Sunday, December 17, 2017
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Bon Iver's Straz Center concert is equal parts hugs and haymakers

TAMPA — Bon Iver's much-anticipated gig at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts Thursday was all about enveloping you in a warm cocoon of folk-rock goodness — and then tying your cozy cocoon to a bottle rocket and launching it into a barroom brawl.

Whoa, what just happened? And can we do it all again?!

Trippy Wisconsin collective Bon Iver (all together now: BON-EE-VAIR!) is led by Justin Vernon, a lovable scruff who looks not unlike a rumpled grad student at some hippie-laden college of forestry. Vernon is a confounding rock star, an unassuming schlub who somehow shanghai'd this year's best new artist Grammy from wild-child rapper Nicki Minaj.

And yet, as the 31-year-old proved for 90 minutes in front of a near-capacity crowd of 2,236, there's true genius — or, for that matter, madness — in that confounding package. As it turns out, Vernon likes hugs and haymakers in equal measure, and he's not afraid to dole them out in the same Tilt-a-Whirl tune.

The difference between Bon Iver on its gauzy records and Bon Iver sprawled on a live stage comes down to drummers. Vernon tours with two tub-thumpers — not to mention blaring mariachi-sounding horns — and lest you think you'll be getting some shut-eye at a show, you best stay alert.

His canvas is a shifting, experimental one, an acoustic ballad one second, saxophone-screeched acid-jazz the next. You get the feeling his tours have all the durability of ice sculptures; what you see at the beginning will be different in the end.

Opening this gig with Perth, one of many geographically titled tunes on his self-titled 2011 album (also a Grammy winner), Vernon shifted between his strained falsetto and a growly midrange, often turning to his eight-piece band and challenging them to keep the intensity.

Amid a sea of puckishly programmed lanterns and shredded burlap curtains acting as unlikely video screens, Vernon & Co. aimed to keep the crowd engaged and off-balance (strobes! lightning!), and that goes for his demeanor, as well. His between-song banter was collegial and goofy, but once a song kicked in, he was often a twitchy, pained creator.

The night's musical highlight was a shape-shifting thing called Creature Fear, which started as a funereal dirge, Vernon's voice low and solemn. The song's finish, however, was a hair-blowing hurricane swirl, a near-metallic scrum that no doubt had fans and newbies wondering where in the heck they were.

By the way, I usually don't have the chance, or the room, to wax poetic about opening bands, but I MUST say something about the Staves, a British trio of whiskey-drinking lasses who merge modern lyricism with intricately laced vocal turns and gothic harmonies.

Each of their voices added a unique ribbon, and songs such as Mexico and In the Long Run were as captivating from a technical standpoint as they were emotionally moving.

Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

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