Last night, at the beautiful Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC), Bon Iver and Anais Mitchell played to a crowd who likely came for folk but ended up hearing something a bit more epic.
Mitchell, a Vermont singer/songwriter accompanied by three other band members (The Young Man Band), opened. She started out her set with “Cosmic American”, a song from her 2004 album Hymns for the Exiled. From the onset, Mitchell’s Joanna Newsom-like-but-larger voice captivated the audience.
The majority of her set, however, came from her excellent new album Young Man in America. Mitchell’s live performance replicated the album’s interplay between stripped-down moments and moments of sonic depth. While the guitars were turned up in order to satisfy a larger venue, the songs were complemented by subtle xylophone flourishes that aren’t apparent in the studio recordings.
Maintaining a friendly and intimate stage presence in a large, seated theater proves a difficult task for most openers, but Mitchell and her band, both during and in between songs, sounded like they had played venues like PPAC before. After performing “Ships” from Young Man in America, Mitchell shared a hilarious anecdote about the last time she and her band came to Providence (they got lost and separated in Providence Place Mall; the drummer quipped that he got his nails done).
Mitchell closed her set with “Why We Build The Wall” from her breakthrough, 2010’s Hadestown, a concept album loosely based on the Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. For that album, Mitchell collaborated with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Ani DiFranco, among other noteworthy folk artists. Unfortunately, Vernon did not at any point join Mitchell on stage (he did later cite her as the inspiration for one of his songs).
Mitchell shared that she and her band will be returning to Providence in December, playing restaurant Local 121.
Vernon and the eight other musicians that comprise the latest live rendition of Wisconsin band Bon Iver came on about half an hour after Mitchell ended. Vernon (sporting a headband that could have come from Frank Ocean’s wardrobe) and his band opened with “Perth”, the first track from 2011’s self-titled album. The song’s Civil War drumbeat was certainly louder than most of the crowd had expected, as the audience members remained in their seats, surprised by the beautiful ruckus, rather than standing and screaming and being energized by the massiveness of the band’s sound. Bon Iver then burned through more tracks from his 2011 LP, eventually playing the entire album except for “Michicant”.
The undisputed highlight of the entire set, one that brought portions of the audience to its feet, was the band’s performance of the title track from 2009 EP Blood Bank. With an intro by avant-saxophonist Colin Stetson, Bon Iver played a much more hard-rocking version of the track than the skeletal studio version, ending the song with an unexpected, wonderfully fragmented guitar solo. The band followed the title track with two more from non-major releases: the auto-tuned “Woods”, from the same EP, and “Brackett, WI”, from 2009 charity compilation Dark Was the Night.
After Bon Iver closed the first set with “Beth/Rest”, the entire crowd finally gave the band a standing ovation. They came back on for an encore about five minutes later and tested the audience’s ability to clap on beat with “Skinny Love”. They closed the show with the title track from their debut album, 2007 contemporary indie classic For Emma, Forever Ago.
The band left the stage to Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. After a heroic show like the one Bon Iver and Mitchell put on, most of the audience certainly felt one step closer.