On opening day of the 43rd annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Bon Iver performed a headlining set on one of three main stages, closing out the breezy, hot day with appropriate fervor and a spirit of celebration.
Just a couple of months after the band’s Best New Artist Grammy win, there were plenty of people in the crowd who favored checking them out over the Beach Boys’ 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour set across the fairgrounds. Anyone who was not already a fan would likely have been swayed by the end of their set: those who have seen Justin Vernon sing can attest that he is a Soul Man, and that was not lost on this New Orleans crowd. Neither was an expanded brass section, six instruments in total for four players, including an enormous bass sax and a French horn.
Vernon gave the love, too: “I first came here when I was 14 with my Mom, and I’ve been back a few times,” he said to the crowd. “There simply isn’t a better music festival in the whole world. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it – that would be some pandering shit!”
The set and crowd started off subdued, this phase marked by a slow and mournful rendition of Bon Iver’s “Michicant.” But the mood on both sides of the stage accelerated after a rousing and vigorous version of “Creature Fear” from For Emma, Forever Ago. On that track, Justin Vernon sang the first verse in an uncharacteristic baritone, and a complex drum solo progressed into a hard-rocking, jumping outro. Vernon alternated between guitar and the keys, creating complicated effects on a pedalboard and a switchboard. Two drum sets provided powerful percussion that anchored the instrumentals.
Band and audience came together for “The Wolves (Act 1&2),” when Vernon asked the crowd to sing the refrain “what might have been lost” with him. “You have to sing, though, for real,” he pleaded. “Sing really fucking loud.” And we did. There was some question at the beginning of the hour-and-a-half set whether Bon Iver was going to affect the crowd, en masse and sincerely, but by the end, the feeling on both sides of the stage was one of exuberance and adoration. (“That was so…cleansing,” a festival-goer said.) The 9-piece band lingered on stage arm-in-arm after the closing track, “For Emma.”
“Thank you, Jazz Fest,” Vernon said, “Love!”