By: David Schultz
Midwestern lo-fi sensation Bon Iver has a story and the hipper-than-thou crowd can surely tell it to you without constant references to Wikipedia. For starters, they definitely know whether Justin Vernon goes by the name of Bon Iver in the same way that Chan Marshall calls herself Cat Power. If he doesn’t, they could tell you whether Bon Iver is the name of the band like the original Alice Cooper. They can also give you the full details of how For Emma, Forever Ago evolved from a Liz Phair style, homegrown recording into a much blogged about phenomenon and how it took Vernon from the Wisconsin woods to National Public Radio’s showcase at this year’s SXSW Festival. Those people can help you out with the legend; I’ll try to help you out with the facts.
Last week at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, Bon Iver played before one of the largest crowds who have ever come specifically to see him play. Leaving center stage empty, Vernon sat at stage left and recreated the moody, pensive melodies from his ballyhooed debut. Using his three piece band to the fullest, Iver gave weighty form to his delicate tunes. Rather than falling apart in the live setting, fragile songs like “Flume” and “Skinny Love” gained form and substance. The same guitars that create the ethereal feel of For Emma reverberated around the Bowery Ballroom circling the air before nestling amongst the crowd which stood before Iver in respectful silence, saving their appreciation for the end of each song. If Grizzly Bear appeared next, the hypnotized audience could have been convinced to go forth onto the city streets and perform all sorts of Manchurian Candidate style misdeeds.
Singing in a voice that surely got him beaten up more than once while he grew up in Wisconsin, Bon Iver touched on most of the material from For Emma. For the middle of the show, Vernon played a couple new songs cut from the same mold, joking that he had to write new songs so he could fill out a headlining set. Any artist whose catalog consists of brooding, meditative songs runs the risk of becoming a pretentious head case when they play them live. No worries here; Iver’s songs grew on stage, the end of “Creature Fear” built into a pulsing instrumental jam reminiscent of pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd and Vernon got the crowd to help him close the show by singing the wistful final chorus of “The Wolves (Act I and II).” For the encore, Iver played a relatively upbeat version of “For Emma” and then gathered everyone, including opening act The Bowerbirds, for an absolutely stunning near a capella version of Nashville singer-songwriter Sarah Siskind’s “Lovin’s For Fools.”
Iver’s show at the Bowery Ballroom proved that he could captivate an audience that already dug what he was doing. Many indie-stars accomplish that task and then never move beyond that core. Iver’s never going to have a problem doing whatever he wants in the studio and his fans will always be able to turn off the lights, put on their headphones and lose themselves in his willowy melodies. As he attracts more interest, the difficulty will come when he tries to make the transition to larger venues. At the cozy Bowery, people kept reverently silent while Iver played, larger crowds won’t be as receptive to hipster shushing. Prospects are far from grim though; as Grizzly Bear has shown with their opening sets and festival performances, audiences can manage to keep their mouths shut when the music demands their attention. Let’s just hope they open them when he’s done so the buzz can continue.