Who is the best live artist in the world right now? Everyone probably has their own opinion — and heck, maybe I could even argue for Phoebe Bridgers, who I also saw in the last week — and it undoubtedly stems more from personal preference than data and reporting. From Springsteen’s marathons to Phish’s unpredictability to Taylor Swift’s stadium events, the applicants for the title are around every corner. But, let me present an unexpected choice: Bon Iver.
Since Justin Vernon spent some time in a cabin and made history, his ever-evolving band has made a point to deliver live performances unlike any other. From sunrise sets in a cemetery and contemporary dance collaborations to headlining major festivals and starting his own, Vernon takes his responsibility as a live performer with the same seriousness and respect for audience that he takes his music. It’s put on a pedestal and acknowledged as a place of magic. Several times during the performance as Los Angeles’ brand new YouTube Theater, he would speak to the audience vaguely about the pandemic and state of the world, eventually concluding that performing is his band’s best way of communicating their emotions. To experience the band is to experience Vernon’s mind, and bask in majesty of it all.
Beyond the endless pursuit to push boundaries, Bon Iver’s live supremacy can be traced to a few key elements: great sound, great visuals, and great songs. The first aspect was bolstered by L-Acoustics, the company responsible for the YouTube Theater’s state-of-the-art sound system, as well as the sound of Coachella, Lollapalooza, and countless tours. For this show, they added to the theater’s already impressive L-ISA Hyperreal Sound technology, adding to the permanently installed 2.1 stereo sound system to a 7.1 spatial system, with over 180 speakers total. It might have been the best-sounding live event I’ve ever heard, both pristine during the quiet parts and rumbling when songs exploded. This paired beautifully with stunning visuals that harkened back to the original tour behind the album, with nods to past lighting choices that splattered dramatic color into every song.
The immersive nature of the sights and sounds made for an unbelievable tribute to the already-classic second album from the band, the one that saw Vernon shed some of his folky roots for something entirely more post-rock and expansive, hinting at the progressive, glitchy band that Bon Iver would become over the next decade. Vernon went on to win Grammys, further his collaborations with Kanye West, and became a bona fide star with the album, and the songs sound as vital in 2021 as they did when they were released.
But, as Vernon noted, the album is only 10 songs long, so the performance was padded with tunes from his entire catalog, many rearranged and some barely recognizable. “Blood Bank” became a pulverizing force, deep cut “____45_____” reaching a soulful height that its album only hints at, “715 – CRΣΣKS” served a surprising early-set focal point. For Emma, Forever Ago might be miles sonically from where Bon Iver is now, but songs like “Re: Stacks,” “Flume,” “Skinny Love,” and the closing “The Wolves (Act I and II)” felt like generous acknowledgments of the band’s history, fan service that still made sense within the context of the overall show.
Currently a six-piece that includes Sean Carey and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, it was the kind of performance so well-rehearsed and dialed in that was easy to imagine would be turned into something bigger: a live album, a concert film, a large-scale tour. And it very well might be, but to be in the presence of the band on this night, Vernon and co. were sure to be focused completely on the task at hand, honoring a crucial album from the last decade with a performance that won’t soon be forgotten. It’s the same commitment that Vernon always brings, and it’s so impressive that a review can’t capture it as well as just this simple advice: go see Bon Iver, as soon as possible. There might not be a better live band on the planet right now.
U (Man Like)