Bon Iver mesmerizes Sprint Pavilion with unexpected twists

Justin Vernon offers unique live-in-concert experience that differs from soundtrack


Bon Iver performed a soulful, emotional set at the Sprint Pavilion, encompassing the highlights of his musical career.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A spotlight hit the stage as a large group of musicians sauntered to their instruments. Out of the light, the crowd could see the familiar trucker hat and lanky stature of Bon Iver’s lead singer and creator Justin Vernon. As he stepped up to the mic, the sharp echoes of synth voices singing, “It might be over soon,” reverberated throughout the Sprint Pavilion Friday night. Vernon opened his mouth and the first note of his smooth falsetto voice streamlined out through the audience. The crowd stared in a shared, awed silence — this was Bon Iver, in Charlottesville, and everyone knew they were about to be mesmerized. 

Bon Iver began as a project by Vernon while in his father’s hunting cabin in Eau Claire, Wis. In this cabin, Vernon wrote his first record, “For Emma, Forever Ago.” Since then, Bon Iver’s powerful expansion into the electronic world has reached audiences everywhere. Vernon’s departure from solitude and simple musical elements led the artist to bigger and better venues and larger bands, creating an image of Bon Iver that does not rely simply on Vernon, but also on a larger group of talented musicians. 

At the Sprint Pavilion, Vernon maintained his large musical cast and was accompanied by synth players, a full horn section, two drumsets and various others. This included the extremely talented saxophone player, Michael Lewis, with whom Vernon wrote several songs. 

The set contained a wide range of songs, some dating back to “For Emma,” an early EP entitled “Blood Bank,” and Vernon’s self titled album “Bon Iver.” 

After playing through several of his most recent release “22, A Million,” Vernon took a moment to introduce his band and say hello to Charlottesville fans, calling Charlottesville “a town with a lot of love in it.” He proceeded to play “Beach Baby,” a somber, relaxed acoustic tune that brought fans to a peaceful place in the set, relinquishing some of the electronic aspects of the show and bringing it back to Bon Iver’s acoustic roots. 

Other acoustic songs such as “Babys” and “Skinny Love” made an appearance, but Vernon mostly relied on synth and electronic elements to captivate the crowd. He reworked early songs like “Perth” and “Creature Fear” into more powerful, explosive pieces, creating visual imagery and experimental intrigue throughout the set. By leaving the crowd unsure and on their toes, Vernon introduced new versions of old songs that, while changed and manipulated, still felt familiar to Bon Iver fans. 

When it came to songs from his most recent album “22, A Million,” Vernon eased up on some experimental elements to make room for his clear vocals. The clarity of his voice in songs like “33 ‘GOD’” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” allowed Vernon to really explore different instrumental elements and rework the songs into something clearer that could be better experienced live. He sought to make every song a different performance, using vocal manipulations in more somber pieces and intricate lighting structures in pieces that were more interesting and powerful. Every song had a tactical move put in place, and the results were stunning. 

Perhaps some of the most chilling performances of the night, however, were the songs that Vernon sang on his own or with one or two accompanying instruments. The powerful performance of “715 - CR∑∑KS” brought the Sprint Pavilion to deathly silence, as Vernon used vocal manipulation tools to enhance his solo voice with harmonies. Similarly, Vernon’s performance of “00000 Million” on the piano was a somber retreat to Bon Iver’s emotional roots, with a single spotlight on Vernon, the Sprint Pavilion filling up with his clear falsetto and poignant lyrics. 

Another example came in the performance of “____45_____” where Vernon sang along with Michael Lewis’ sax while simultaneously manipulating the instrument with his synth pad. The effects of these solo songs were stunning, seemingly pausing time and giving Vernon the chance to emotionally connect with his fans through his beautiful words and sounds. 

Crowd favorites such as “Skinny Love” and “Holocene” were played with beauty and grace, but it was truly the unexpected pieces exemplified through songs like “Creature Fear” that made long-time fans emotional and excited. “Creature Fear,” while originally a powerful acoustic ballad, became something electronic and iconic as Vernon crouched on the stage, fiddling with the pedals and the pads of the instruments to add distortion and other effects to the previously simple song. Accompanied by powerful lights, “Creature Fear” was one of the most surprising additions to the set, but quickly became one of the most memorable. 

Vernon also added a surprising twist to his encore by ending out the night with “The Wolves,” encouraging the fans to sing along with the closing line “what might have been lost,” over and over again until the emotional close. As the crowd sang in unity, Vernon’s voice and instruments rang throughout the Sprint Pavilion and throughout Charlottesville with a glistening sound of purely beautiful and emotional music.

The show ended with a standing ovation, as the crowd erupted into cheers and smiles, Vernon humbly taking off his cap and bowing to the audience. Similarly, the mass audience of the sold-out show was humbled and grateful to be within the presence of such powerful and influential musicians. While the show wasn’t one for much dancing or visuals, the music in and of itself was enough to make the Sprint Pavilion light up with appreciation and wonder. In many ways, that’s the magic of Bon Iver.

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