You always wonder how good a band will be live, who you pretty much only listen to alone, preferably on a quiet night with the lights low. They sound so perfect on record, all the nuances captured and instruments turned to just the right volume. These kinds of musicians require a delicate balance to be enjoyed at their highest potential. Many artists who capture complicated melodies and exact timing on record spend days perfecting it, unfortunately unable to duplicate it in a live setting. Usually they don’t live up to your expectations or excitement, but once in a while, when that band is playing their music right there in front of you, they capture your being for ninety minutes as you stand in awe, clutching your arms to your chest, listening for every note and being pushed then pulled by every change in momentum, tempo, volume, key. A band that can do this at all is impressive — to say the least. A young band that can do this at Red Rocks, with as much open space to fill as God had World to build, is fucking unbelievable.
Though it wasn’t the first Red Rocks show of the summer for everybody, it was certainly a great way to kick it off for most — a bill featuring both Feist and Bon Iver in a single night at one of the most beautiful venues in the country. Though Feist’s set was played in daylight — the May Colorado sun does not set until about nine – it was still highly attended, a little difficult considering that she started at just after 7 pm, and Red Rocks is just far enough outside of Denver and Boulder that making it to the venue on time after work on a Thursday is what some would call “pushing it”. Nevertheless, her unforgettable voice was a big enough draw to get most everyone to the venue and to their seats by the time she went on. Unfortunately, The Staves, a trio who has been touring with Bon Iver, played even earlier than Feist and likely did not enjoy the same full house — though they have been lauded as quite impressive recently.
In just about an hour, Feist and her backing band waded through her songs with a little more grunge and crunch than they have on her albums. Her set featured songs both from her previous albums and 2011’s Metals including a pounding “My Moon My Man” and a roaring, set-ending “The Bad in Each Other” featuring Bon Iver instrumentalists Reginald Pace and Colin Stetson, who played a thunderous bass saxophone on the tune. Though her more recent album was not as well received as her previous two, her performance proved that anyone questioning her continuing ability should listen again.
As the sun set, the stage was dressed for Bon Iver’s performance. Burlap curtains were hung from the rafters and light cones were placed to surround the performers, who each had their own area carefully carved out. The crowd cheered, then quieted well before Justin Vernon, the main man behind the moniker Bon Iver, plucked the opening guitar notes to “Perth”. Those notes filled the space as if they were always there, a perfect compliment to the evening. When, about 90 seconds into the song, the rest of the band kicked in, it was clear that the night’s performance was to be a good one. The band followed with “Minnesota, WI” before Vernon spoke — almost stumbling over his words, seemingly in awe of the venue.
If you’ve ever read a review about a show at Red Rocks, you’ll know that just about every artist who plays there — whether young or old — expresses a delight and awe at having the opportunity. Vernon and his band were no different, repeating thanks often between songs. But it’s the artists who use the space best who are most remembered, and the music of Bon Iver is naturally akin to that — the tones need to spread and settle to make their mark, and the crispness of the natural amphitheater allow that better than any recording studio or auditorium ever could.
Bon Iver played for just about 90 minutes, enough to settle in and make their presence felt, but it certainly could have gone on for at least another hour without complaint. The audience hardly moved or said an unrelated word for the entire time, the music capturing, and not as dance-inducing as other performers (though of course there are always those few who feel the need to imbibe at every outing – drunk 18-year-olds in front of me, I’m talking about you). Some musicians feel their music speaks for itself but Vernon realizes that impressing the audience visually — and including them in the mix — is important as well. The light-show synced with the band’s crescendos, explosions of light would collapse to dark at just the right moments and sing-alongs were not only appreciated, they were encouraged. Throughout the show, songs like “Holocene” and “Skinny Love” got just about everyone involved in the act — whether it was singing along or just plain screaming. As an encore, Vernon asked the audience to sing along to “The Wolves (Act I and II)” in the hopes that the combined efforts of 9,500 singers could cause the amphitheater to turn into a spaceship, and take us all to outer space. Vernon commented something along the lines of, “I’d miss my Mom and everything but I still think it would be fun.” Indeed, his dreams of space travel did not come true on that night, but it was fun nonetheless.