towering jangle of Towers followed by the obscure but heart-rending Beach Baby (with original pedal steel beautifully supplanted by dueling-violins).  Hinnom, Tx  was followed by the clock-tower tones of Wash.  The band then turned Creature Fear into the “rocking segment” of the evening (check the video below from 3:37 on and particularly at 5:57 when the light show kicked up).  The beloved Blood Bank followed, with Colin Stetson’s primal intro and Vernon’s soulfully sung words following.  Next up was re: Stacks and as with the others, the band held the crowd in its palm.  One of our and the crowd’s favorites, Flume, followed and flaunted its harmonious wares (the combo of horns and harmonies were heavenly).  What followed was easily the highlight of the evening:  Skinny Love.  Bon Iver long ago (well, four years ago anyway) built from this song foundation, and it is solid rock.  Just check out the first Skinny Love video below (thanks D!) at 2:20 when the world thankfully disappears (for a bit at least).  The band then closed out their main set with a Calgary-Lisbon,OH-Beth/Rest medley. Calgary was suitably cherished by the crowd, and the medley’s transitions were sagely subtle. We have our usual complaint about Beth/Rest: must we endure the vocoder, Justin? Less vocoder!! Despite Vernon’s deliberate affectations and voc(oder)ation, the song’s melodies and delivery eventually overcame the effects.

After a hectoring demand, the band came back out and surprisingly gave us Bjork’s (Paul Simon-ish) Who Is It (really, not Michicant or Wolves as indicated in your setlist below?), but then redeemed completely where it all began:  For Emma.  We don’t know you Emma (assuming you exist), but you have to be extremely proud to have set this musical juggernaut in play.  Like we said, not a dry eye in the joint. To repeat: they were magnificent.

Check out more photos below, followed by a setlist-sequential compendium of videos from the night.  We can’t wait for their return.

Perth and Minnesota, WI:



Beach Baby (and Hinnom, TX):


Creature Fear:

Blood Bank:

re: Stacks:


Skinny Love:
(By Dylan Lefort)

Calgary/Lisbon, OH/Beth/Rest:

Who Is It (Bjork cover):

For Emma:


1. Perth
2. Minnesota, WI
3. Holocene
4. Towers
5. Beach Baby
6. Hinnom, TX
7. Wash.
8. Creature Fear
9. Blood Bank
10. re: Stacks
11. Flume
12. Skinny Love
13. Calgary
14. Lisbon, OH
15. Beth/Rest

16. Who Is It (Bjork cover)
17. For Emma

All photos Lefort Famille

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