To paraphrase Amy Adams in Talladega Nights: Justin Vernon is not a talker. Justin Vernon is a singer.
Standing off to the left side of the Mesa Amphitheater stage, baseball cap twisted backward like he just got tailored at the Fred Durst Warehouse for Classy Bros, the Bon Iver frontman crooned and warbled soulfully throughout the opening night of his U.S. tour. The two-hour set was light on banter, but when Vernon did talk to the crowd between songs, he made it count.
“I can’t tell you what it feels like to play up here for you all,” Vernon said after singing “Jelmore.” The enthusiasm of Vernon and his Bon Iver bandmates (Sean Carey, Mike Lewis, Jenn Wasner, Matt McCaughan, and Andy Fitzpatrick) was palpable, and mirrored by the energy of the crowd. A standing-room only outdoor venue, the sloped grassy steps of the amphitheater were jammed with people eager to have a night out after the long concert limbo of the pandemic. The amount of cell phones hoisted in the air far outnumbered the handful of masks floating around in the crowd.
Taking the stage at 7:45 following a rousing opening set by Dijon, Bon Iver kicked off the night with a rendition of “22 (over s∞∞n)” that you could feel in your chest. Between the blaring sax and the rhythm lashing at our chests like a wrestler’s hard slap, the 22, A Million cut was foreshadowing as to how the night would unfold.
So much of Bon Iver’s music on record has an airy, disembodied quality — Vernon’s limber baritone filtered through a labyrinth of synthesizers, samples, sequencers, and Auto-Tune to produce uncanny vocals that sound like what a bot would create if you forced it to listen to the Anthology of American Folk Music for 1,000 hours and then asked it to cut an album. On records, Bon Iver’s music sounds like it’s trying to escape material reality; on stage, the music has flesh, weight, gravity.