Rare is the artist who can perform in an arena filled to the brim with more than 2,000 people and still create an atmosphere of intimacy with his audience.
However, this was exactly the atmosphere created at the Bon Iver show at the Straz Center in Tampa on Thursday, June 7. In spite of a full house and impressive stage decorations, Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon might as well have been playing in an obscure coffee house or even someones living room.
Vernons star has been steadily on the rise for the past three years. He collaborated with rap superstar Kanye West on Wests 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, won two 2012 Grammy Awards and was spoofed on Saturday Night Live, in a skit where Vernon joins a cadre of SNL actors playing celebrities to congratulate Jay-Z and Beyonce on the birth of their daughter.
Thursdays performance showed no sign of all this fame.
Vernon is the epitome of understatement. He has the appearance of a guitar-playing lumberjack fresh from the wilds of Wisconsin, where he still resides. For a musician as talented as Vernon, there exists no trace of ego or pretension, and thats part of what makes his performance so refreshing to experience.
Vernon began his hour and a half set with a sun-kissed rendition of Perth, a selection from his self-titled 2011 album.
Accompanied by an eight-piece band, the songs performed presented the audience with both the familiar and the unfamiliar. The familiarity was existent in Vernons unique vocals and expansive instrumentation, while the unfamiliar but nonetheless breathtaking changes came in the form of heavier percussion. This intensity was coupled with a blinding display of strobe lights flashing at exactly the right time in order coincide with the profound beat; the effect was blinding, disorienting and almost supernatural in its power.
In between songs, Vernon chatted amicably to his audience, as if he werent the star of the show but rather a friendly acquaintance who appreciated the company.
While all the songs Vernon performed were superb, there were several standouts. Creature Fear captivated with its sober beginning only to stun listeners with its final complexity a cacophony of wind-blown instrumentals that were both intriguing and delightfully confusing.
The Wolves Act I and II provided a creepy, haunting side to Vernons signature folksy songs, and what show would be complete without an audience sing-along? This time the chosen song was Skinny Love, with Vernon encouraging his audience to participate.
The highlight performance of the evening belongs to Holocene, which Vernon played delicately while the audience listened quietly in reverence. If a song could be described as metaphysical, then Holocene would own that philosophy.
As with all the songs Vernon performed, it became very clear that the questions were more important than the answers. And as a humble artist, Vernon permits his listeners to form those answers for themselves.