Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bon Iver, Bon Iver

When Justin Vernon, the humble front man behind Bon Iver, finally strolled onstage alongside his brood of instrumentally genius pals, it was the first time (in a long while) that I felt a sort of surreality overtake me at a live concert. I found myself twisting my neck to see around waving hands and bobbing heads, straining on my toes as they held my elevated weight, and almost too fascinated to wildly clap like the other ecstatic concert-goers. I wanted to see who he was; who I literally consider to be the perfect embodiment of the man, the myth, the legend.

On Monday night, I attended the live performance, nine-piece band equivalent of a private jam session in Bon Iver’s living room. Mastermind Vernon was there, playing alongside eight of his dedicate friends; he was singing unadorned with all of his heart; he was experimenting with new sounds; and he was warmer and more welcoming than anyone who’s ever hosted me.

Or at least that’s what it felt like.

I actually was packed into a muggy, narrow concert hall in Toronto with hundreds of hip young bodies elated to see everyone’s favourite modest musician take the Sound Academy stage. Appropriately located at the docks, this Toronto venue – although trendy like the rest of the bright metropolis – was about as rustic feeling as it would get for the indie-rock musician who famously holed up in a Wisconsin cottage to write most of his most haunting masterpieces. The air was thick and heated, and once opening act The Rosebuds left the stage, it became even denser with anticipation to see this magical mystery artist who first captured the attention of North American soul-searchers in 2008.

And then there they were. Arranged and calm beneath an aura of northern light-like effects, in front of their microphones, slamming into the first song, “Perth.” Although easygoing by nature; this nine-piece orchestral mixed bag heaved hard into the first track and didn’t retreat. Vernon, who we all had envisioned to be the quiet genius behind some of the most breathtaking albums of the last two decades, didn’t hold back. Crashing outros and noisy experiments took over the beautiful performances of “Creature Fear”, “Calgary” and “Towers”, tossing the expectation of a Kleenex-heavy standstill concert immediately out the window. Perhaps the most interesting transformation was the uppity rock tempo that beat out from underneath the hot red stage lighting on “Blood Bank” – a normally gentle melancholy recollection that was cranked into high gear, and therefore cranked up to a new level of meaning in its quickened state. Never before have I so actively echoed Vernon’s sentiment than when I felt the buzzing guitar in my chest as he strummed vigorously, motionless in front of the tall microphone shouting, “I’m in love with your honour, I’m in love with your cheeks.”

At first listen, it seemed as if he was going to tick through the entire new album in uninterrupted succession – a realization that had a good half of the audience giddy to hear the hot-off-the-press items, and the other half puzzled and nail-biting for more of the scene-altering debut album For Emma, Forever Ago.

But he continued forward, graciously thanking everyone in attendance at almost every pause, and announcing some of the (hardly) oldies to come – sending the nostalgic attendees into a frenzy. Vernon left his preciously hushed classics untouched; hosting the entire audience on his own as he solo-strummed quiet falsetto beauties like “Flume”, “Re: Stacks” and “Skinny Love” to a swaying and emotional crowd. High acrobatic vocals were graceful and effortless for the handsome songwriter – as if the entire show was a one-take recording which the history books would remember. It was pure and howling when his profound words needed emphasis, and a brave, deep croon when the booming band called for it.

The nearly 20 song set has Vernon established further as the quintessential contemporary artist. I feel idiotic calling him anything along the lines of “indie” or “indie-rock” – it feels too general and disconnected. The show, and his music, is anything but that. Although intricately poetic and digging out of a place we all wish we could dig from, when he ventured into the woods to create his landmark confessional work of art, he connected us to it. We understood everything he meant when creating it, somehow. And since he’s continued forth with new albums, sounds and performances – a show like this proves he’s found us again, and will inevitably continue to connect us more to who is really behind the man, the myth and the legend.

Calgary - Bon Iver - Toronto, August 8, 2011

Skinny Love - Bon Iver - Toronto, August 8, 2011

*I do not claim the rights to any of the above videos

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