Bon Iver The Pageant September 11, 2011
Let's take some responsibility for the Bon Iver emerges from a cabin mythmaking. It does not belong in the vacuum we have assigned it -- Justin Vernon is considerably more complicated and less exciting than that. And while he may have (shrewdly) allowed that to become his narrative, he's never done much more than watch as the world found his back story nugget well suited to YouTube Facebook embeds and 140 character eye-catchers.
Bon Iver, however, definitely started as one guy alone with his voice, his guitar and a collection of effects pedals. Vernon's debut, For Emma, Forever Ago is made of an insulated choir of a hundred Justin Vernon vocal tracks, some spare guitar and practically invisible drums. And as remarkable as his voice is, that does not make a very compelling live show, particularly when your audience starts to number in the thousands.
It is nearly impossible to play a venue like the Pageant with a show predicated upon achieving undisturbed placidity, and one reason Vernon might have gone big is to have the power necessary to bury the chatter coming from the bar. And for most of the show, his nine-piece extravaganza did just that. But Bon Iver does not work without some breathless stillness. Vernon played several songs mostly unadorned, just his otherworldly falsetto and some unobtrusive backing. For "Hinnom, TX" and "Wash." (not coincidentally both from Bon Iver, Bon Iver), he got that pin-drop reverence.
He did not get it on "Skinny Love." Serves him right for saving it until the last song of the encore, when the hobbyists were drunk and so itchy for the hit they started shouting its name the second the band made its return to the stage. Bon Iver at last relented, ditched its instruments and gathered around a pair of mics behind Vernon. It took approximately half a second for the crowd to burst into a haphazard clap-along, which momentarily seemed like it was going to bludgeon all the magic out of the thing. But Vernon shook it off by stalling away from the rhythm of the song -- it doesn't need the downbeats anyway -- and we ultimately settled for a far-more-appropriate sing along.
The mini orchestra that is Bon Iver today has been gestating from the moment Vernon started touring with that first album. He was doing the seated, quiet show the material seems to demand for a short time, but he was quickly exploring new sounds and instruments, expanding the songs from delicate slivers to orchestral floodplains and jazzy interludes.
You knew what was coming if you heard last year's Gayngs record, which is full of cotton-trouser syrup and was mixed by Vernon. The expanded palate completely informed this year's Bon Iver, Bon Iver, so the old and new material works together live much more continuously than it does on record. A rowdy horn section in "For Emma" feels apropos, but it's not much of a revelation, either. Large ensembles have found comfortable homes in sensitive indie folk since the genre first shuffled its way into existence.
But there is a reason Bon Iver has stood above its scruffy over-educated peers in both its old incarnation and its new. "Creature Fear" became a noisy freakout last night, with all three (!!) guitarists kneeling at their pedal boards and the horns honking free jazz. The noodling and fiddling got a little wearisome at times, but not here -- this was mesmerizing, watching such a delicate song get so battered. It all petered out except the bass sax ("I will literally punch you in the mouth if you call it a bari sax," offers Vernon helpfully later), which held on for the sort of sound that might come from a forlorn thousand pound sheep. And out of the ether came the unmistakable opening notes of "Flume," the first plaintive sounds of the first song on the first record. This elicits piercing screams of approval.
"Flume" has a break on the record, where the rhythm and melody fall away entirely and it's just saw blades and eephus keys. In retrospect it sounds a bit like Vernon just falls asleep in the booth before starting and going back into the chorus.
Last night that breakdown remains just as shapeless but becomes tense with the discord of so many instruments, and it goes on forever. The crowd applauds what it has mistaken for the end of the song and starts to get restless while the band continues to hum and drone. Then, in a swell, the whole thing comes back riding on a blimp of organ and nine-piece harmony, and you can practically hear the gasp of twenty-three hundred people.
That reaction has nothing to do with the cabin back-story. It doesn't matter whether you find Bon Iver ideologically toothless and its music huddled meekly back from any sort of boundary or whether you think he's singing your life's deepest truths. That gasp is a visceral, involuntary thing. That sound rubs against your brain with biological conviction.
Vernon was plagued with pedal board problems for most of the night. It didn't matter a ton -- his voice was great and matters much more, plus he's got eight other people to fill in the gaps. He made reference to it before "Calgary," demonstrating the ransacked volume of his guitar and saying, wryly, "We're going to try this song anyway because we're really good."
Before the band played "re: Stacks," Vernon stepped up to the microphone. "Do any of you have problems?" he asked, grinning. "This is for people that have problems." The song is about his gambling issues, so he might have been commentating on his own widely disseminated sad-sack persona. Or, as a guitar-playing friend of mine suggested on the walk away from the venue, maybe he was just talking about his pedal board.
Notes, setlist and more photos on the next page.