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Review: Justin Vernon leads Volcano Choir at Fonda Theatre

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It’s an idea that's easy to grasp: Justin Vernon onstage in Los Angeles the week before the Grammy Awards.

Two years ago, after all, the singer-songwriter and his Wisconsin band Bon Iver were named best new artist at the Grammys, and “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” -- a modest masterpiece of deep-feel introspection -- won the prize for alternative music album.

So it seems natural that Vernon would return to town for the annual crush of concerts and parties that takes place during the run-up to “music’s biggest night,” set this year for Jan. 26.

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Only Vernon didn't draw a sold-out crowd to the Fonda Theatre on Saturday with Bon Iver. He was leading Volcano Choir, one of a growing number of projects that have occupied him since he put his primary outfit on hiatus at the end of 2012.

In September, Volcano Choir released an album, its second, called “Repave”; that followed an earlier 2013 record by Vernon’s blues-rock trio, the Shouting Matches (which played Coachella last year), as well as his work on Kanye West’s “Yeezus.” Vernon also produced and performed on a recent album by the Blind Boys of Alabama.

The guy stays busy, in other words, even as he appears determined not to capitalize too intently on the buzz that Bon Iver’s Grammy wins established. A proud product of a homegrown indie-music scene, Vernon is a dabbler, widely distributing his renown rather than using it, in normal record-industry fashion, to strengthen his core brand.

And yet the essence of that core brand -- a bearded lumberjack type crooning imagistic lyrics in a delicate falsetto -- persists to some degree across these platforms, as does Vernon’s painstaking attention to detail. For him, a side project isn’t an excuse to go shallow -- or to disavow his connections completely: On Monday night, Volcano Choir is scheduled to play a private gig for Levi’s that seems sure to attract some pre-Grammy hobnobbing.

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At the Fonda in Hollywood, where the group stopped not long into a brief West Coast tour, Vernon’s bandmates built intricate electro-acoustic arrangements of interlocking guitar riffs and programmed keyboard parts in songs such as “Alaskans,” from “Repave,” and “Island, IS,” from Volcano Choir’s 2009 debut. For the song "Keel," drummer Jon Mueller exchanged his sticks for mallets, driving the music with careful precision.

Standing behind a bank of equipment, Vernon was equally attuned to texture as he manipulated his trademark singing with digital effects. In “Still,” with a vocal line that West prominently sampled for his song “Lost in the World,” Vernon’s voice bloomed into a tightly harmonized one-man chorus. The sound was as enveloping as Bon Iver’s dreamy folk-soul lullabies.

For all its sophistication, though, Volcano Choir was at its best -- and its most distinctive -- Saturday when it disrupted those lush sonics with something rawer, an approach Bon Iver seldom employs. In “Dancepack,” for instance, Vernon’s singing frayed dramatically at the edges as he delivered lines about how “there’s still a hole in your heart.”

“The Agreement” had a propulsive beat and a needling guitar lick seemingly lifted from some terse post-punk band. And for the climax of “Still,” Mueller pulled off an extended drum roll that felt almost comic in its arena-rock intensity, as though Vernon had entrusted his accomplice to help demolish one caricature -- the cloistered, super-sensitive balladeer -- with the force of another. 

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Twitter: @mikaelwood

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