Saturday night marked the final concert of the season on the Edgefield lawn, but a couple stray late-September raindrops couldn't, uh, dampen the waaay sold-out crowd there to see Bon Iver. And it may not have been the Bon Iver that people were expecting: This was Super-Sized, Post-Kanye, Arena-Ready Bon Iver, a nine-member-strong ensemble armed with saxes and extra guitars and ample percussion and lots of vocals in order to flawlessly capture the ambitious tracks from the second Bon Iver record (which I have decided is actually called Bon Iver, Bon Iver). The mammoth group also beefed up tunes from Bon Iver's first, stark, acoustic record For Emma, Forever Ago, with mostly tasteful and successful results.
Despite the size of his current group, Justin Vernon's aching falsetto was front and center for the entire evening. After a stunning opening of "Perth/Minnesota, WI" and "Calgary," the group moved capably through almost the entire new record, with older songs like "Flume" and an uptempo, heavier version of "Blood Bank" (which may be the best song in the Bon Iver catalog) interspersed for good measure. There was also a slow-dancing, martial cover of Dylan's "With God on Our Side," which Vernon could have easily turned into a proselytizing screed, but instead he drew back and let the song's circular, hymnlike melody carry the performance.
There was also a powerful version of the song that Portland may or may not claim rights to ("Holocene") and a lighter-flicking rendition of "Beth/Rest," the controversial closing number from Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Actually, that soft-rock monster might have been the weakest part of the set, as its power is chiefly reliant on studio slickery. Coming after Vernon's work on the Gayngs record, "Beth/Rest" makes perfect sense to me, but I could sense some of the crowd really doesn't like that song, and its gargantuan scope felt thumpish and sluggish in the live setting.
And if there was a complaint to be made, it's that the intimacy of previous Bon Iver performances was gone. Everyone talks about the remarkable Holocene show in March of 2008 (yes, it was remarkable) but Bon Iver's set at Sasquatch in 2009 was not only a much better show than the Holocene one, but one of the best sets I've ever seen by any band, period. At that point, the group was still a relatively scaled-down quartet, but fully in charge of a range of dynamics that not only silenced the rambunctious festival crowd but brought them to soaring, roaring heights. There just isn't room for that kind of subtlety in this new, jumbo Bon Iver, and while both the high-volume songs worked excellently and the quieter songs were given successful translations, it felt slightly less personal, less magical.
But that's an unavoidable price to pay when a band becomes as successful as Bon Iver, and it's super annoying and tedious to complain about the good old days, anyway. The very good news is that Bon Iver works marvelously in front a huge crowd, and Vernon—while far from flashy, and mostly letting the songs do all the talking—makes as solid and humble focal point as he always has. The acoustic guitars that littered For Emma weren't anywhere to be found (he did sport his resonator guitar for "Skinny Love" and did a solo version of "Re: Stacks" on an electric) but despite the bigger, bolder sound, not for an instant does Bon Iver 2.0 sound inauthentic.