Toward the beginning of their set, Grammy-winning Bon Iver’s hirsute, brains-behind-operation frontman, Justin Vernon, remarked at the sheer scale of What Stage. “They couldn’t have sandwiched us onto a more impossible stage.” Turns out his group, made up of percussionists, a violinist, a saxophonist, a trumpeter, a bass saxophonist and guitarists — you get the idea — filled it out just fine. Who knew the introspective Midwesterner could wield an arena-ready sound in the best sense?
In a set pulling heavily from Bon Iver’s latest, most intricate album, the band opened with “Perth,” a tune that began with near silence, the sound of wind and the clangor of something iron, building into a layered, aural wall that washed over the crowd. Next came “Wash,” a haunting piece set to two very simple, repetitive piano notes that seemed to invoke a light drizzle from the slate-gray sky — fitting weather for a group that evokes such pathos after a weekend of unremitting sun.
As the afternoon wore on, the weather seemed tailored to the set. Vernon settled into that brilliant “Calgary” riff — “So it’s storming on the lake / little waves our bodies break" — the wind blowing cool, raising follicles on our arms. And by the time they played what for us was the show’s climax, “Beth/Rest,” Bon Iver’s most intricate composition for our money, the sun began to slip from behind the clouds. The syrupy synth, redolent of some '80s ballad in all the best ways, set the tone. When Vernon launched into the song’s unabashedly soaring, goosebump-raising guitar solo, we were reminded of the fact that, even through the Bonnaroo-Sunday malaise and the frayed neurons and drained serotonin stores — when we thought we were physically incapable of enjoy one more goddamned band this weekend — there are songs like this, ineffable moments like this, when an artist brings about the kind of catharsis that justifies all that sweating, all that walking and all that hygienic degradation in the heat of a Tennessee summer.