In his short career Bon Iver's Justin Vernon has already starred in a number of impressive, unique roles. His iconic initial star turn was as sadsack with acoustic guitar in a desolate log cabin — the man who turned a broken heart into beautiful sorrow with debut album, "For Emma, Forever Ago." Then came the token indie diversion with Gayngs, where he played a soft-rock cheeseball as part of an ensemble cast. Next was his stunning supporting role as the unlikely, Auto-Tuned soul of Kanye West's instant-classic "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." With June's release of "Bon Iver" he has his awards-bait, a lush and wondrous album that will likely earn him fistfuls of year-end accolades.
And at a sold-out 9:30 Club on Monday night (there is a second sold-out show on Tuesday), Vernon comfortably stepped into the role he will likely hold for a while — blockbuster attraction. Backed by an eight-piece band, Vernon was equal parts frontman and conductor as the dreamy ruminations from "Bon Iver" became full-bodied colossuses without losing any of their intricate charms.
A pair of drummers in each back corner of the stage combined with Colin Stetson's booming bass saxophone to provide a rumbling, low-end foundation. Synthesizers, French horn, trumpet and an array of other instruments added those essential flourishes — sometimes rippling, often rousing. And front and center was Vernon, the unassuming, balding 30-year-old Wisconsinite with a singular falsetto, sharp enough to puncture an imposing wall of sound or magically float above it.
For all of the elaborate studio mastery involved with making "Bon Iver," the material is best in a live setting. On the album, songs such as "Perth" and "Holocene" don't make it past being beautiful. On Monday they were vast, with crescendos that shook the room — and would do the same in a much larger venue.
The 16-song, 90-minute set was expertly paced - like many of the evening's songs, there were seratonin rushes tempered with whispering interludes. The selections from "For Emma" were enjoyable but so quaint when placed next to the newer material. A solo version of "re: Stacks" was both a reminder that Vernon can craft a traditional tearjerker with the best of them and that he's evolved so quickly. "Michicant" followed and its gentle, orchestral waves provided the same emotional resonance even though Vernon's falsetto made the words largely indecipherable.
About the only misstep of the evening was "Beth/Rest," the closing track on "Bon Iver" that sounds like a lost 1985 collaboration
between Bruce Hornsby and Phil Collins. There were hints — heavy suggestions, even — of those artists throughout the evening,
but this song sounded like heavy-handed imitation. Cascading synthesizers, echoing drums and fussy horn solos created forced
catharsis. There was no need to delve into retro action movie montage sounds. Vernon and Bon Iver have easily earned their A-list spot.