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With Wisconsin witchcraft, Bon Iver keeps Austin from a lonely dark

Eric Webb
Austin 360

We’re still catching up on magical nights, I think. A couple years into A Really Bad Time, some folks got used to quiet and mundane times, and even when live music came back, it’s been tempered with thoughts of, “Is this really OK to do? Do I even like people anymore?” 

So, let’s go to a moment when Bon Iver played “715 - CR∑∑KS” on April 1 at Waterloo Park’s Moody Amphitheater. It’s a song about a creek, played in a park that’s on a creek. Don’t tell me God isn’t an excellent set-dresser. 

Bon Iver leader Justin Vernon sang: “Honey, understand that I have been left here in the reeds/ And all I'm trying to do is get my feet out from the crease.” 

His voice warbled and whined through a vocoder effect, one of many times. Kinda nice, the blend of natural and futuristic things, sitting in a green space that’s been transformed into a state-of-the-art venue. 

Vernon’s voice burst out in waves over the amphitheater’s audience: “And I see you/ Turn around, you're my A-Team.” This had been a chatty new-Austin crowd, but in that moment, everything was silent. There was no other sound to pierce Vernon’s echo. 

There’s the spell taking hold.

Bon Iver played the first of two nights at Waterloo Park's Moody Amphitheater of April 1.

Bon Iver opened up a two-night stand at Waterloo Park on Friday, stops on a highly anticipated tour rich with material from 2019 album “i,i.” The booking gods favored Vernon in the end, because this was a perfect spring night in Austin, a little warm and a little breezy. People were ready to listen to an old friend and his Wisconsin-cabin tunes, and they were game to take in Vernon’s current penchant for gorgeous fax machine music. The cocktails cost $20, the Capitol stared down like a judgy ghost, and the energy was right. 

Understanding a Bon Iver show requires updating your files a bit if you’re hung up on strummy campfire standards like “Skinny Love.” The content of the songs is still raw emotion through and throughout, and the vocals are still more like audible feelings than discernibly articulated words. On the albums “22 A Million” and “i,i,” Vernon has made himself a cyborg. His heart beats strong and the horns blare proud, just amid computerized effects and industrial sound experiments. 

From 2018:And in that Austin moment, I swear Bon Iver was infinite

Vernon and his bandmates isolated themselves inside neon hourglasses onstage Friday. He stood just off-center, guitars changing out here and there while he kept his headphones on and orchestrated the experience. “If forgiveness is a chore/ What you waiting for?” he sang on “iMi” as lights bloomed to blinding size, guitars and drums raged into crescendo, and fog spilled.

The production design responded well to the vibes all night. On “Blood Bank,” the band was drenched in a red glow while two thunderous drum kits got people on their feet in what passes for a danceable moment at a Bon Iver show. Kinda felt like another night of Waterloo Park's Creek Show

For a couple of hours, Vernon’s falsetto filled the atmosphere, with few stops. “I know it's lonely in the dark,” he sang on the gorgeous “Faith,” spouting words that folks needed. “Please don’t live in fear,” he urged on “PDLIF.” Digital and organic sounds bubbled together on “666 ʇ” with its anthemic cries of “I learned about it.” 

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver plays on April 1 at Moody Amphitheater in Waterloo Park.

That interplay between man and machine dominated the evening, but toward the end, Bon Iver shaved off some bleeps and some bloops. The snow-capped-mountain-as-a-song “Holocene," from the band’s 2011 self-titled album, soared into your body with boundless melancholy. “And at once I knew, I was not magnificent,” Vernon and the band sang in harmony, and the audience joined, making it 5,000-part harmony. 

“Perth,” another track from the self-titled album, warmed the fans with those hazy days-were-better memories wrapped in bendy guitars straight out of a Midwest emo banger. As far as throwbacks, no “For Emma” or “Re: Stacks.” Sorry pals. 

“It’s weird to play your own songs for people,” an audibly grateful Vernon said at the end of the set. He had not offered many words in the way of banter Friday. But you do gather that the man chooses his words carefully. 

“We believe in this one” and what it’s trying to say, he said before playing set-closer “RABi.” More than many Bon Iver songs, its lyrics are symbols and snatches of poetry rather than explicit messages to the listener. But what is life, if not picking out little tastes of meaning when we’re fed something big and confusing? 

Here’s the one I’ll take away: “Some life feels good now, don't it?” 

Bon Iver plays a second night at Waterloo Park's Moody Amphitheater on April 2.

Bon Iver released the album "i,i" in 2019 and is now touring behind the songs.

Bon Iver set list

"iMi" 

"We"  

"666 ʇ"

"715 - CR∑∑KS"

"Heavenly Father" 

"Marion"

"Faith"

"PDLIF"

"U (Man Like)"

"Blood Bank"

"Beach Baby"

"____45_____"

"33 'GOD'" 

"Jelmore"

"Blindsided"

"10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄"

"8 (circle)"

"Holocene"

"Naeem"

"Perth"

"RABi"