Review: Bon Iver mesmerizes the State Theatre
Ending a tour must be a wonderful thing.
You've been on the road for weeks. Your laundry smells like halibut. You've missed god knows how many new episodes of Cold Case. When you play the last show of a tour and can finally head home, you must be ecstatic.
That ecstasy manifested itself during Bon Iver's sold-out concert Wednesday at the State Theatre in St. Pete. It was the band's final date on a U.S. trek with Elvis Perkins in Dearland -- the bands head to Bonnaroo this weekend, then Bon Iver* has some time off before playing some more festivals and European dates later this summer -- and they were clearly in a good mood.
Bon Iver headman Justin Vernon joked with the crowd. The two bands joined each other onstage for massive musical play-alongs involving horns, clarinets and multiple drum kits. The crowd was enraptured.
Which was weird, considering I half expected this concert to be a downer.
I've been listening to Bon Iver's debut album For Emma, Forever Ago more or less nonstop for the past week and a half, and I absolutely adore it. Its warmth and stark simplicity remind me of the Red House Painters, a band I loved dearly in college, as well as artists like Iron and Wine and even a little Badly Drawn Boy.
For Emma, Forever Ago was the result of a breakup between Vernon and (A) a previous band and (B) a girl named Emma, breakups that were apparently so traumatizing that Vernon felt he had no choice but to move into the wilderness of Wisconsin and write and record an entire, beautiful, mostly acoustic, falsetto-fied folk album about them, all by himself.
It is also -- to borrow a line from High Fidelity -- Sad Bastard Music. I love Sad Bastard Music. I expected a very serious Vernon to play very serious acoustic indie folk songs, and the audience to stare in rapture as their hearts shattered to bits.
But that's not what happened. Not at all.
The setting for the show was the State Theatre, which is having an absolute dandy of a week, with concerts by Animal Collective, the New York Dolls, Bon Iver and mewithoutYou, all on consecutive nights. The State has been booking killer shows in recent months, even though it's kind of -- and I say this with all due respect -- characterless.
Maybe "characterless" is too strong a word. Let's just say the State is a little ... plain. Aside from the nice marquee and facade, and the five bars inside, there's not a "hook" at the State like there is at other venues. There doesn't seem to be a single characteristic that really grabs you as a patron. It's not ornate, ostentatious or dramatic. It's high-ceilinged, with big black curtains lining the walls and two monolithic speaker towers on each side of the stage. It's efficient, utilitarian, 100 percent about the music. And maybe that's why it continues to book so many amazing shows. It is a venue, there are performers, there are fans, and that's really all anyone needs to know.
But anyway: Back to Bon Iver.
You could sense something fun was cooking during the middle of Elvis Perkins in Dearland's set. The folk band -- I'd compare 'em to Calexico and Clem Snide -- started slow but picked up steam throughout their set, thanks to a couple of gospel-tinged hoedowns and energetic percussion by drummer Nick Kinsey.
Late in the set, Justin Vernon -- who wore an Elvis Perkins in Dearland T-shirt all night -- appeared just offstage, almost dancing to the music. Then he picked up a guitar and strummed along on Shampoo. Then all of Bon Iver came out and joined singer-guitarist Elvis Perkins** and company on an ecstatic, rollicking Dylanesque breakdown. Look, see? There's Vernon on the right.
Then came Bon Iver. And while Justin Vernon's For Emma, Forever Ago may be Sad Bastard Music, the live version of Bon Iver is a plugged-in wonder, and certainly not just a one-man band.
Guitarist Mike Noyce, bassist Matthew McCaughan and drummer Sean Carey were tasked with translating Vernon's solo, heavily layered tracks into a live setting -- no small assignment. But they proved to be a splendid supporting cast, so much so that Vernon (who did not stand front and center) more than yielded the spotlight to them on occasion. Carey and Noyce even took over lead vocals on a couple of songs.
In person, Bon Iver can be as mesmerizingly intimate as on For Emma, Forever Ago -- when Vernon played a solo, acoustic Re: Stacks, the crowd was so quiet you could hear the beeps of digital cameras trying to focus, of plastic cups skittering on the floor.
But when the band plugged in, they actually kind of rocked. Wolves started quietly but crescendoed to a cacophonous audience singalong. The shimmering Babys, from the band's Blood Bank EP, was grandiose and drop-dead gorgeous. And the rueful ballad Skinny Love, probably the band's best-known song, drew applause as soon as Vernon played the opening chords on a rusty-sounding steel guitar. When the rest of the band joined in on percussion, everyone in the crowd sang with Vernon.
And then, for the last two songs of the set, out came Elvis Perkins in Dearland, wandering around with their trombone, trumpet, sax, kazoo and clarinets during a moody Yo La Tengo cover***. They stuck around to play on the song For Emma, which ended with a glorious celebration of friendship, relief, hugs, love and happiness between both bands.
Bon Iver did come back out for an encore. "We're sort of in the neck of Tampa, Florida," Vernon said as the band huddled together and played a nearly unplugged cover of the Jayhawks' Tampa to Tulsa -- a song about a band on tour. Noyce sang lead; he and Vernon played the guitar. Carey and McCaughan harmonized. It was a spine-tingling performance.
After that, and one more song (Creature Fear), Vernon took several bows, and that was it. Bon Iver's tour was complete. You can imagine how good it felt for both them and Elvis Perkins in Dearland to be on their way home.
Actually, you dont have to imagine it. You can see the joy on their faces.
Next up in The 50-50 Club: Homemade Music Conference, June 13, Ybor City ... venues and artists TBD.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*
* Pronounced "Boney Vair"
** The son of Anthony Perkins, a.k.a. Psycho's Norman Bates.
*** I didn't catch the name of the Yo La Tengo cover -- do any of you know it?