On Monday night I saw Bon Iver play at Holecene in Portland. I had seen them play at SXSW but I wanted to view them in a different context, away from that strange beast of hype and amazement and anticipation that music festivals create.
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.
The Portland crowd was full of love (and beer), and from the moment Justin Vernon and his bandmates took the stage, the audience hung on every note, in-between song banter, and a flood of feedback. I am not exaggerating when I say that people cried. Bon Iver's songs are delicate but they are not soft; the comfort in them is fleeting, their beauty uneven. In the live setting the songs are wilder, they screech and veer towards chaos before closing in on themselves. Vernon's voice is part songbird, part howl, and it is fearless. The chemistry between the players was fantastic, their delivery earnest and often dire. Whatever that strange magic is that certain people possess, Vernon has it. But both during songs and between them, singing or talking, he is himself: grateful, humble, aware of the moment.
On of my favorite non-musical moments was when someone from the crowd yelled, "F**k Jens Lekman!" The comment was in response to our local weekly having set up an ersatz rivalry between Lekman and Bon Iver, who were playing on the same night. Vernon's response was, "What? No! That guy is on our label". Whoops. I guess a little research is needed before you drunkenly yell out what you think is a compliment.
And since we've been talking about fans, I should add that Bon Iver's fans are pretty great, at least in Portland. We were even asked to sing along to "The Wolves (Act I and II)", and though this request usually makes me cringe, I sort of enjoyed it (though I didn't actually sing. Does mouthing the words count?).
Anyway, if you haven't already heard it, listen to Bon Iver's song "Skinny Love" or stream the entire album here (thanks, Rick).
You can also hear a full concert by Bon Iver, from NPR Music's SXSW series.