To say that 2008 has been good to Justin Vernon is the understatement of the year. A little over 12 months ago, prompted by illness and the breakup of a band and girlfriend, he released what many consider the bleakest, most beautiful, set of personal songs put out in the last year and a half. The image of Vernon recording in isolation for three months in his North Wisconsin cabin only added to the mystique and a re-release by indie label Jagjaguwar in February provided a boost, exalting For Emma, Forever Ago into a blogosphere-ordained gem. As the year winds down, Forever Ago finds itself a staple “Best of…” entry and Bon Iver (Vernon’s musical entity) found itself headlining a pair of concerts at the legendary Town Hall.
The unassuming Vernon was charming and comfortable in the storybook auditorium, regularly dispensing self-deprecating quips about the band’s name (“I still can’t pronounce it”) and their undersized repertoire (“This will be our last song because we’ve played them all”). He actually never finished explaining why he’s “not that into encores” because an emphatic fan cut him off, pleading woe is New York this, financial meltdown that, blah blah blah, keep playing! Impressed with the guy’s candor he had no other choice. But his personality by no means outstripped nor compromised the gentle but passionate demeanor of his songs.
With three supporting players and singers Vernon’s set opened with an a cappella refrain, though wavering intonation hindered its potential. Evolving into the recognizable guitar intro of “Flume”, its measured pacing and Americana structure echoed Jeff Tweedy.
Vernon performed some tunes from an upcoming Bon Iver EP entitled Blood Bank. “Beach Baby” showed no extraordinary promise while the title track was the fieriest I’ve heard yet from Bon Iver.
In general, Vernon took advantage of his multi-tasking ensemble, utilizing a battery of drums and drummers to either generate throbbing, explosive beats (“Skinny Love”) or propel a cathartic climax with complete audience participation (“The Wolves”). At other times various percussion instruments added textural accents to Vernon’s verdurous falsetto and Mike Noyce’s accompanying ethereal guitar sounds (“Blindsided” and “Creature Fear”).
Thankfully by show’s end their four-part harmonies were coalescing nicely. This was a great thing as they ended the night with an un-amplified a cappella cover of Sarah Siskind’s “Lovin’s for Fools”. Result: gorgeous.
Opener The Tallest Man On Earth—visually a knockoff Swedish rockabilly—restlessly paced the stage, only pausing at his microphone to sing songs with playful wit and lucid abstractions. His lilted rhythm guitar and intricate picking were a sturdy counterweight for his take on the grizzled, gravely, creaky vocals of Dylan.