He wore a skinny bandanna wrapped around his head like Ralph Macchio in “Karate Kid.” And while Justin Vernon never delivered anything like a body-blowing powerkick to end his Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center, the latest and biggest gig yet by his band Bon Iver did impress with what amounted to sonic jujitsu.
It was something of a surprise having the Eau Claire, Wis.-reared indie rocker — who came up playing the Uptown Bar and Turf Club — book a date at the local NHL arena. Bon Iver wasn’t entirely out of place, though.
Thursday’s performance actually recalled another recent Xcel Center show, the triumphant return of Jeff Lynne’s E.L.O. It centered around one bearded mastermind dude who crafts elaborate, intricate, thickly layered albums in the studio. He and his large band thus faced the daunting task of re-creating those recordings onstage.
A way to offset the musicians’ concentrated immobility as they slaved/geeked away on their numerous instruments, Vernon’s team added a similarly grandiose visual production to the concert, also like E.L.O. He and his seven bandmates performed on their own individual risers wrapped in triangular neon lights with banks of matching lights overhead. Think: “Tron” meets “Teletubbies.”
Although nowhere near as jubilant and participatory as the E.L.O. set — Vernon didn’t even play “Skinny Love,” the one song in his canon that would’ve sparked a big audience singalong — the 110-minute, 23-song Bon Iver arena gig was a hard-earned success in the end.
No one in the crowd broke a sweat at this one. The 10,000 or so fans mostly stared straight ahead numbly as if watching an intense drama on TV. Every few rows, though, there’d be some superfan losing his or her stuff for no apparent reason, like the dude who shook and pumped his fists along to Vernon’s slow acoustic guitaring in “Marion.”
While the newest album wasn’t played in order like the last time Bon Iver played in town for Rock the Garden 2017, Thursday’s show started, ended and was heavily laced with songs off the two-month-old fourth Bon Iver album, “i,i” (pronounced “eye-comma-eye”). At once a rhythmically disjointed but vocally harmonious collection, the record definitely did not seem like arena-rock material going in.
Those layers of singing voices were the best thing about the show, though, evident right away in the new songs “We” and “Holyfields.” Newcomer Jenn Wasner of the band Wye Oak added greatly to the mix, especially later on in “Heavenly Father” and “U (Man Like).” Vernon even brought out singers from a Native American drum and dance troupe to add more voices atop “We.”
The harmonies were so rich throughout the set that they seemed to accentuate the sometimes piercing, grating qualities of Vernon’s falsetto-favoring voice when he sang more alone and ultra-passionately, as he did just before the encore in the songs “Sh’Diah” and “Naeem.” He mercifully scaled back the dramatic tone afterward, though, and delivered a beautiful “Holocene” in falsetto.
You could count on one hand the number of songs with hand-clap-ready rhythms. Drummers S. Carey and Matt McCaughan had plenty of time to sing and play various other instruments in the set, although their dueling kits did get a workout in “666 †.” The Minneapolis resident in the bunch, Michael Lewis, also kept busy on bass and saxophone, churning out a stirring solo with the latter to end “Sh’Diah.”
It’s hard to remember a show ever being so busybody-like musically but also so mellow. Credit the sound crew for making sense of it all and delivering a pristine set, acoustically speaking. Vernon’s overarching messages of self-empowerment, endurance and — go figure — hope did shine through the din, too; more Mr. Miyagi than the Karate Kid in the end.
Seemingly not wanting to out-energize her headliner pal, Feist stuck to some of her more downbeat tunes in her 45-minute opening set with her own seven-piece backing band, which still beautifully fleshed out “A Man Is Not His Song” and “Let It Die.” At least the artful and buoyant Canadian tunesmith also known as Leslie Feist was remarkably upbeat about playing to a slowly filling, echoey arena.
“It’s not every day a girl gets a Jumbotron,” she cheered. “A” for attitude.