Thursday, March 29, 2018

Bon Iver’s Dance Music

When the email came from Mass MoCA advertising a work in progress by TU Dance and Bon Iver, I bought tickets instantly. I knew they would sell out quickly so a glance at the calendar to see that it was possible for us to get there was all it took for me to click through and seal the deal. I was right about it selling out and I was also right that my wife and daughter would be thrilled when I gave them the tickets as part of their holiday gifts last December.

In the ensuing months, I wondered what, exactly, Justin Vernon’s role would be in the performance. Would he be behind the scenes, triggering and tweaking an electronic score from a laptop? Or onstage, with a guitar and keyboards behind that podium he sometimes uses in concert? Or would he be front of house, at the mixing board, just observing how the dancers interacted with his music and making notes for further improvements? Would it be new music or repurposed tracks from the three Bon Iver albums? Mass MoCA’s marketing led me to believe that he would be active but in my mind I wasn’t expecting a traditional concert. We’re big enough fans that any of the above possibilities would have been satisfying - or at least interesting!

I didn’t take much time to research TU Dance but noted that they're an acclaimed company from Minnesota that seems to have done a great job involving the community in their work. Also, we’ve made many visits to Mass MoCA, including for an excellent Bang On A Can concert, and found their standards to be uniformly high and their vision always forward-thinking. So, I went into the show with both an open mind and high expectations.

The platform for the band before the show.
One question was solved as soon as we entered the theater to take our seat: Bon Iver would be performing live. At the rear of the stage was a raised platform with enough gear on it to make some serious noise. The program also revealed that the band realizing Vernon's music would consist of three other musicians: BJ Burton (electronics), Michael Lewis (bass, keyboards) and JT Bates (drums). As soon as they crossed the stage and began climbing the stairs to their platform, the applause was rapturous. While I could be wrong, it felt like the majority of the audience had been drawn there by the prospect of hearing something new from Bon Iver rather than a native interest in TU Dance or dance in general. As soon as the music started, an electric charge went through the room and my mind raced to catch up with the song, a powerful blast of electronics, slamming drums and throbbing bass lines supporting Vernon's heavenly voice, which has only grown more fascinating over time.

The view from our seats; dancers in white.
The projections were flashing on the wall behind the stage, combining type and imagery, and the dancers came running out, loose limbed, gesturing dramatically, exuding energy and using a series of movements that seemed inspired by vernacular (street?) dance. Their costumes were pretty cool, with plenty of extra fabric to emphasize their moves while not obscuring their toned physiques. But as the night continued, it was clear that that was pretty much all TU Dance had to offer. For this piece at least, choreographer Uri Sands seemed to run out of steam fairly quickly, only giving us variations on the same basic themes using larger and smaller groups of dancers. I couldn't avoid the fear that the Thriller dance might break out at any moment. There was one notable solo, with a dancer who seemed to exist within the rhythms of the music without explicitly following them. At times she seemed to be floating in a cocoon of fluttering fabric for an arresting effect. I don't want to belittle the hard work of the company, but I have to be honest and say that I often forgot to watch the dance, focusing on what was going on with the band on the platform, my eyes naturally drawn by the people producing the music.  

And what music! I felt pinned to my seat by the sheer passion of Vernon’s sound and songs, none of which sounded like a work in progress. The first five songs were especially cohesive and I found myself thinking, if that’s the first half of the next Bon Iver album, it may well be he best thing he’s ever done. The boldness of his most recent album, 22, A Million, was still there but wedded to a more direct rhythmic conception drawing on reggae, funk, R&B and hip hop, (likely a result of collaborating with dancers, so I’ll give them that!) and sounding even more explosive. 

After that opening salvo, Vernon mixed things up a bit. There was one song that started with an almost painfully serrated synth sound before developing into an absorbing collage, and another that was almost purely percussive, with a touch of Afrobeat via Talking Heads. An a cappella gospel number was stunning, putting the grit and unique timbre of Vernon’s voice on display for a jaw dropping performance that almost made me think I was seeing things: how can he just stand there and sing like THAT? Late in the set was an exquisite cover of Leon Russell’s A Song For You that brought the 40-year old tune right up to date and put Vernon in the realm of our finest interpreters like Thom Yorke or Holly Miranda. 

The fact is that there was nothing I didn’t want to hear again, except for a piece near the end with a narration about Jim Crow. To me, Bon Iver’s music is at heart about intimate interpersonal experiences, writ large and turned into universal (and sometimes oblique) epics. If Come Through was supposed to be about politics or racism, this interjection was both heavy-handed and too little, too late. Not all art needs to be woke, even in 2018. 

There was ecstatic applause after every song - at first I wasn’t even sure we were supposed to clap, but quickly didn’t care - and a standing ovation when the band took their bows. As the crowd moved out of the room mostly in stunned silence, a guy asked me what I thought. “This may be some of the best Bon Iver music yet,” I told him and he nodded vigorously. “So you’ve liked their other records?” I affirmed that I had been on board since the beginning, yet had only seen one prior concert, in 2011. That was also an incredible show, I told him, but with a much larger band. One marvel of the music in Come Through is how Vernon managed to simultaneously strip his sound down and beef it up. He agreed with that as well, before expressing doubts about the dance - then it was my turn to agree with him. 

I only took a snippet of video because I wanted to stay in the moment, but you can make up your own mind about the lopsided nature of this collaboration when the finished version of the collaboration is performed in St. Paul in April and Los Angeles in August - if you can scrape up a ticket! Bon Iver is also on tour, and I’ll be curious to see if any of this new music makes it into those shows. I just hope Vernon releases some or all of it soon.


  1. Beautiful write up! Great work!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thanks for reading! The music was truly great!

    2. Thank for the reply. I hope you get to see more great concerts like this one

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.