Sparse and heartbreaking lo-fi folk may be what first landed Justin Vernon's Bon Iver project on the world's biggest stages, but his sold-out show May 24 at the Schnitz demonstrated that his restless appetite for experimentation is what's really keeping him at the top.
Armed with a brass quintet, a sax player, a pair of drummers and a mountain of gear so elaborate and high tech it would make Trent Reznor dizzy, Vernon gave dazzling life to a collection of songs that drew heavily from 22, A Million, his 2016 record that's full of glitches, Auto-Tuning and cut-and-paste assembly.
On "715-Creeks," Vernon displayed chops powerful enough to cut through the layers of wobbling vocal embellishments. Even with a pile of somewhat cheesy effects, his proficiency at writing warm, simple and emotionally charged ballads holds up no matter what labyrinth of sound he runs them through.
Those expecting a set leaning on Vernon's softer tendencies may have been disappointed. Tracks from early in his career like "Perth" and a blistering rendition of "Blood Bank" ratcheted up the catharsis and amp feedback to levels no reasonable person ever would have expected from the Bon Iver of a decade ago.
But carefully defying expectations appears to be Vernon's current MO. Although closing the set with "Skinny Love" was an obvious nod to the many casual fans who found the tempest of lights and digital noodling perplexing at times, it's safe to say Vernon has reached the point in his career where he can do whatever he'd like, so long as it fills the bigger and bigger venues he's grown into.