The open-air Gallivan Center might seem like a difficult place to replicate the intimate and densely-layered vocals on Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. And it was.
The great thing about a free concert is that it’s free. The downside is that it’s free. Many of the thousands who descended on downtown Salt Lake were there for the party, scene points, and gratuitous PDA.
But Bon Iver crunches things up in concert. The result was a pretty good performance, even if it was a bit difficult to appreciate at times among the beer-swilling party set intent on using their Outdoor Voice.
Some backstory for anyone who hasn’t been on the internet for the last two years.
Justin Vernon was sad. He wintered in his dad’s cabin in Wisconsin in 2007 and wrote and recorded the larger part of Emma.
Upon concluding this frigid, self-imposed incarceration, For Emma, Forever Ago was released without a label that July.
The album was re-released early in February 2008 and became a critical darling. Bon Iver came out with the Blood Bank EP in January of this year with somewhat fuller, although not better, arrangements.
Thursday’s performance included most of For Emma plus Blood Bank. It doesn’t seem like Bon Iver has much else in the pipeline besides one new song that Vernon introduced, I believe, without title. The scrawled set list (below) appears to say “Bachett.”
It was helpful the band read the crowd of 4,000-5,000 people and realized a coffeehouse performance wasn’t in their best interest. So they turned it up to 11 on a couple of songs. The crescendo of “Creature Fear” included a raucous and deliberarly confused syncopation from drummer Matthew McCaughan.
And Vernon coached the audience to sing the refrain “What might have been lost” from “The Wolves (Act I and II)” in increasingly louder voice.
I’m not sure it served the song all that well, but I was impressed that he swelled over the crowd’s drunken caterwaul with a piercing falsetto that would have rivaled Robert Plant.
Encores included a cover of the Jayhawks’ “Tampa to Tulsa” and “Blood.” Bon Iver would be a great band to see in a tighter setting. I only caught a couple of glimpses of Vernon’s head and any other nuance of the band’s visual performance was lost.
Next week at Gallivan: The Black Keys and Human Highway.
Black Keys haven’t done much that works for me. Human Highway released the good not great 2008 album Moody Motorcycle largely in 3- and 4-part harmony. Singer Jim Guthrie is the grandson of Woody so you know what to expect. That said, “Get Lost” and “Ode to Abner” are both fine songs if HH has the same venue saavy as Mr. Vernon.