A casual follower of Bon Iver’s musical career probably best knows him as a guy with a willowy voice and a guitar playing sleepy, ambient folk music — think the hit “Skinny Love.”
And if that’s the frame of reference, it’s reasonable to wonder: How in the world is he going to hold an audience in a hockey arena? I was somewhat in the same boat heading into Bon Iver’s Maverik Center show Wednesday night.
In the seven years since Justin Vernon — the secret identity of the Wisconsin native behind Bon Iver — last played Salt Lake City, however, he has reinvented himself, evolving into an electronic-heavy, artsy sound on his new album, “i,i,” which blends traditional Bon Iver with some hints of Peter Gabriel’s edgier work.
But even that new record, released earlier this year, doesn’t capture the on-stage transformation. The live show was bigger, louder, throbbing with booming waves of bass and digital bloops and bleeps that filled the arena (granted, just half of it, since the 13,000-seat venue was cut off by the stage and even then, somehow, didn’t sell out).
That new sound was paired with an extravagant light snow, with the six member band — pieced together by recruiting top-notch musicians from other acts — standing inside angled arrays of flashing and blinking lights and beaming spotlights overhead chasing across the stage in time with the music. Trippy.
It was digital and technological but with a healthy dose of retro, almost like one of those movies in 1985 that envisions what music will be like in 2019.
The setlist was heavy on the new album, which is less than a month old, and songs like the openers “iMi,” “We” and “Holyfields” seemed unfamiliar to most of the audience.
“We just put out a record, only a couple times we’ve played these songs, so thanks for caring,” Vernon said midway through the set. Indeed, it is just the fourth show on the band’s tour, after playing in Missoula, Vail and Red Rocks.
They played nearly every song from the new album, including remarkable versions of “Jelmore” and “Faith,” but sprinkled in some of the old fan favorites along the way — with highlights including revamped versions of “Flume” and “Perth.”
After a remarkable acoustic version of “Re: Stacks,” Vernon touted his “2 A billion” project, where he gives a portion of his proceeds from the shows to charities promoting gender equity, in this case the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.
Bon Iver capped its nearly two hours on stage with a three-song encore, including “Skinny Love,” “22 ‘God’” and “RABi.”
There is something of a downside. What you lose in the pulsing beats and electronic bloops and bleeps is Vernon’s exquisite songwriting. It’s still there, of course, but when the sound is so cranked up and the bass rattles your pancreas — especially in a venue where the sound is echoing off the walls and shaking the floor — the lyrics get lost.
The same was even more true of the opening set by Sharon Van Etten, who had booming bass beneath her soaring voice reverberating through the arena, which, at least at the start, had just a few hundred people trickling in. She is, nonetheless, an extremely talented singer and songwriter whose work has been covered by Vernon and The National, whose guitar player, Aaron Dessner, joined Van Etten on stage Wednesday night.