Bon Iver fans were forewarned.
Upon entering the Liacouras Center on Thursday for a bill topped by Justin Vernon’s electronic folk band, with Canadian songwriter Leslie Feist opening, attendees were given a heads up with notices pasted to the walls of the Temple University arena.
“PLEASE BE ADVISED,” the signage read. “Excessive strobe lighting will be used during the Bon Iver show.”
Those kind of warnings are common at pop and EDM concerts. They’re meant to alert ticket holders with epilepsy. In a study published this June, Dutch researchers found that flashing strobes can triple the risk of a seizure.
But the signage was notable because it signaled that Vernon, who came to prominence in 2007 with For Emma, Forever Ago as an indie folkie who made handcrafted music in a lonely cabin in the woods, was getting fancy. His aim was to put on an eye-popping show that filled up an oversized room.
So, did Vernon — who’s touring behind his impressive new i,i album — succeed in creating an immersive, truly transporting experience? Was the career-spanning show with a superb band that included longtime member Sean Carey and new addition Jenn Wasner (of Wye Oak) a fully successful holistic creation? Did it, as Feist predicted during her spirited opening set, lift up the audience “like a flock of pastel geese flying off into your future”?
Not really. And what kept it from achieving sustained liftoff wasn’t that Bon Iver, as haters would have it, is merely a snoozy, self-indulgent maker of Auto-Tuned easy listening music, sounding like “a warped Christopher Cross record,” as one wag put it on my Facebook feed.
Those who dismiss Vernon as inconsequential are selling him short. Sure, he’s precious and pretentious. The lower-cased font-fiddling song titles like “iMi,” “715-Creeks” and “Sh’Diah” — the latter an acronym for a “[really bad] day in American history” — are particularly annoying.
But at his best Vernon makes music that swells and snaps and crackles with real beauty. On Thursday, songs like i,i’s “Faith” and “U (Man Like),” and For Emma’s "Lump Sum” all fit that bill. Vernon stood center stage, wearing headband and headphones, switching between acoustic and electric guitar and keyboards, and alternately singing in an unfiltered falsetto and digitally altered lower register.
He earnestly thanked people for coming and humbly praised Feist and her musicians as so good “that they make you feel like you suck.” And his practiced speech on creating safe spaces in support of advocacy group Women’s Way was heartfelt and moving.
The show’s problems didn’t have to do with the musical execution, which was precise, though lacked momentum. The trouble was with the setting, and how the presentation had been oversold.
The concert was initially scheduled for the twice-as-big Wells Fargo Center. Add Bon Iver to the list of acts — along with Arcade Fire, Lana Del Rey, and Lorde in recent years — who have attempted full-scale arena tours, only to play to empty seats.
The 10,000-capacity Liacouras is just up the street from where he did two shows at the Met Philadelphia back in March. It seems that those shows satisfied Philly Bon Iver fans. Even in the smaller room on Thursday, the building was half-full, at best. The upper decks were nearly empty.
The staging did look cool, with each musician bordered by triangles of neon, and LED rectangles over head, dazzling as they floated downward on the magisterial “Holocene,” from 2011’s Bon Iver.
But the light show was hardly mind-blowing, and the strobes not all that intense. I didn’t have to duck and cover behind the seat in front of me after all.
And while the presentation was meant to fill up the space and draw the crowd in, it didn’t quite work that way. The neon surrounding each player caged the musicians off from one another in a setting that already felt static, and the visuals emphasized the music’s digital chilliness, rather than its acoustic beating heart. All in all, it was — like Bon Iver’s music — a little bit sad.