bon iver [2009]

Fox Theater
Oakland, CA
24 September 2009

I am not a solitary figure. I do not often crave the introspective space of empty rooms. In almost 34 years, I have seen three movies without company. I have eaten dinner out alone even fewer.

All of this to say that I am both amazed and perplexed by Justin Vernon (a.k.a. Bon Iver) and his famed solo three-month journey into the Northern Wisconsin wilderness. Driven to this physical space by romantic and artistic loss, by his own sickness, he ended up writing what became his debut album “For Emma, Forever Ago”. Perhaps journey is misleading. By all accounts, Vernon pretty much stayed put in a cabin for the majority of the time. But a journey, certainly, nonetheless.

Luckily for all of us, Vernon emerged both from the cabin and obscurity to bring us some strikingly beautiful and brutally honest music. There is very little polish in his creations. The notes are often rough in shape and fall together at times, as if out of his control. His voice can be coarse and it can be angelically gentle, but it is always far too passionate to be precise. It is only in Vernon’s words that the planned patience of forethought is evident. These words are carved out of something ancient and living and coaxed delicately and perfectly into a larger, magnificent meaning.

This was my first opportunity to see Bon Iver live, after two years of listening to his music. I’d read and heard that his performances departed significantly from his recordings – that the soft folk was left behind and the rough and the jam took over. Not so much with the gentle angels.

And yes, there was indeed a fair amount of the jammy jam jam Thursday night at Oakland’s fine Fox Theater. “Blood Bank” got downright kooky at its end. The final climax of “Creature Fear” was just plain silly with bluster. But there were plenty of reserved moments as well.

I know he wants to be more than just a man and his guitar. I know this. I think I even understand it. But the best moments from this night were clearly (for me) these quiet ones, the spaces filled only by Vernon and his raw words and voice. “Beach Baby”, “Re: Stacks” and “Skinny Love” (despite backing by a triple dose of percussion) were all pure solo Vernon and they were simply breathtaking. His performance of “Re: Stacks”, in particular, will stay with me for a long time.

It takes an incredible talent to command silence in a space as immense as The Fox and capture the attention of the thousands of people inside. For much of the night, only one voice could be heard and it was the only voice that mattered. When the crowd did rise up, it was at Vernon’s beckoning, for a soul-shaking chorus of “what might have been lost” to close “The Wolves Act I”.

Interestingly enough, most of my Bon Iver listening has come late at night, nestled comfortably inside headphones, alone. Perhaps Vernon’s music is all that’s needed to embrace this quiet, this most intimate space of one.