music review

At the Garden, Bon Iver melds past, present, and futuristic

Bon Iver at the TD Garden Tuesday night.
Graham Tolbert
Bon Iver at the TD Garden Tuesday night.

Before Bon Iver took their futuristic stage at TD Garden Tuesday, the screens overhead rolled footage of a guy shooting free throws at dusk. Shoot, retrieve the ball, return to the line, shoot again. A superimposed counter kept a running tally, noting his percentage — in the 70s. Pretty good for a pickup player.

Reportedly, the shooter was Sean Carey, longtime sideman to Justin Vernon, the songwriter who created Bon Iver in solitude about a dozen years ago. Over the course of four albums and numerous side projects, Vernon has grown the operation from one man’s cabin fever into a kind of contagion. On Tuesday, Vernon and Carey led four more musicians — drums, guitars, saxophone, various keyboards and synthesizers — through an ambitious set that combined sound collage and Vernon’s trademark falsetto vocals with an elaborate state-of-the-art light show.

Vernon, who is 38, was hailed as a prodigy upon the release of Bon Iver’s debut, “For Emma, Forever Ago” (2007). Though the band’s latest album, “i,i,” clocks in at less than 40 minutes, it’s kind of like Vernon’s triple album, marking the moment when he fully bought into his own myth. Judging by the nearly full house at TD Garden, the band’s fans are thoroughly onboard.


On this tour, Bon Iver is using an innovative sound system known as L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound, and it was a revelation at the Garden, the kind of arena where amplified music can sound like the Times Square subway station. The stage design, too, is a wonder, with an overhead array of metal panels digitally maneuvered to reflect shafts of colored light.

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After a lovely set by opening act Feist and her six-piece band, Bon Iver opened with the first four tracks from “i,i.” Like Radiohead’s, Vernon’s lyrics are fragments that come across like cryptic proverbs. “If forgiveness is a chore, what you waiting for?” he sang on “iMi.” (Increasingly, his song titles are hyper-stylized, from the superfluous comma of “Holyfields,” to “715- CREEKS,” one of many songs in which he seems to be exploring the search for higher consciousness.)

Vernon’s melodies are casually gorgeous, and the band added plenty of intrigue. “Faith” built from a low skitter into quasi-gospel. “Blood Bank,” from the 2009 EP of the same name, was a crowd-pleaser, with a rousing finale that bordered on big-show convention. Vernon kicked off a segment devoted to the band’s earlier material by noting that “Flume,” the first track from the debut, was the song that “started this whole thing.” That flowed naturally into “Lump Sum,” which thrummed to the kind of mechanized rhythm the Germans call “motorik.”

A few songs later, Vernon stood beneath a single beam to perform “Skinny Love,” the real breakthrough from the first album, strumming his acoustic guitar in open C tuning. It’s been a long haul from that spare, auspicious beginning to “Sh’Diah,” from the new album, which ended in a free-jazz thunderstorm, or “RABi,” the band’s final encore, a sparkling if somewhat aimless ballad that muses about the fear of dying.

“I don’t have a leaving plan,” he sang.



With Feist. At TD Garden, Tuesday

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.