BY LINDSEY HOLDER
Think Bon Iver is too mellow and folksy to rock? Well, they're not. At the Mesa Arts Center last night, they transformed their normally minimalist folk rock into a booming, volcanic eruption of a show that hypnotized the audience from the opening strum to the final trailing vocals.
Bon Iver--aka Justin Vernon--is Pitchfork's darling, despite having only one full-length album, one EP, and two songs on this year's Dark Was the Night compilation to his often mispronounced name (say it like "bon eev-air"). While his studio tracks are full of longing, haunting falsetto and acoustic guitar, he changed the dynamic of the live show by adding not one but two drummers (there was even a third band member pounding an additional floor tom during "Skinny Love").
The way the crowd responded to him and his music so enthusiastically, you'd swear he was an industry veteran with more than a meager 16 original songs at his disposal. Since he layers his own voice on his album, For Emma, Forever Ago, he relied on his band and audience participation to help fill in the sound on songs like "The Wolves," where a giddy audience echoed the line, "what might have been lost," while the band built to a climax of drums, electric guitar, and a room full of screaming fans.
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If the audience had expected Bon Iver to stick to the albums' mellow roots, they were seriously mistaken. During "Blood Bank," a normally sweet and quiet (though driving) love song, the quickened tempo, coupled with the electric guitar and additional percussion came together to sound like, well, a rock song. The show did have its slow moments, however, including Vernon, alone on stage but for a spotlight, microphone, and guitar, singing "Re: Stacks," a song that Vernon said was about when you "understand you're in a tough place but believe it's not going to last forever," sounding simultaneously mournful and hopeful, somehow avoiding the awful feel of a cheesy coffeehouse folk singer. Most of the songs ebbed and flowed between calmness and chaos, crisp vocals juxtaposed with reverb, with eruptions of bass drums and cymbals.
Most Bon Iver fans know that he recorded For Emma... in a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin after the breakup of his former band. Many of those same fans don't know that the members of his old band formed Megafaun, who opened for Bon Iver last night. During the encore, all things appeared to have come full circle, ending the night with Megafaun joining Bon Iver on stage and singing a Loudon Wainright cover, and (again with the audience's backup vocals) an unplugged, bluegrassy, brotherly love-y song called "Worried Mind," found on Megafaun's album, Gather, Form & Fly.
Vernon was affable throughout the show, thanking the audience again and again in his quiet, modest, Midwestern way, pausing to joke about the songs his band didn't yet know and singing songs about cold weather while the temperature is still so hot outside. But it is this modesty that helps him appear nothing less than completely sincere, which is perhaps why he is lauded by critics and genuinely adored by fans, as he was last night.