Bon Iver stops in at Freeborn Hall

Grammy Award-winning Bon Iver played for a sold-out crowd at Freeborn Hall on the University of California, Davis campus on Tuesday night.

Throughout the night it became clear that this group is one to be seen live. Creator and lead vocalist Justin Vernon led the group in a full night of indie folk rock enchantment – much to the satisfaction of the eclectic crowd gathered at Freeborn Hall.

The evening’s opening band was All Tiny Creatures. The four-member band from Madison, Wisc. started out a little slow but managed to get the crowd going by the end of their set. They had CDs and merchandise for sale, and played songs from one album in particular which was said to include the voice of their friend Justin Vernon, another Wisconsin native.

All Tiny Creatures maximized the lighting capabilities of Freeborn Hall, even going so far as turning down all the lights for the more intense rhythmic moments.

Throughout the night the sound and light booth in the center of the hall looked something like a Bon Iver brotherhood. Plaid button-down shirts? Check. Brown, slightly tousled, wavy hair? Check. Everyone from Wisconsin? Check.

After a half hour set change Bon Iver took the stage and went right to work playing “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI.” Both songs are from their 2011 Grammy-winning album, “Bon Iver.”

While Vernon’s mind-boggling falsetto was most often in command, their songs were packed full of instrumental features, excellent French horn, trombone and trumpet solos among them. 

The stage dressings added to the group’s indie mystique. The ragged hangings looked like the sails and rigging of a ship, fully weathered from their many voyages. Lights, color and animation were projected upon them, the strobe sometimes timed with the sound of the drums. Dark purple and fuchsia lighting dominated the start of the show. On stage the group members were set amongst dozens of bizarre emerald green beacons.

The audience’s enthusiasm grew steadily throughout the show. The beautiful trombone solo that signaled the start of “Creature Fear” was yet another highlight.

Vernon was on and off the piano throughout the night, producing a line of melody at times, otherwise creating a metronomic baseline with just a simple set of chords.

Between each song they faded out into chaos, fluttering into some kind of scat nouveau with flits of color and movement alongside on the mast above. This continued until you realized that it was not, after all, chaos, but an organized chaos that would lead into the opening lines of their next song. It was truly delightful and ensured that there was never a dull (or silent) moment.

Halfway through the show the lighting seemed to brighten and the audience was able to get a better look at the many talented musicians onstage. Stage left stood some sort of a magic man who forever had in his hand a trombone, a tambourine, a drumstick or a mallet of some kind.

Throughout the show Vernon didn’t say much but what he did say, they liked. 

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver at Freeborn Hall Tuesday night

“College.”

Vernon spoke solemnly at one point, explaining how this was a time in your life when you should feel empowered. It’s a time when you’re both the smartest and the dumbest you’ll ever be.

Late in the set Bon Iver and the audience, likewise, took a break for a few minutes of quietude with an almost painfully thoughtful melody. “Re: Stacks” is the final song on Bon Iver’s debut album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” which Vernon released in 2008.

The tranquility didn’t last long. “Skinny Love” soon got the whole chorus singing. The look on drummer Matt McCaughan’s face as he took the song home was yet another winning moment of the night.

Just when you thought you’d seen about all they had, the magic man, whose name I came to find was Reggie Pace, was back, banging two sticks together like he meant it.

Pace, along with horn player, C.J. Camerieri, played an impressive role in the evening’s spirited performance. Mike Noyce, Rob Moose, Michael Lewis, Colin Stetson and Sean Carey rounded out the night’s artists.

Suddenly it was all purple and fuchsia again. Such music. There’s no doubt this group deserved this year’s Grammy Award for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album.

The show finished with a tremendous three-song encore complete with audience participation and a great trumpet feature.

Bon Iver continues on to play at Coachella again this weekend. For more information on their plans and whereabouts, visit their complex and multi-layered website. Take it slow; on a website with that much going on, it obviously takes time for things to get going – as it does for anything worthwhile.

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