Bon Iver Live: Justin Vernon Comes A Long Way From His Cabin Days

08/04/2011 12:19 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2011

Justin Vernon isn't sad anymore, and he sure isn't alone. At a packed Tower Theater, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, the Wisconsin singer-songwriter, who performs under the name Bon Iver, reimagined his solitary odes to heartbreak as fully orchestrated pop anthems.

“I’ve never been to Upper Darby before,” Vernon said, wryly referencing the venue’s uncelebrated location, just steps from the edge of Philly. Judging from his career's relentless upward trajectory, he won’t be back anytime soon. There are bigger stages in town for musicians who have collaborated with Kanye West and contributed tracks to "Twilight" movies.

But before he can start booking arenas, Vernon needs to prove that Bon Iver’s meticulous mini-masterpieces can fill a big room. The current tour, which stops in New York next week before hitting the West Coast in September, features a nine-man lineup that would look right at home in a beer-league softball tournament. There were two full drum sets, a French horn, a trombone, a bass saxophone, and a bewildering array of guitars, keyboards, and samplers. Vernon himself variously played a gold Les Paul, a brown Gibson SG, a white Fender Telecaster, a sunburst Jaguar (or was it a Mustang?), and a compact electrified acoustic. There was no obvious use of Autotune, but he did find interesting ways to achieve his signature layered vocal effects, sometimes singing over loops of his own voice and other times delegating backing parts to members of his band.

Vernon has come a long way since 2007, when he spent three months alone in rural Wisconsin, writing and recording the anguished tracks that would end up on his critically acclaimed debut, For Emma, Forever Ago.

Many of those songs have been thoroughly revamped. "For Emma" had a loose, jaunty vibe that betrayed little trace of heartbreak, and even the wrenching "Skinny Love," which closed the evening, had been mostly drained of pathos, thanks to a sweetly goofy arrangement that called for the band to stomp their feet, clap their hands, and yell along to the lyrics about "the end of all your lines." Only Vernon's solo rendition of "Re: Stacks" remained faithful to the music's humble origins.

Clearly, Vernon has bigger things on his mind than hearkening back to those now-famous days in his snowbound cabin. The set list drew heavily from Bon Iver’s self-titled new release, which received an astonishing 9.5/10 from the taste makers at Pitchfork. These tracks were recorded over a longer period, with contributions from a small army of guest musicians, and represent an ambitious attempt to raise simplicity to the level of timeless perfection.

Some of the new songs felt slightly stiff, as if the band were trying too hard to match the album. But others caught fire in unexpected ways: "Wash.," little more than a mysterious interlude on the album, took shape as a soulful, sexy lover's come-on, and "Michicant" dissolved into a nerve-crunching noise interlude worthy of Sonic Youth, only to reassemble slowly out of chaos.

Bon Iver concerts generally peak with a singalong, and this show was no exception. Vernon has been inviting audiences to sing the chorus of "The Wolves (Act I and II)" for years, and what was once a semi-awkward experiment has evolved into a lusty call-and-response session, culminating in a mutually therapeutic round of primal screams over the band's imposing wall of sound.

Philadelphia loves an underdog, especially one who hasn't forgotten his roots -- Vernon's fairytale rise to fame, and frequent expressions of gratitude, clearly endeared him to this crowd. And that’s no accident.

After all, it’s going to take a lot of devoted fans to fill those arenas!

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