Maybe you can chalk up the feeling to Bon Iver's first appearance in St. Louis since 2008; maybe this was the crowd's response to the new, self-titled album; maybe Justin Vernon is just soaring -- could this be the high point of his career? -- and people are aching to be in the slipstream.
On a night like this, the opener has to be solid, unquestionable, almost taken for granted -- and Kathleen Edwards roused the crowd just right. More than an opener, she wasn't merely setting the stage or the sonic immersion people just take for granted before the act they paid for -- Edwards played her songs intently, reining and releasing her voice flawlessly while her two sidemen added subtle guitar work and wind-through-wheat voices.
The crowd loved her, especially when Edwards introduced songs, singled audience members out, wrought her personableness in one of the biggest rooms, on one of the tallest stages in St. Louis. Despite the strength of her voice, her songs slipped too easily into the typical modern country/western mode of snow on trees, creaking cabin walls, desolation, loneliness. For its brisk clarity, Edward's voice began to sound generic within her redundant phrasing song after song (stretching the last syllables of lines into a higher harmony over the pulsing strum of guitar).
Watching and listening to her and the two guitarists was like experiencing the culmination, the vanishing point of this kind of music. Can it really go further or get better? They muddled their prairie sounds and steel and thrum together about as well as anyone I'd ever heard, but it wasn't exhilarating; it felt too familiar. The crowd's response was hugely generous though. Her last song got me though, a sensitive and outstanding cover of the Flaming Lips's "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate." Even if Edward's song-crafting doesn't really do it for me, she undeniably knows how to ring it out live.
As Edwards and the guys left the stage, Bon Iver's arabesque of wire and hardware loomed behind. Two drum kits, a stand of miscellaneous percussive stuff, three synthesizers, a choir of guitars, mics everywhere, pedal boxes that looked like the guts of bombs, french horn, sax and the big, grotesque bass sax. It was hard to imagine how all these instruments could be played tastefully; the music could easily topple overboard.
It didn't. Nine guys walked onstage to one of the most welcoming applauses I've ever heard from a St. Louis crowd, and Vernon plucked out the first chords of "Perth," the opening song on his new record. The instrumentation seeped in slow, compounded like watercolors -- drums panning in a side-to-side echo, while organ bled beneath guitar, horns -- and then came the voices.
Vernon's voice is one of the most distinct you'll ever hear, not only for its textures, but also for his range with it, the particular harmonies he wedges it into or between. At least half of his band sang along with him, much of the time coaching their voices into emulations of Vernon's, only an octave apart.
The band reshaped old songs, like reforming fingerprints with myriad new sounds. And new songs were pushed even further than their recorded versions. In the tradition of great song-crafters like Van Morrison and the Band, who invigorated their songs live with new layers of sound, Bon Iver's set felt like an exploration of what pop music can do when pushed to its bounds or beyond them.
The manifold sounds, instruments fitted into places or producing sounds they conventionally should not, the lyrics obscured into a rhythmic vocal sound-haze -- Bon Iver's live set (and the whole "Bon Iver" record) borrows from musical sources disparate as Peter Gabriel, classical, country and soul, furthering the idea that pop is not merely about song, but how good the song can get. It's not a new revelation, but Justin Vernon is putting his own spin on what Dan Bejar is doing with Destroyer, on what Dylan has been doing for years.
What's amazing is that for how weirdly beautiful and intricate the music is, it retains an honesty which is based in Vernon's voice and presence. He rang out "Skinny Love" as the last song of the encore, his whole band acting as a choir of voices behind him. The crowd sang along and seemed almost bloodthirsty. Vernon had a dazed expression during this encore set. He has said that he is just extremely grateful and surprised that people get it. Perhaps that is what made the set great and what makes him a great artist -- the art of being surprised.