Bon Iver’s March 27 performance at The Met Philadelphia epitomized the perfect 21st century concert. The perfect 21st century concert is sophisticated, self–aware, experimental, and fluid. It is polished, but not perfect; that is to say, the audience does not forget that a human is performing live and on–stage. The perfect 21st century concert utilizes modern technology to enhance the performance but not distract from its message. Flowing effortlessly from traditional rock and roll to airy, acoustic melodies to electrifyingly dissonant chords, Bon Iver delivered a profound performance that fully captured their artistic evolution. In one fell swoop, Bon Iver embodied what it means to be an artist in the 21st century—satiating the audience’s distinctly modern craving for human connection through music and exiting—smugly, almost—as the theatre gasped for more.
To top it all off, Bon Iver dedicated the evening to frontman Justin Vernon's 2ABillion campaign, which he founded in 2016 to raise awareness for domestic abuse and violence against women. The proceeds from Wednesday night's performance are going straight to Philadelphia’s leading domestic violence advocacy agency, Women Against Abuse.
Founded in 2006, Bon Iver consists of a rotating cast of musicians lead by Wisconsin–born Justin Vernon. Vernon rose to prominence in 2008 with the independent release of his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. Written in isolation over the course of one long Wisconsin winter, it boasts technically mature vocals laced with intricate sets of harmonies, all set to a simple selection of instrumentals. Bon Iver’s most recent effort—22, A Million—deftly maneuvers away from For Emma’s traditional indie–folk sound and treads into electronic, nearly hip–hop–reminiscent territory.
At The Met, a woman’s modulated, Siri–esque voice projects through the theatre: “All the good people … please … take your seats …” Vernon enters the stage and, quickly without commotion, kicks off the night with a series of songs from 22, A Million. He is situated in the center, framed by an iron diamond of lights that conjure up sentiments of the band’s rust–belt origins. Each member has a spot in the diamond structure; two drummers are elevated on stilts above Vernon and his two guitarists. Vernon, as if there were no audience in front of him, manipulates his voice in godly ways, speaking to us through his distinct falsetto as he muddles through life in rural middle America, dotted with former girlfriends, sisters–in–law, reflective moments, tragedy, and of course, love. Occasionally, he lowers his voice to a gorgeous mutter and the audience leans in with bated breath, eyes open wide or gently closed, singing along, sighing.
The stage lights unequivocally add to the performance quality. As the band pushes and pulls the crowd with their sound, the lights visually set the mood. When the first delicately strummed chords of “Beach Baby” ring through the auditorium, the lights shift to an emerald green. When Vernon modulates his voice with his synth machine and the drums beat loudly to match the dissonance, the lights flash brightly from the stage. When one of the guitarists grabs a saxophone and embarks on a long, technically challenging solo performance, the lights beam onto him, beckoning us to join him on the trip.
Halfway through, the band exits and Vernon is alone, center stage. He plays "Skinny Love", a crowd–pleaser. The band returns for one last song from 22, A Million, and with that, he thanks us. No, that can’t be it. The crowd screams for an encore and he is back with “The Wolves (Act I and II)”. Everyone chants along, repeated choruses of “What might’ve been lost,” as Vernon harmonizes around us, up until the very last note.
Bon Iver’s perfect Wednesday night concert at The Met gracefully transported the audience to the nostalgia of his early work. Yet the most perfect part of the concert—and maybe the most important—was that it lessened our apprehension about the future for a brief and joyous two hours. When in the presence of genuine musical art, you can feel the depths through which it travels to reach your ears, and consequently, your heart. Effortlessly, almost shyly, Bon Iver managed this impressive feat.