Bon Iver’s music is best listened to when sitting alone in a dark corner. It possesses an intimate, private quality best described by the lyrics of Bon Iver’s songs themselves, which all convey emotional depth and gravitas.
It’s this trait that makes listening to Bon Iver outside on an uncharacteristically hot and sunny San Francisco Saturday in August — at an enormous music festival, no less — underwhelming.
That’s not to say the band didn’t try to please its crowd. After all, the group wasn’t without experience — Bon Iver played the first-ever Outside Lands a decade ago. On Saturday, frontman Justin Vernon’s vocal talents were as notable as ever. While the set lacked background visuals, Vernon conducted some light banter with the audience. The group also played alongside a five-piece brass group, introduced by Vernon as “Trombone Paradise” from Richmond, Virginia.
Trombone Paradise was even given its own moment in the spotlight, playing a jazzy interlude that sounded straight out of a New Orleans Mardi Gras and, unexpectedly, sonically complemented Bon Iver’s set. As the trombonists played, Vernon charmingly sat at their feet, drinking from a red plastic cup and looking up at them in admiration.
Bon Iver largely performed its latest album, 2016’s experimental and avant-garde 22, A Million. Though praised by Pitchfork upon its release, it wasn’t fully well-received by Saturday’s crowd.
“Play some old shit!” a deep voice in the middle of the audience bellowed.
To be fair, Bon Iver did play its older work, somewhat: The band started its set with its 2011 self-titled album’s opener, “Perth”; eventually did its second-best known tune, “Holocene”; and ended with the evocative, decade-old “For Emma,” which caused a small but notable number of gasps to erupt from the crowd. While the tracks Bon Iver played off 22, A Million weren’t necessarily greeted by fans singing along in the way the older hits were, they still largely received the undivided attention and gentle swaying of the audience.
But when the band left the stage and Vernon had not mouthed a single lyric from the viral hit “Skinny Love” — had not once asked his partner for their love to last the year — he poured more than a little salt into old fans’ wounds. And so, disgruntled audience members complained into the night and well into the next day’s lineup.
Caroline Smith is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].