It took only 20 minutes before Justin Vernon — the chief visionary and only permanent member of the musical project Bon Iver — addressed the elephant looming in the room at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Wednesday night.
“Man, after watching that debate, everyone needs help tonight,” said Vernon, referring to the third and (mercifully) final showdown between presidential nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, that concluded an hour before he took the stage.
And indeed the crowd gathered to watch Bon Iver perform for its second out of three sold-out nights, was certainly looking for a sanctuary — a place to escape their Facebook feeds, the 24-hour news networks, and the endless political prattle that has permeated the country over the past year. Fortunately, they came to the right place — a surreal world where a one-time folk troubadour can transform himself into an auto-tune maestro with a chart-topping album of glitchy avant-garde music.
Touring behind Bon Iver’s third album, the peculiarly-titled 22, A Million, Vernon and his accompanying band put on a stunning visual and aural display, confounding what most are likely to think pop music is supposed to sound like. Filtering his beautiful falsetto voice through an array of manipulators (one is a specially-designed device called the Messina), Vernon deftly defied the expectations of the crowd, playing soft, delicate newer ballads, like “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and “29 #Strafford APTS,” along with immersive, explosive numbers like “33 ‘GOD,’ ” which featured two drummers hammering away at their kits.
The first half of the performance was dedicated solely to playing material off of 22, A Million. I’m sure there are legions of Vernon’s followers who are baffled by the new songs, which stray so dramatically from his beloved debut album, the autumnal and stark For Emma, Forever Ago. Yet, while Vernon now favors “magic keyboards” (a quote from his collaborator, Francis Farewell Starlite) instead of acoustic guitars, his irrepressible ear for melodies remains.
The new songs are disarming at first— full of strange beeps and chipmunk vocal distortions, but the foundation for each track reveals beautiful harmonies and surprisingly accessible sonic approaches. They’re also full of Vernon’s oblique lyrical musings that resonate deeply, despite their lack of linear narratives. Ushering out the opening set with “00000 Million,” Vernon sat ruminatively behind a piano, mournfully singing the lines, “I worried ’bout rain and/ I worried ’bout lightning.” It was pretty impossible not to have a lump in your throat for that moment.
After returning from a brief break, Vernon and his band (which, at times consisted of a brass section, multiple percussionists, guitars, bass, and his trusty laptop) dipped into material from the earlier Bon Iver albums. Highlights of that second act included the soft-rock masterpiece, “Beth/Rest,” the honey-hued “Beach Baby,” (which he introduced as a song about “getting sand in your swim pants”), and a scorched-earth, Neil Young-indebted interpretation of “Creature Fear,” the only song of the night off their debut album.
Vernon closed out his night by bringing up opener and close friend Francis to play “Friends,” the pop tune the two wrote along with Kanye West. The duo endearingly engaged in a choreographed routine that hilariously showed the limits of white guy dance moves.
If there was one disappointment of the night, it was that Vernon did not return for an encore performance of “Skinny Love,” the impossibly gorgeous hymnal from his first album. Fans at his Tuesday night show were treated to that number, but despite 10 minutes of solid foot-stomping and clapping from the crowd, Vernon did not come back on the stage for a similar performance.
Still, that’s a minor quibble compared to the overwhelming comfort enjoyed by attendees sick of endless political feuding and overwrought rhetoric. Music can be the ultimate form of escape, and as Tuesday night proved, Vernon is the perfect conductor to spirit us away on that journey from reality.