Are you familiar with the mythology and publicity surrounding Bon Iver’s meteoric and surprising rise to fame? If not, ask Kanye West and read this.
If you are interested enough to read this review of Bon Iver’s most recent performance in Austin, you have heard all about the cabin. You know how Kanye West personally reached out to Justin Vernon to invite him to Hawaii to guest on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. You recall he is from a small town in Wisconsin that few people (myself included) know how to pronounce. Now that all of the mythology and publicity surrounding Bon Iver’s meteoric and surprising rise to fame has been retraced, I want to take a moment to talk about the music.
Because I have yet to see Bon Iver perform live, in the days leading up to the show I have been having many conversations with fellow fans attempting to gauge what makes this guy’s sound and brand of music so special to so many people. Not to over simplify things, but there are thousands of guys in their late 20s with guitars in coffee shops and bars across the country so what is it that makes Vernon’s talents stand out and with so much acclaim? For me, despite my musical tastes pulling me in many directions, I typically gravitate towards insightful/poignant lyricists. Vernon certainly falls into this bucket despite the irony that I or anyone else for that matter, cannot make out what he is singing without the assistance of a lyrics sheet.
Vernon’s speaking voice is nothing like the trademark falsetto that he employs when fronting Bon Iver. As (yet another) legend goes, he started singing that way almost as a joke before he started to realize he could make it work. He has copped in early interviews that his early lyrics were sounds that turned into words and it starts to make sense why it is so hard to follow his non sequitur trail of words. Consider the following lyrics from his song “Flume” that I absolutely love despite causing me to still scratch my head some three plus years later: “Only love is all maroon / Lapping lakes like leary loons / Leaving rope burns- / reddish ruse.”
But what these fellow fans and I agree on is that the words are so less important than the way he sings it. I have a hard time remembering an album whose pauses or a hushed inhalation could mean so much. There was a calculated and purposeful reason that Vernon decided to release the lyrics to his recent self-titled album before the record was released.
Again, does any of this matter? Not really, because everyone at the Long Center tonight only cares about how much they love this man’s music. For his debut Vernon recorded all of the different instrumental parts himself in said cabin with the help of lots of overdub. The follow up is much more layered and sonically interesting yet somehow, the intimacy and that gut punch reaction from the previous album is not lost at all. People leading up to the show and in the venue’s lobby all say the same thing- nothing else I listen to makes me feel like that. As a writer, some might assume it is my responsibility to explain what “that” means, but I argue the beauty of most things we love lies in that hazy mystery. And tonight I am here to experience Bon Iver amongst a community and see if the performance can live up to the recordings. I am not disappointed.
When Vernon takes the stage shortly after opener (and girlfriend) Kathleen Edwards set, he looks like he grew up in the Midwest but dressed for his Texas audience. Tall and furry, he wears a black button down with pearl snaps and he smiles as he gets in position amongst his eight backing members. When he first started touring, Vernon played alone. Soon after, he began playing with two other musicians, one of which was a high school student he was teaching guitar who still plays in the band. Tonight, he has a handful of brass players who double on strings, a couple guitarists and two drummers.
The crowd is mostly young and full of excited UT students, not embarrassed to let their anticipation radiate from their faces. As a New Yorker, it is still surprising to see my new southwestern neighbors embrace what they love rather than sit on the sidelines, too insecure to reveal what they hold close and dear. Bon Iver seems to feed off this energy and their set never loses momentum, even during the slow lulls.
The group starts with “Perth”, the opening song off their latest albumBon Iver and then proceeds in order through the first three tracks before the stunning “Holocene”. The track is my favorite song on the album and that sentiment seems to be shared amongst many around me. Tonight you can make out a bit more clearly the beautiful line: “Not the needle, nor the thread / the lost decree / saying nothing, that's enough for me” and the snare drums absolutely fill the room and lift Vernon’s admission dressed in a chorus, "and at once I knew, I was not magnificent". A stark statement from the critically adored musician -- I smirk noting that all that time logged with Kanye and his notorious ego had little effect on this Midwesterner’s humility.
The crowd erupts once Vernon picks up his acoustic guitar and slides into the recognized strumming of “Flume”. “Blood Bank”, off the same named EP, is gorgeous this evening and the hushed tone of the recording receives a jolt of life from the supporting band. “For Emma” also is received with a rush of cheers as the room sings along to my favorite underhanded compliment ever: “for all your lies, you’re still very lovable”.
The supporting musicians that make up tonight’s lineup of Bon Iver is impressive, to say the least. I find myself drifting off from following Vernon’s singing to how intricate the composition of his songs are and how many elements go into pulling off the various subtleties of each song. Vernon makes it a point to introduce each of his musicians by name, a common enough practice, but then goes out of his way to mention where each was born. A subtle move, sure, but for a man who built his recording studio a couple miles from the house he grew up in, it acts as another reminder how important one’s roots are to the soul of what makes Bon Iver resonate. Each musicians gets his proper due from the crowd, but it’s uber talented and freelance bass saxophonist Colin Stetson who receives the loudest applause as well as the only solo of the evening.
My fiancée is worried that we won’t hear “Skinny Love” tonight but that concern subsides quickly when Vernon breaks it out in the encore. All of the band with the exception of a single drummer, form a half circle behind Vernon singing back up and adding hand claps to the chorus. Vernon gets it -- this song, a somber testimony to some woman who hurt him, is no longer his. This open wound of a confession is turned into a celebration tonight and he wants everyone to get involved. The audience is all too happy to oblige. The set closes with “Wolves Act 1 & 2” and the room is eerily silent as Vernon moans “someday my pain will mark you”. I promise you Mr. Vernon, each person in tonight’s audience will agree that your music has already accomplished just that. You have long held that part of us, no matter how anyone one of us chooses or fails in defining it.