It’s likely that Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon felt more at home singing against the backdrop of the Wasatch Mountains on Tuesday night than he did winning Best New Artist at the Grammys earlier this year. The reclusive, no-frills indie rocker seemed pleasantly surprised when collecting the award, but out of place all the same.
By contrast, the Red Butte amphitheater, with its idyllic setting and decidedly dressed-down vibe, seems better suited to Bon Iver.
“This is special; this feels like a campfire,” Vernon said as he and a troupe of eight instrumentalists performed for a sold-out but relatively small gathering of hipsters.
Vernon sings in a haunting falsetto, walking a fine line between swell and strain. He’s a beautifully rich and textured bass who spends most of his time in the treble clef, warbling raw lyrics about love, pain, shattered faith and glimpses of hope.
The brass, percussion, strings and keyboard swirl alongside him with an impressionistic but pulsing sound. The overall effect feels more collaborative — Vernon is the ninth instrument working to create a kind of symphony that sometimes frustrates those desperate to follow his achingly honest lyrics.
Bon Iver treated fans to contemplative favorites like “Calgary” and “Holocene,” conjuring images of Vernon holed up in his Wisconsin cabin with nothing but volcano-deep thoughts to keep him company, as the story goes.
The crowd went wild for “Skinny Love,” certainly the most catchy (forgive me, indie purists) of Bon Iver’s set. Another favorite, “Stacks,” had audience members purring, drawing their loved ones closer and gazing at the sky as they took in the melancholy lullaby.
The temperature dropped before Vernon and his band stepped onto the stage, but like the group's name suggests ("bon iver" means “good winter” in French), a cool night prompts a search for warmth, and fans found it Tuesday night on the Red Butte stage as surely as if they’d stumbled onto a campfire.