Bon Iver’s second album, and certainly the concert tour to support it, represent something rare and daring: a complete reimagining of the sound that made his first album an extraordinary masterpiece.
The almost Thoreauvian legend behind the creation of Bon Iver’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, is known well by fans of alternative music. For Emma was recorded in an isolated hunting cabin in rural Wisconsin during a long, harsh winter. The album is short and Spartan; its nine songs clock in at just over thirty minutes. The delicate, stripped down songs were not much more than Justin Vernon singing in falsetto and playing an acoustic guitar. Released by an independent label in 2008, For Emma came seemingly out of nowhere and received extraordinary critical acclaim. He fronted only the essentials and produced what was considered to be an essential album.
In touring to support For Emma, Justin Vernon invited the audience to step into his cabin. His stage presence evidenced a gentle charisma and a deep humility. He passed out lyrics for the audience to sing along. His demeanor communicated a sense of, “Aw, shucks, I’m surprised you’d come to hear me play music.” His backup musicians seemed entirely superfluous at times doing little more than clapping along. Were those on stage with him his band or true fans who had come to the concert with instruments? (To see what I mean, check out this clip of Bon Iver playing “Skinny Love” on Letterman.) His music was extremely confessional. Though his lyrics were often obscure, Justin Vernon bared his heart with every note he played. Those Bon Iver shows created a sense of intimacy. Company and Society were invited to sit in a chair right next to Solitude.
With the release of his second album and his tour to support it came obvious questions. How does a musician follow up on something so raw and personal? How would the intimate feeling he created playing to one hundred fans work now that he was playing to one thousand?
Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore release declared that Justin was more than a heart-sick and liver-sick guy in a cabin. Justin keeps his (often auto-tuned) falsetto as well as his mellow style. But, Bon Iver is rich and deep. It feels emotionally expansive. Most of the songs on the second album are named after geographic locations, both real and imagined: Perth; Minnesota, WI; Michicant; Hinnon, TX; Calgary; Wash. While still a guy with deep emotions, he was no longer a recluse.
Justin Vernon took the stage last night at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City backed by an eight piece band. The stage was crowded not only with musicians, but with instruments: 3 electric guitars, electric bass, 3 keyboards, 2 drum sets, a percussion stand, bass saxophone, soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax, clarinet, 2 trumpets, French horn, trombone, violin, and viola.
The concert began with three songs from the new album. They opened with the beautiful “Perth” which came across as a tight soundscape with Justin’s auto-tuned falsetto soaring above it. This was followed by “Minnesota, WI,” “Towers,” and “Brackett, WI” from the Dark Was the Night compilation. The turning point in the concert came with the fifth song, “Blood Bank,” which the band turned into a hard-rocking number. This was followed up with Holocene, a song that is quickly becoming my favorite from the new album.
Next came “Flume.” At last, Bon Iver was playing a song off For Emma. The amazing thing here is how nine musicians took a delicate, sensitive song and transformed it without strangling it. The songs from the first album were almost enhanced by the full band. They enhanced the cathartic ending of “Creature Fear” with an overwhelming noise solo. The most collaborative song from the first album, “For Emma, Forever Ago” also benefitted from the support. There was also enough of a hint of the old style with the band exiting the stage, allowing Justin Vernon to play “re: Stacks” alone with just a guitar. ("re: Stacks" is my favorite Bon Iver song, not only because it is absolutely beautiful but also because it is the only song I've ever heard that makes reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls. "This my excavation and today is Qumran.")
What was most impressive to me was the way the band managed not to overwhelm the delicate quality of the songs. As I listened it was clear to me that the songs were breathing, not suffocating. I think part of this had to do with the decision to make woodwinds a part of almost every song. In particular, the bass saxophone was a daring and wonderful choice. The bass saxophone is a rare instrument. It is gigantic and visually intimidating. (I had a chuckle noticing that the lead sax player, Colin Stetson, was wearing a ripped Iron Maiden t-shirt.) But the sound is one of breath.
All throughout the show it was possible to pull out delicate sounds that were glorious to my ears. During “Wash.” the percussionist tapped out a beat on the valves of a trumpet. On a stunning, joyful cover of Bjork’s “Who Is It?” he beatboxed while Justin Vernon added finger cymbals. On the 80s inspired “Beth/Rest” the percussionist had a field day, at one point playing the cymbal with a string of pearls.
The musical evolution of Bon Iver is necessary and also brilliant. To continue to pretend that he is surprised that anyone would show up to hear him would be inauthentic. His heart-ache gave us one of the best albums of the last decade. It would be sadistic to wish upon him any more of that quiet desperation, of that genuine meanness that drove him into a corner. In a cabin in the woods Justin Vernon discovered life. Now he is living it. And it is dear.
The best songs of the night: re: Stacks, Blood Bank, Wolves Acts (I & II), Holocene, Who Is It?, Wash., Creature Fear, and For Emma, Forever Ago.
Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards was the opening act. She had a very enjoyable stage presence and played a short set of catchy songs with country, blues, and folk influences.