Bon Iver are modern geniuses. This is something I think most of us acknowledge. Their music, at the time of its debut, was mindboggling to a demographic that was thirsting for something groundbreaking. Justin Vernon’s unmistakeable falsetto, sensitive lyrics and stream of consciousness style all marked him out as one of the pioneers of indie-electronic music. This humble man, and his even more humble bandmates, taught everyone a lesson in constructing unusual yet fiercely passionate music. They are the fathers of the plaintive modern love song.
But how does this incredibly intimate sound translate into a live performance? Who are the naked, stripped back Bon Iver? I wanted to find out, having never seen these guys live. What could I expect from my champions of the alternative-indie scene? Perfection?
AIR Studios (4AD/Jagjaguwar Session), February 2012
I started with one of the most beautiful studio sets I’ve experienced. Bon Iver’s performance at AIR studios is intensely expressed. The emotion in each voice is palpable and their utter commitment to the sound is supremely eminent. What I discovered when watching this was a real appreciation for the way they use their voices like instruments. Instead of focusing on the clarity of the lyrics, they mould them into something new. The feel of each phrase is slightly different, as it adjusts to the mood of each line of the song. The harmonies are simple, the lines interweaving effortlessly. But as we will continue to learn, the elements build up to create something much more significant than just the sum of its parts.
The second song they play, Wash., has disorientating rhythms and a simple, relentlessly repetitive backing. It could be confusing, but the mood it creates is much more complex. Rather than feel disorientated, we feel calm. They caress their pianos, nothing big or flashy. Just pure melancholic beauty. The bridge is bordering on chaos but it doesn’t leave us feeling uncomfortable. Instead we can appreciate that this chaos is all part of the musical journey. The individual chaos builds to a kind of melancholic elation. The song doesn’t seem to begin or end, but hang in the air exactly where it should.
The Hollywood Bowl, October 2016
Next was the recent performance of “29 #Stratford APTS” at The Hollywood Bowl, which begins with a minor gaff on Justin Vernon’s part. He accidentally messes up the capo on his guitar so that the song begins in the wrong key. If I was him I would have melted into the stage with embarrassment, but he glided through it with a cheeky smile on his face. The performance is much more electric than anything I have written about here. An electric guitar and an electronic percussion backing underpin Vernon’s falsetto, with pepperings of orchestration. The videographer is probably just a fan, judging by the quality, but we still get a sense of the ways Bon Iver translate their new album into a live performance. It’s more minimal, but still captures the new melding of stillness and movement they’ve managed to create in the studio. Just wanna shout out to the floral shirt he’s wearing. Justin can certainly wear the shit out of that shirt.
Sydney Opera House, June 2016
Moving on to much more acoustic territory. The performance of Heavenly Father at the Sydney Opera House is completely acapella, with 8 voices giving their absolute all to what is a powerful piece of songwriting. I’m gonna go out there and say this is the best acapella performance I’ve seen by any musical group ever. The arrangement is characteristically pure, with little need for fanciness- the song can sing for itself. It’s soulful, yet serenely still. AND Justin is repping another fabulously patterned shirt and a trucker hat. In the Sydney Opera House. Do we need any more confirmation of his status as the most badass genius of the indie-alternative scene? Methinks not.
Glastonbury, June 2009
Finally, we’re taking it back to the 2009 performance of Wolves at none other than Glastonbury. First, I have to comment on Justin’s fascinatingly disheveled appearance. He looks like a strange mix between a hobo and a nutty professor. This fits perfectly with the old rumours of his estrangement from society in his father’s cabin during his writing of For Emma, Forever Ago. This performance begins stripped back and builds to a chaotic crescendo, in which two drum kits are shredded to their limits. What’s interesting is their ability to a hold such a massive crowd in the palm of their hands. This album is one that doesn’t translate itself easily to a festival crowd. But Bon Iver have a way of delivering raw passion, in whatever form they choose. Rather than repeat the track note by note, they give themselves the freedom to inject the energy that can surely only be obtained from a live audience.
So, kids, what have we learnt? Well, obviously Bon Iver can create mesmerising music. But of course, we knew that already. What we have really discovered is that they can take that music ANYWHERE they want. Whether it’s in the studio, on a packed out stage in an Australian opera house or to a crowd of cracked out teenagers in a field, these guys give their upmost to every performance. And we cherish them for that. Thank you, Bon Iver. Continue to do whatever the frick you want because you can be sure that whatever it is, it’s working.
P.S. Any and all fangirl stories about seeing these guys live would be much appreciated. (I would like to live through you all).
[Picture source: http://www.rollogrady.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/bon_iver.jpg]