There’s something wonderful about two classics coming together. Both the Hollywood Bowl and Bon Iver have been considered best-in-class among their peers, so it would stand to reason that the combination of them would be immaculate. All these elements, combined with an excellent collaboration with Tu Dance transformed the already legendary Hollywood Bowl into one of the most unique shows ever to grace Los Angeles.
From the get-go the audience was enraptured by the awesome on-screen visuals comprised of a seemingly random set of images. While these distracted and occupied viewers, dancers appeared and darted dynamically about the stage. The music before Bon Iver joined the stage was huge and thumping, tribal chants and drums shook the entirety of the Bowl if not all of Hollywood before Bon Iver’s blissful music entered the scene and commanded the attention of Los Angeles
Each song possessed a sort of narrative that drove the dancers forward. As an example, during the song “Come Thru” a lone dancer desperately raced about the stage, as if searching for something or someone that had long been lost. Tu Dance, while initially seen as a potential diversion from the music itself, quickly proved themselves to be among the most interesting portions of the show, adding exciting visual and narrative elements to what was already an excellent performance.
Each song, while new, possessed a unique and distinct energy that showed Bon Iver’s evolution as a musician, and the ever-shortening gap between his Bon Iver and Volcano Choir personas. The fourth song saw the stage bathed in harsh red light as a hip-hop beat set off some of the most enjoyable dancing of the night. All of this themed to a background of blazing fires and spinning moons. The next song shifted aggressively towards a more trance-like ambient sound, humming with deep resonant bass before eventually moving into an almost noise-like track. Heavy, static laden synth hits rattled the walls of the bowl at regular intervals before developing into a more rhythmic track that luckily never lost even a bit of its bite.
One of the more peculiar aspects of the show was that they would often show the stage direction onscreen, phrases like “no visuals” would accompany the according things onscreen, giving an odd, almost behind-the-scenes glimpse at the show. “Jelmore” proved to be one of the most visually exciting performances of the night as the stadium was bathed in rainbow light and a growing and shrinking pulsating rainbow consumed the main screen. “Heaven 1867” proved to be one of the more traditional-sounding songs by Bon Iver though the constant mad laughter that echoed across the back end gave it a unique and wholly different feeling from much of his discography.
By the end the show was wonderfully capped-off with a portion of the track that was reminiscent of a spiritual, adding a nice sense of closure to the track. “Idea96” would end up being the second most emotional experience of the night. The ethereal track blended the visuals of faces rapidly changing in the background with a story of loneliness and isolation on stage. It soon gave way to a soulful saxophone section that blended with Bon Iver’s soft guitar work, turning it into the most contemplative moment of the evening. Trying to fully describe the power of the closing track, “Naeem,” is nearly futile; not only did the onscreen visual reprisals work wonderfully, but the track itself was huge, bombastic and conveyed an immense amount of catharsis. Multiple times it seemed as if the track was coming to a close before it would explode into brand new life. There was everything from saxophones to screaming and vocal samples to soft guitar. At the close of one of the spoken word samples all the dancers rushed offstage, except for one, who collapsed in the center of the crowd before bursting into a joyous display where he was eventually rejoined by his fellow troupe members. The emotional catharsis of the experience alone wonderfully tied the night together and made it one of the most memorable moments of any show in recent memory.
There’s nothing quite like the unexpected at a show. Bon Iver has always excelled at defying expectations, and Justin Vernon’s collaboration with Tu Dance does exactly that. The masterful combination of his already emotionally intense music and the narratives allowed by dance made for an unforgettable combination. Even though the crowd didn’t know a single song it was plainly clear that they were captivated by each second, and why wouldn’t they have been? This show was simply unlike anything they ever had, or ever would see again.