From intimate niche, Bon Iver touches listeners
‘What might have been lost.’’
It takes a special breed of artist to twist those words, which are already fraught with melancholy and longing, into a thunderous battle cry.
When Justin Vernon sang that line at a sold-out House of Blues Friday night, it began as a gentle refrain. By the end of the song, “The Wolves (Act I and II),’’ there was healing in the shouting that resonated from at least 2,000 fans.
As Bon Iver, Vernon has carved out a peculiar niche in indie rock. His songs are delicate in disposition, sometimes sounding more like sketches, but they are shot through with an abrasive intensity.
On his 2007 self-released debut, “For Emma, Forever Ago,’’ Vernon emerged as an ethereal, bearded troubadour who needed little more than his gossamer falsetto and acoustic guitar to put across his tales of heartache.
Its follow-up was a wide-screen leap of faith. Released in June, “Bon Iver’’ debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, which says more about his growing fan base than the album itself. “Bon Iver’’ is a staggering experience, awash in spectral folk, some jagged rock, and even ’90s soft rock, but it’s also not immediately accessible. The songs come into focus only after several listens, and even then there is the odd realization that you still don’t know what the cryptic lyrics mean. Mood often trumps concrete meaning in Vernon’s songs.
In a live setting, though, the new album morphed into something more visceral and outright. Vernon’s touring band is eight members strong, with your usual guitarist and bassist but also two drummers, a violinist, and three horn players.
Even then, nothing ever sounded as expected. The trombone intro on “Creature Fear’’ was submerged, as if we were hearing it from the other side of a harbor. Vernon eventually dropped to his knees during that song, as the stage lights pulsed behind him and the band locked into a holding pattern. The scene looked very much like a mad scientist at work.
On “Blood Bank,’’ the band scrapped any attempt at pretense for the evening’s most cage-rattling rocker, led by Vernon on feral electric-guitar solos.
Occasionally, the songs got lost in the chaos. “Beth/Rest,’’ with its collision of keyboards, saxophone, and Vernon’s processed vocals, was so diffused that it missed its target - presumably, the heart.
But even when the bombast was laughable, it was clear Vernon has no use for irony. The smooth keyboards really belonged on a Bonnie Raitt ballad from 1991, but his intentions were sincere. (Considering Vernon’s recent covers of Raitt songs on late-night television shows, the homage was undoubtedly heartfelt.)
The older material blossomed with a fuller sound, too. On “Flume,’’ which Vernon mentioned was the song that started the band, horns swelled majestically. And “Skinny Love,’’ with most of the band huddled behind Vernon, rang out like a hymn on high. It was hard to tell who connected to the song more intimately, the band or the audience.
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.