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Bon Iver At Barclay Center, Friday, October 11th, 2019, Reviewed

Sure, Justin Vernon and his band Bon Iver sold out Barclay Center, that’s not the question. The question is why does a sound that demands intimacy needs be performed in an indoor arena? The answer is it doesn’t and it shouldn’t. With the five piece band, and the greatest sound system known to man, a mind boggling bank of PCs handled by sound engineers,  they were there for the most detailed emergent of doctored instruments to fill Barclay Centers with minutia: interesting and unnecessary On Friday night the audience were quiet with spurts of energy and intensely attentive, and studied, but between an audience and an artist, it was still not right. The last two times I saw Bon Iver, they were at 3000 capacity venues: a sublime mix of the close and the far. The atmosphere was what one would have hoped for, particularly in the gorgeous Kings Theatre (here): close in proximity, yes, but close the  way the New York Philharmonic is close at Carnegie Hall. When Justin said “we’re up here playing our hearts out for you,” he was expressing something difficult to glom on to.

Here is another discussion: They pretty much sold it out. Their fans were quite satisfied -no one was going bonkers during The Kings Theatre show either (it was like they were at a cult meets religious rally). In the traditional sense of the definition of Stadiun act they don’t (can’t) cut it…BUT… Perhaps like all things BON IVER, they’re playing that game on their own terms as well…It was an EXTREMELY IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCE- even if we old curmudgeons can’t help but compare to the likes of The Jaggers, and Wests of the world. But that comparison isn’t fair, or even relevant. Besides, tickets were more than reasonable with the top venue cost at about $150.Not too pricey to see a bunch of “Stoned Hipsters” jam out, which they did to tremendous effect on the best moment of the entire evening, a grandstanding, Dead without the country, or Phish without the jazz guitar based rave,  from a glorious “Faith,” built flawlessly around the harmonies, to a better “Perth” jam sound. Certainly, those were the only times Justin was sexy. Then at the mid way point Justin performed a solo acoustic “re:stacks,” and so the best moments needed no FX to blow us away.

Vernon is one of a number of huge indie art bands, The National being the most obvious example, coming from the 00s to the 10s, from upper middle class backgrounds, emoting. He is the equivalent of the brothers Dessner, a deeply gifted musician performing in rarified air, who glommed onto the technology necessary to perform intricately arranged indie folk, perfect for his sweet, and soulful, depressive white boy soul. i,i isn’t the breakthrough 22, A Million was but it is a move forward from 22, A Million’s foundation, the band is the same, the production work impeccable, the songs weaker. Remaining with Bon Iver since 2007 are Sean Carey  (drums, keyboards, vocals) and Matthew McCaughan (drums, vocals), from back when they were a trio, and it is an attempt to be big and small at the same time, the vibe is similar but with shards of sound all the way through. On stage, the attempt was to do what they do in large place what they can do in smaller ones. It doesn’t work entirely, it works in a limited manner and not in a way necessary except as an experiment. In the video below, Iver claims “I don’t get as much from the roar of the crowd, on me”. If you don’t get that, if you don’t have the ego for arena rock, don’t play arenas. It is the wrong environment whatever the achievement as a huge and delving sound.

Perhaps the problem is best expressed through the band’s constant switching of song positions from show to show, there should be building blocks to catharsis, yet the internal tick tock of the song management is off, rather than a journey they were spinning in space. Justin is the definition of a confessional songwriter without being revealing. We learnt more about him in Kathleen Edwards “Sidecars” than we ever have in anything he, himself, has written. Marie Lynn (another rock nyc writer, here) was at Barclays, a huge Bon Iver  fan who, in the three years since they last played nyc,  has followed them to four other out of State shows, texted to call it a snooze with too much new stuff. Too much, indeed. 11 songs were off the 13 track i,i. Though there was much more of it, at Kings Theatre they performed 15 songs, at Barclays 21, there was also a lot more musicians on stage at Kings Theatre -more to look at than the admittedly beautiful diamond design Barclay staging.  A five person brass section, compared to only one person with four mics (better living by science, each mic sounded different and Justin appeared to be programming the sounds from his keyboards) for instance, they needed less to make more. Still, with only two screens on each side of the stage all we could do was watch from a distance, why didn’t they get huge screens and and put them everywhere, use the state of the art stage and switch it to showing the show: compared to what we see at a Bad Bunny or an Arcade Fire, we aren’t seeing what we deserve to: if you are that into presentation, in an immersive experiences do it. Go for it. It is difficult to connect from such a distance, and that’s a problem, and the length of the show (75 minutes at Kings, 105 minutes at Barclays) didn’t help.  But the bigness songwise had a downside, in 2016 you left begging for more, in 2019 it was done to a crisp.

The sound was astonishing, it had all the personal they wanted, and it wasn’t the sound but the physical performances that didn’t click. It is part and parcel of a band from a  place whose motto is “the badger state” and it isn’t sexy. They aren’t a sexy band, they don’t play groove, they are very similar to the depressive, Alaskan snow white good winter of their name: it is pasty faced, liberal, hibernated, linear, and multi dimensional. Good for sure, but it wasn’t great because with all the will in the world, it failed to do what it was meant to do. As a fan of ii, the expectation was that the Barclay Center would lose their shit over “Hey, Ma,” and “Faith,” to name but two.  Bon Iver weren’t aiming for that and they should have been. Communal moments are about release, not refraction. Neither a failure nor a success, Bon Iver were misguided.

Grade: B+

1 Comment

  1. Chuck vernon on October 13, 2019 at 4:59 pm

    You are the greats and best shows see on the 18 oct

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