Leslie Feist took the stage at Red Rocks with nothing more than a guitar, but halfway through the Metals highlight “Comfort Me”, an 8-piece band came out to back her up, making good on the promise that she was “not going to mess around, just going to break your heart”. Along with a horn section (borrowed from Bon Iver) and backup singers (the girls from Mountain Man), the former Broken Social Scene diva could have been the headliner any other night.
Having never seen Feist, I will admit to being more than excited to catch her set. And a little more than annoyed with people who only knew her “one song from that iPod commercial”, but luckily a large majority of the crowd were very much into it. “How much are it are you feelin’…only 50%…are you feelin’ all of it?” The answer was a resounding YES! as the crowd took to their feet for “I Feel It All” from 2007’s The Reminder. Some of the slower songs would have benefited from a later set time, and her experimental, vocal-looping version of “The Limit to Your Love” was more mangled than inspired, but by the time the set finished up with “Sealion” and “The Bad In Each Other”, I had serious doubts as to Bon Iver’s ability to follow it. From behind the soundboard in Row 21, it was literally one of the best sounding sets I have ever heard. The people of Colorado were extremely lucky to be able to catch Feist on this tour last night, even if she didn’t do that iPod song, but as she was bidding the “best venue in America” goodbye with a warning, “your hearts will be in your hands by the end of the night”, I couldn’t help but wish she had longer than an hour to play…
…that is until Justin Vernon took the stage with his own 8-piece band and obliterated any expectations I had. As soon as the lights turn their attention from the crowd to the stage, it was obvious that Bon Iver had grown up since the last time I had seen them. “I’m tearing up, across your face” The show opened with “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI”, just as the new album does, but then went into “Towers”, holding “Holocene” for later in the night. The sound was impeccable on this cool, still night at the Rocks. Justin’s voice expanding on command to fill the space between the monoliths. Standing in the middle of the stage, flanked by two fully staffed drum kits, you couldn’t help but think this expanded line-up might be a big middle finger to those who call his music ‘boring’ or ‘sleepy’. I can guarantee any preconceived notions that Bon Iver only makes mellow music were blasted out of the amphitheatre with the noise circus that closed out “Creature Fear”, “Blood Bank” and “The Wolves (Act I and II)” — there were times when this band was almost unrecognizable, but in a good way.
Now, that’s not to say the heartbreakers promised by Feist were in short supply — “Flume”, “Wash.”, a solo version of “re: Stacks” — all showcased Justin’s ability to project his signature voice over miles and miles. “Holocene” and “Skinny Love” were, of course, crowd favorites, but I have to hand it to them for the epic rendition of “Beth/Rest”. This is a song that’s been highly criticized for being a bit trite, but instead of burying it somewhere in the middle, the band upped the ante by closing the main set with a version that sounded like Bruce Hornsby fronting a Phil Collin’s-era Genesis. It was as awesome as it was ballsy!
Earlier in the night the obligatory reference was made to the venue itself — “this is an unbelievable experience…it won’t ever be forgotten…Jesus…look at those rocks…not sure if you saw them on the way in…take a look on your way out…”. But it wasn’t until the encore that Justin enlisted a little help with trying to turn those rocks into “spaceships”. And while he might have failed at the transformation, he succeeded at getting 9,450 voices to sing “what might have been lost” as “The Wolves (Act I and II)” built into something as epic as its surroundings. And although we didn’t get spaceships, we did get a final song. It was “For Emma”, and it was magnificent.
Let me end this by saying I had seen Bon Iver three times before last night. One of those times was as an opening act for Phosphorescent with less than 100 people in attendance. For Emma, Forever Ago is literally one of my favorite albums of all time — acting as a constant soundtrack for one of the most important times in my life. I met my wife listening to For Emma. I met a couple of my best friends with For Emma. I went to sleep wasted and woke up hungover (too many times) with For Emma. That album, along with a few others (including Feist’s The Reminder, The National’s Alligator and Boxer, The Hold Steady’s Boys & Girls in America, Band of Horses’ Everything All the Time, Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary, Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm, and pretty much every Tom Waits recording), will always belong to a select group of people in San Francisco, California. Therefore, it was bittersweet to see the ‘man in the cabin’ get the recognition he deserves, as well as the ridicule he has been big enough to laugh off. SNL skits? Kanye collaborations? Grammys? Headlining Red Rocks? Not to sound like a snob, but theses milestones did take something away from my own relationship with his music. But everything about last night’s show proved to me that Justin Vernon has sacrificed nothing in his ridiculously steep climb up the charts. Bon Iver is the perfect example of how a band can take the advantages of fame and use them to grow into something even better than they were before. That is exactly why last night was one of the best shows I have seen in a very long time. It was the kind of show that can leave you high for days after. I am happy to say I am still riding that high…
How Come You Never Go There
The Circle Married The Line
My Moon My Man
I Feel It All
The Limit to Your Love
The Bad In Each Other
The Wolves (Act I and II)