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Bon Iver at the Sydney Festival

(24 Jan 2009: City Recital Hall Angel Place — Sydney, Australia)

It’s so stinking hot the crowd practically melts out of the night into the cool of City Recital Hall Angel Place. A clunky name for a clunky venue—all sterile, white lines, stark modernism, and row upon row of packed, rigid seats. I’m trying to imagine what kind of concert might really suit the space—a string trio, perhaps?—because, as it had for the National’s show at last year’s Sydney Festival, the incongruity of rock, here, is an obvious one. As if to highlight the odd juxtaposition, instead of warm-up act there’s lobby music, and it is Blonde Redhead, Andrew Bird, and The Decemberists. What’s going to become of this music, in ten or fifteen years? Will we be playing “23” and “We Both Go Down Together” at our dinner parties?


If so, Bon Iver’s songs may fit uncomfortably into this amorphous indie-cum-easy-listening category. Not for their tonal palette, which hews closely to the folkie textures we’ve come to cherish dearly in the years since independent music lost its grit for Natalie Portman’s headphones, and lives changed by wry words over acoustic guitar. But for the way they seem simultaneously expository and introverted. Justin Vernon’s songs have masses of voices (and that’s how they sing, the four guys in his band joining in most words, even if they’re just doubling the melody line). This gives them this almost-gospel exuberance, when it’s needed. But equally often a charging vocal section will suddenly drain of all life, leaving Vernon all alone. In these moments he can sound as lonely and defeated as anyone.


This sounds a bit hand-wavy, and it is. The truth is, if you try too hard to argue why Bon Iver’s special, why they’ve become such a phenomenon, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. I wondered this, when I first heard the album—why Bon Iver, and not Phosphorescent? Is it just marketing? Certainly his story’s stuck with his fans. Standing in line at the Sydney Festival’s discount tickets booth earlier in the week, fighting a hundred-strong line unsuccessfully for one of his other shows, someone told me the story: The whole man-in-a-wood-cabin thing. At the concert, I run into an old housemate of mine. He tells me the story, too. Suddenly I seem to hear chatter of isolation and genius, and back woods and plaid shirts, everywhere. Sure, the band is wearing plaid shirts (which they must sweat through three times during the show), but the performance of the songs, their quiet intricacy, is a better argument. 


It’s clear the group’s been touring on these songs for a while. They play in a controlled, disciplined way. They know they’ve got a captive audience, lulled by the heat and their adoration of all things Bon Iver, as well as the constrictive atmosphere of the formal hall. So they play professionally, making small tweaks to familiar songs and occasionally remaking them to reveal something new. In the languid introductions, they have something of the creaky-house atmosphere of Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House. But they quickly lurch forward, into the more straightforward rhythms of “Lump Sum” (driven by a thump, thump, thump of bass guitar) or “Creature Fear” (driven by strident snare beats on 1 and 3).


The performance is full of juxtapositions played to maximal effect. “Babys”, which starts as a tinkling minimal instrumental, grows into something overpowering before cutting out completely—a cappella gospel, holding us rapt. Sometimes, the juxtaposition doesn’t always work—“Skinny Love”, faster and more savage than on record, seems less genuine, as if there’s something affected about the way the group relates to one of its most recognizable songs after it’s out of their hands. On the other hand, “Blood Bank” is a revelation. On record, the song’s gentle and quietly breathtaking. The bit about identifying brother’s blood, by the color—“See how they resemble one another / Even in their plastic little covers?”—is classic imagery and expression. Live the impact’s no less for the thicker texture and faster tempo. The more urgent delivery gives the song a thrilling vitality, and the bit where Vernon sings “It fucks with your run-up” rings out loud and clear through the concert hall.


They play every song off the Blood Bank EP, and every song off their debut album. But they’re limited by the amount of material they have. They play a cover—ironically, Vernon says—“Your Love”, by the Outfield. It’s pretty, just like he says it’ll be. At the end of the concert, the audience clearly wants to hear more, and after just a short pause the group returns to the stage, announcing “The Wolves (Act I and II)” as the only encore. They don’t have any more songs. (Unless you count “Brackett, WI” off the upcoming 4AD comp Dark Was the Night. They didn’t play that.)


Sasha Frere-Jones recently profiled Vernon in The New Yorker. Frere-Jones obviously has a strong emotional reaction to Bon Iver, and he writes persuasively as always about the group’s appeal and its enigmatic front man. He describes a moment, in concert, where the music transcends the concrete surroundings; it’s the band’s encore, “The Wolves (Act I and II)”, where Vernon asks the audience to sing along the phrase that makes up the song’s backbone. This moment seems to have been a transition, not just for Frere-Jones’ New York audience, but for a few of the more resistant-to-Vernon-charms among us all. At this show my friend, not overly familiar with For Emma, Forever Ago, expressed a similar experience—that intellectual engagement with a new band, all appreciation of musicianship and technique, without the emotional impact. Still, even for him the encore’s refrain of “What might have been lost” resonates hard. Vernon tells the by-this-time ecstatic crowd this is his last show in “a long, long time,” by way of encouragement. It’s needed, because the venue discourages the sort of chaotic loss-of-control “Wolves” embodies by its end. But, after a timid start, even City Recital Hall gets there.


Bon Iver communicates not because his music comes from some isolationist, frozen-in state. Vernon mentions snow, and Wisconsin, and North Carolina and they sound sort of exotic—certainly foreign—in the dripping heat of a Sydney summer. It doesn’t matter. His band starts to play, then they sing together, and we’re all somewhere neither cold nor hot. But certainly, for an hour and a half, somewhere better.

Dan Raper has been writing about music for PopMatters since 2005. Prior to that he did the same thing for his college newspaper and for his school newspaper before that. Of course he also writes fiction, though his only published work is entitled "Gamma-secretase exists on the plasma membrane as an intact complex that accepts substrates and effects intramembrane cleavage". He is currently studying medicine at the University of Sydney, Australia.


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Bon Iver - Skinny Love (Live)
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