Justin Vernon continues to push the boundaries, but that should be no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Last night’s show at the Kennedy Center, in collaboration with TU Dance, was one of the most unique interpretations of his art I’ve witnessed yet. Come Through – part of Direct Current, the Kennedy Center’s celebration of contemporary culture – seamlessly integrated ninety minutes of his more avant-garde compositions with deconstructed visuals and modern dance, making the whole much more emotionally resonant than the sum of its parts.
As the founder and sole permanent member of Bon Iver, Vernon’s rise might seem somewhat individual – a fair assumption, given his role as an auteur and principal creative behind the project. That being said, Vernon has used his many talents and the ensuing spotlight so cast attention on the wide network of friends, collaborators, and artists in his orbit who inspire him. That he does this in his capacity as a bandleader makes a degree of sense; that he has taken an active role on promoting the wider arts – beyond musical performance – shows that he’s one of the few who can see the entire artistic landscape with clarity. The indie singer-songwriter label has been too small for him for many years – after all, this is an artist whose voice and distinctive sound became the cornerstone for one of the greatest rap records of all time nearly a decade ago – but confining him to just “musician” is beginning to seem limiting as well. Vernon is the co-founder of the Eaux Claires music and art festival in his hometown, and is an Advisory Board member of Pioneer Works in Brooklyn; it’s evident that his wide-reaching interest is both genuine and earnest. At the ground level, it’s reassuring to see that he maintains enough humility to literally sit in the shadows and use his position of power to shine a light on others, like he did last night.
TU Dance is one of Minnesota’s premiere modern dance companies, and critically acclaimed for their powerful, dynamic performing style that marries African dance, classical ballet, and urban vernacular movements. Founded by Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands, the nine-person TU Dance company has been operating for over fifteen years, and although not obvious bedfellows at face value to accompany Bon Iver on stage, the shared Midwestern roots and Vernon’s familiarity with the Minneapolis art scene put all of the elements in place. Originally commissioned by The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series, it’s evident that the synergies between sound, choreography, and visuals is deep and refined.
By way of history, this is the third time I’ve seen Bon Iver in concert. The first, over a decade ago, was on the tails of For Emma, Forever Ago, his debut album that put him on the map and inspired a thousand Brads to pick up their guitars to strum folk tunes. The second, on a freezing December evening in 2017, made DC’s biggest club feel as intimate as a log cabin in the tundras of Wisconsin. Last night was certainly the most unique – an exploration of Vernon’s deconstructivist instincts as an artist sprinkled with images that hinted at his increasingly left-leaning politics. Very few of the songs were traditional in structure or texture, and if you stopped listening to Bon Iver in 2012, they might as well be coming directly from outer space. But the reality is that this performance was yet another step in the natural progression of Vernon’s artistic arc; the place beyond the horizon. If 2016’s 22, a Million was Vernon’s musical version of Guernica, Come Through was his version of The Persistence of Memory. The addition of choreography served to take the music to a higher plane of expression, and it wouldn’t have been the same without TU Dance. At the end of the night there was no doubt that the roaring, tear-soaked standing ovation for the performers was richly deserved.
Feature image Kaitlin Bell and Randall Riley, Photo by Jati Lindsay, used with permission from The Kennedy Center