Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and The Walkmen at Comerica Theatre, 9-15-11 (With Video)

Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and The Walkmen Comerica Theatre Thursday, September 15, 2011 It feels like I've been discussing the term "indie" with a lot of people lately. Last week's Foster the People show spurred a lot of the conversation, which basically boils down to this: the term is bankrupt. It's a normal thing. Once upon a time "grunge," "alternative," and "hip-hop" meant very specific things, but now?

I joked that last night's show by Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and The Walkmen was like the "Superbowl" of indie shows here on the blog, and I stand by it. (With one extra team? I hadn't really thought it through.)

If you define "indie" as "independent," then last night's show was certainly indie. The three bands represent three of the biggest indie labels going, Secretly Canadian, Sub Pop, and Fat Possum. But if you define it as that "other" thing, that vague, hazy definition in which St. Vincent is the same thing as Foster the People or Washed Out, well, it was indie that way, too.

The bands don't do the same thing. The Walkmen (last night's "early bird special," they joked) play folky rock 'n' roll, owing a lot to early Sun Records platters, electric Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen. Fleet Foxes come from another school, recalling British folk rock, The Band, and the harmony-centric sounds of CSNY. Bon Iver? That's all over the place, with songwriter Justin Vernon borrowing elements of Bruce Hornsby and Phil Collins-style soft-rock, the intimacy of Nick Drake, and the production scale of his buddy Kanye West.

The three aren't the same thing, but they were three bands all the same people wanted to see. The show was special, a real event, and felt like a unique snapshot of music in 2011.

"Slayer is closing the show," joked Fleet Foxes drummer J. Tillman. It was funny, but it felt even funnier. It was that kind of night.

The Walkmen had the unfortunate luck of having to open the gig. But someone has to go first, and the band didn't let the sounds of people shuffling to their seats stop them from working hard.

Singer Hamilton Leithauser strapped on an acoustic guitar or a Telecaster for a few numbers, like excellent "Hey Porter" shuffling "Blue as Your Blood," but the band sounded the best when he just sang, looking strident in his three-piece suit while drummer Matt Berrick (tonight could have worked as a "Here's how you play drums" seminar) tore through a series of rolls and crashes.

I wasn't familiar with the band's last song, "The Singer, Not the Song" (didn't sound like a Stones cover, either), but it was a shining moment. It managed to get the concertgoers milling about to snap to attention.

Riding the light rail home, I heard a dozen people talk about how bummed they were they missed The Walkmen -- the band started promptly at 7 p.m. I felt bad, and didn't want to rub it in their faces exactly how bummed they should be.

Sometimes you worry about bands being able to make the transition from mid-sized halls to large ones like Comerica, but in the case of Fleet Foxes, it's an unfounded fear. The band has never sounded small; hearing the group perform songs from its two albums, it becomes clear that the band's expansive, giant sound is made for rooms like this.

Standing in front of a projection screen of beautiful visuals courtesy of singer Robin Pecknold's brother Sean (think Fantastic Planet meets Sagan's Cosmos meets The Electric Company) the band sounded massive. Pecknold's voice was full and commanding -- he's emerged as so confident an artist since playing Modified years ago. The band's trademark harmonies were on full display, but the thundering drums and subtle touches like flute, mandolin, and violin were equally inspiring.

The band wasn't afraid to rock out, like on the break of "Mykonos." The band's brand of folk has delicate moments, like the sprightly dance at the beginning of "Helplessness Blues," but the sound always erupts into swelling crescendos.

My personal favorite moment was the extended free jazz jam in "The Argument," where skronking saxophone courtesy of Morgan Henderson created an beautifully uncomfortable tension that broke into the sublime sounds of "Grown Ocean." (The band performed a slight Coltrane-like interlude, too. I wonder if album three will find them embracing jazz full on?)

I felt bad for fans of Bon Iver who expected to see the stripped down, cabin-dwelling version of Justin Vernon. That guy is dead.

In his place is a superstar Vernon, a guy who's time on stage with Kanye has taught him a thing or two about going big. All of the lights flashed, and his band, a sprawling nine-piece outfit with horns, violins, two drums, a bevy of keyboards and more didn't just replicate the AOR and electronic textures of the band's self-titled record, they expanded them.

This was my first time seeing the band, and judging from various late-night show performances, I had my doubts that Vernon's voice would hold up. It did. Not only did his deep baritone work in "Minnesota, WI," but his falsetto was remarkably strong on songs like "Creature Fear."

Bon Iver is often thought as just Vernon, but last night's performance proved that Vernon himself doesn't think like that. The band rocked versions of "Blood Bank" (and the recorded version of that song felt like a "bigger" Bon Iver sound when it came out) and "Beth/Rest," the most divisive song on the new album.

"I can't tell if he's trying to be funny," a friend of mine said about the song's earnest '80s drums and keyboard tones. I don't give a shit if he is or isn't. The song works, a gloriously overblown bit of pop the suggests Vernon has spent some time learning the right lessons to learn from a guy like Phil Collins.

"I don't know what tonight is like for non-musicians," Vernon said, of sharing the stage with Fleet Foxes and The Walkmen. "But for me, it's like fucking birthday cake, all over my face."

The band closed with "Skinny Love," the soul ballad that earned Vernon his first hearts. They promised they weren't going to do that "walk off the stage bullshit," and ended set with thundering drums and stomps.

As Bob Seger's "Against the Wind" took over the speakers, the crowd got up and started to shuffle out. Our "indie Superbowl" was over. I don't think I'll be alone in listening to instant replays of the bands all day.


Walkmen (incomplete)

On the Water Blue As Your Blood All Hands on the Clock Woe Is Me It's Not the Singer, It's the Song

Fleet Foxes:

The Plains/Bitter Dancer Mykonos Battery Kinzie Sim Sala Bim Your Protector White Winter Hymnal The Shrine/The Argument Grown Ocean Blue Ridge Mountains Helplessness Blues

Bon Iver:

Perth Minnesota, WI Halocene Creature Fear Hinnom, TX Wash. Blood Bank Flume Calgary Beth/Rest The Wolves Skinny Love

Critic's Notebook

Last Night: Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and The Walkmen at Comerica Theatre

The Crowd: I debated all night if hipster yuppies should be called yippies or yupsters, and I think I'm going with the latter. So they were there, as were a smattering of NPR listening older folk, and generally everyone you see around town at indie shows.

Overheard in the Crowd: "Hey, I have that shirt." Yeah, man, no duh. Random Notebook Dump: Dude -- you can't sing those harmonies. Directed at the guy behind me, who was really into it, and singing along to Fleet Foxes trademark harmonies. Or trying to.

By the way: I don't care if you sit at a concert. I don't care if you stand up. But seriously, to anyone who spent any time criticizing anyone for doing one or the other, just shut up. You are at a concert. Relax. Enjoy. Calm down.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.