There were a lot of “buts” in the hybrid performance by Bon Iver and TU Dance on Thursday night at St. Paul’s Palace Theatre, the first of four sold-out shows this weekend before the collaboration steps out to a national audience.
Hyped as a world premiere from St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series, the unorthodox event took place at a rock venue, but seats were added to the floor and programs handed out. It had a bona-fide rock star as its main attraction — Wisconsin indie bard and falsetto revivalist Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver — but he quite literally stayed up on a shelf, out of the spotlight.
Musically it offered a lot of experimentation and frayed sounds, but with relatively conventional song structures. At one point Vernon even played a Pink Floyd-ian guitar solo.
And of course, there were a lot of butts in the 75-minute show, too — a steady stream of dancers artfully bumping, twisting and gyrating to the music. The nine-person TU Dance crew was certainly a leap in visual stimulation from a typical Bon Iver concert, where Vernon generally stays immobile and the biggest movement is Twin Cities music vet Michael Lewis changing from bass guitar to saxophone.(Hey, it’s usually a tenor sax, not alto.)
Lewis was part of a slimmed-down Bon Iver band lineup that also included ubiquitous St. Paul drummer JT Bates and Vernon’s recording-studio wizard BJ Burton on electronic thingamajigs. At the start of the set the musicians climbed up to their perch — a scaffold behind the dancers — and launched into a throbbing, grinding intro that echoed Vernon’s local crew Marijuana Deathsquads. As the music reverberated, the dancers scrambled about in a whir that seemed to reflect our hectic lives.
The sound quickly changed, though. And it kept changing, as mellower, willowy pieces with electronic bleeps and bloops gave way to more straight-ahead, guitar-driven pieces.
Bon Iver fans shouldn’t feel left out if they can’t make one of these shows, because it’s only about a third Bon Iver-y in sound — although the part where Vernon sang a cappella with ample falsetto was maybe the most Bon Iver-y Bon Iver moment of all time. Conversely, Bon Iver haters might actually enjoy some of the other musical permutations. Vernon provided something of an overview to his other projects and inspirations. A slow-huffing, straight-ahead rock tune early in the show recalled his rootsier side band the Shouting Matches. His other other band Volcano Choir could be heard toward the end as the music crescendoed toward a big finish. Vernon even showed off his alt-twangy side mid-set by covering Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.” the only piece of music that wasn’t brand-new.
If there was an overriding theme to “Come Through,” it didn’t come through clearly. Video images of barren, cold forests and people’s faces all blending together in a blur of ages and races suggested a “Blair Witch” meets “We Are the World” vibe. A voiceover speech by Viola Davis about Jim Crow laws near the end provided a powerful moment, but seemed to come out of nowhere.
One of the tenderest and meaningful moments came during the Russell cover, an intimate classic about finding one person to help carry you through the storms. In it, two dancers with shrouds over their faces danced around the stage impressively entwined as one body.
Ultimately, Vernon and TU Dance came off as similarly whole, their unison not only a technical/synchronized achievement but a soulful success.
The show — and certainly the ticket scalpers outside — still seemed largely about Vernon, though. He has only performed one other time as Bon Iver in the Twin Cities in the past seven years despite living less than two hours away. He seems to be going out of his way to stay out of the spotlight, so no wonder he poured a lot into this particular project.