Bon Iver’s performance at Virginia Credit Union Live at Richmond Raceway was spectacular - in more ways than one.
A seemingly infinite variety of effects created by the multi-part lighting rig, enhanced by billows of stage smoke, punched up the impact of leader Justin Vernon’s elliptical lyrics.
The singer’s five octave range was vocoded and digitally expanded into a soaring electronic chorus. The accomplished musicians in the band often doubled or tripled on instruments blended into a wash of moods, punctuated by sternum-vibrating bass. And shot through it all were words evoking pain, hope, heartbreak, faith or broken faith, or something.
Even with a lyric sheet, the meanings are more allusive than specific. It pays to know them in advance, like those in the crowd who recognized the beginning of every song, sometimes rising and swaying in place for a particular favorite.
The appeal is impressive for a band as uncompromising as Bon Iver, whose music has the experimental edge of late period Radiohead and whose songs often end in poetic irresolution. The staging is as creatively flamboyant as the lyrics are elusive. Multicolored, zigzagging LED dividers at once illuminated and divided the players, separated across the stage on split-level risers.
It is a long way from the stripped-down, written-in-an-isolated-cabin intimacy of Vernon’s career-making album, “For Emma, Forever Ago.” A couple of songs from that album, “Flume” and “Lump Sum” made the set list, as did “Holocene” from the band’s eponymous follow-up. But the bulk of the material was from the more recent, more electronic “22, A Million” and “I, I' (2019).
In an era when four of the five top touring groups are basically tribute bands for their earlier career, commitment to creative presentation of new material signifies artistic confidence. And the almost reverent crowd reaction to Bon Iver is evidence for continuing relevance.
At one point, Vernon invited onstage Josh Kaufman, guitarist for the charming opener Bonnie Light Horseman. Kaufman, without a riser to stand on, looked tiny in the middle of the stage platforms, and it seemed a bit difficult for the overhead spots to reach him. But his solo, given space to cut through the arrangement, was electrifyingly unpredictable. It was a splash of individualistic chaos in the polished, precisely timed artistry.
For someone who admires Bon Iver, but resists being swept up by (literally) brilliant production, it was the best part of the night.