Live Review: Bon Iver Brings Exclusive, Elusive Show To YouTube Theater In LA

Bon Iver
Matthew John Benton
– Bon Iver
at YouTube Theater in Los Angeles Oct. 22.

Bon Iver

YouTube Theater
Inglewood, Calif.
Oct. 22, 2021
The first of Bon Iver’s two sold-out shows at the new YouTube Theater Friday had all the trappings of a big event, with at least one fan pulling an all-nighter, driving from the Bay Area and back just to catch it, while another traveled cross-country from Florida to witness it (and Wilco’s West Coast run).
There were indeed several reasons for the excitement. For one, the band led by the elusive singer/songwriter/producer Justin Vernon hasn’t appeared live in the pandemic era, outside of their August headlining gig at the Water Is Life Festival in Duluth, Minn., and that was only an eight-song set. This marked their final performances on the books for 2021. Also, this pair of shows at the 6,000-seat SoFi Stadium-adjacent venue, was billed as a celebration to mark the 10th anniversary of the band’s Grammy-winning self-titled second album. On top of that, tech company L-Acoustics used the engagement to showcase its new L-ISA Hyperreal Sound technology, which upped the theater’s usual 2.1 stereo to a 7.1 spatial system, with 180 speakers.

Those numbers could make your eyes glaze over, if it wasn’t for the fact that Bon Iver — and the sound system — delivered an impressive 23-song, two-hour set that suggested Vernon just may be this generation’s answer to Brian Wilson, had the Beach Boys mastermind been raised in snowy Wisconsin rather than sunny California. 
Indeed, Bon Iver’s “teenage symphonies to God” aren’t just fun, fun, fun, or filled with good vibrations. Like life in the 21st Century, they’re much more complicated emotionally. Though, with an otherworldly blend of folk, soul and gospel, performed on a mix of acoustic, electric and synthetic instruments, Vernon suggested he too isn’t made for these times. 
With a stage draped with what looked like swathes of hanging burlap and dozens of candle-like lights on the floor, Vernon and his five-piece band — which included two drummers — looked as if they were performing in a cave. They opened with “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI,” the first two tracks from Bon Iver, but this wasn’t just a mere album playback, though the band did eventually perform the album’s other eight tracks, just not in sequence.

Bon Iver
Matthew John Benton
– Bon Iver
at YouTube Theater in Los Angeles Oct. 22.
Wearing a hoodie, headband and headphones, Vernon sang mostly in his trademark falsetto, but occasionally used a vocoder effect to transform his voice with an eerie echo. Often, his backing musicians doubled his vocals, giving the performance a haunting chorale effect.
Set highlights included “Michicant,” in which a majestic sax solo by Mike Lewis echoed Pink Floyd, and “Blood Bank,” the most trad-rock moment of the night where Vernon and company locked into a Crazy Horse-like groove amid a shower of strobe lights.
And of course, there was “Skinny Love,” performed by Vernon solo on acoustic guitar as the evening’s first encore. It brought the crowd to its feet, as the band’s best-known song, but as Friday’s set proved there’s plenty more to Bon Iver than classic-rock reference points and radio hits – it’s just difficult to pinpoint exactly what that is.
Minnesota, WI
715 Creeks
Heavenly Father
666 ?
Hinnom, TX
U (Man Like)
33 GOD
Blood Bank
Skinny Love