Call it close encounters of the bearded kind, or call it a UFO touching down from Wisconsin. But whatever you call Bon Iver’s live show, call it beautiful.
OK, yes, going to see Justin Vernon at ACL Live on Saturday involved him singing the word “butterflies” in a soulful falsetto, followed immediately by crowd cheers at the sold-out first night of three Austin shows. The zeitgeist’s perception of the 2011 Grammy winner for Best New Artist — cozy cabin vibes and sensitive high pitches — still checks out. So, too, does Vernon’s penchant for big, Auto-Tuned emotions and Kanye-adjacent sonic shapeshifting. But with 2016’s “22, A Million,” Bon Iver hit warp drive on his sound, stuffing those campfire acoustics and digitally tinted vocals into a fax machine and sending them to a place gilded with noise and moonglow.
And so, Vernon and his band conjured the kind of evening that puts your whole body into play. (A couple plumes of pot smoke, clocked by the singer, accounted for the night’s olfactory appeals.) Surrounded by zig-zags of lightbulbs and streaks of spotlight, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ? ?” (sorry, casual readers, the song titles in this review are gonna be a whole thing) pulsed with jags of sound, their edges torn off in your ears. Your body was enveloped in bass, that familiar crossroad between cacophony and sensation. The apples of your cheek quivered and your ears tingled. Vernon sang “Love, don’t fight it,” and you thought that you were probably the love in question, because you wondered how you could possibly hope to resist.
Then “666 ?,” anthemic between a game-show-lightning-round beat and horns that filled your chest, thundered with cryptic confusion. Vernon’s falsetto is truly chilling in person, daring you to laugh about it, if you were the kind of person who would. The song “33 ‘GOD,'” my personal favorite “22, A Million” track, showed that the singer’s lower register was just as pleasing, though I would have been happier if he’d sang “Staying at the Ace Hotel” with the gusto I’ve grown accustomed to on the album.
That album plays with ideas of infinity and the divine, and Bon Iver’s show seemed recursive itself, with songs from all of the artist’s records bending into themselves. Thanks in no small part to liberal loop pedal, it should be mentioned. The unforgettable opening guitar on dreamlike “Perth” was stretched out long and made fluid. “Holocene,” its lyrics more intelligible than some tunes, stirred thoughts of your own magnificence, or lack thereof. “Minnesota, WI,” like so many other songs that night, skirted the edge of jam band territory. It percolated with bleeps and bloops that would make The Postal Service proud, and any time it seemed like it would end, you passed a musical marker you thought you’d passed ages ago. Time and space don’t exist in Bon Iver’s woods.
Austin, however, is bound by the laws of this reality. Vernon ended the night strong, tying the set up with a loop-happy “Woods” for both the “Blood Bank” and the Yeezy fans.”Aw, s***, there’s a lot of buttons up here,” he said after a false start. It was overwhelming, maybe even a little messy. But at that point, it was hard to tell what anything “should” sound like. An encore of “Skinny Love” was stripped down and singalong provoking. With “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” the point at which all the different shades of Bon Iver converged, the audience was left in rapturous applause. Vernon lingered on the stage, bowing in gratitude. He had just sang that “it might be over soon.” But really, performances like these echo on and on and on.