By Shannon Shreibak
Anyone at all well versed in the indie music scene knows the overly romanticized story of the origin of Bon Iver. Heartbroken after a break-up, Justin Vernon secluded himself in the woodlands of Wisconsin during the harsh Midwest winter to emerge with his masterpiece debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. Three years later, Bon Iver has transformed from underground syndicate to a Grammy-nominated musical machine. It’s hard to imagine that they have reached such a high level of notoriety that they managed to pack UIC Pavilion Friday night.
Upon hearing that Bon Iver would be appearing at such a large venue, to say I was worried would be an understatement. There were too many hypotheticals to consider! I wondered if their ethereal sound would manage to fill the huge amount of dead space in the large pavilion. Would the songs maintain their trademark intimacy? How would the intricacies of Justin Vernon’s breathtaking compositions translate live? Not only were my fears put to rest upon listening to the opening song, but also I completely forgot about my qualms against the venue choice.
Beginning with cuts from the most recent album, Bon Iver, the nuances and impressive number of layers in the songs became evident. With as many as 10 men on stage at the same time, it took an arsenal to recreate the unique sound that has made Justin Vernon a musical innovator in his own right. The crisp drum rolls of “Perth” bounced against the dark expanses of the pavilion, leaving no audience member hungry for sound. Vocal harmonies between all band members were spot-on; it was easy to tell that I was not the only one left speechless at the first song.
The set list was Bon Iver in almost its entirety. Wrought with unrestrained sound effects and rolling guitar riffs, each song blended into the other seamlessly. Personally, I’m not a fan of seamless transitions between songs. I think that it prevents audience interaction and is unnecessary. But the way it was executed tonight created a beautiful soundscape to admire, not something to scoff at. One downside of these transitions was the length. Between “Holocene” and “Blood Bank” was a nearly five-minute saxophone solo consisting of no more than three notes. While much of the appeal surrounding Bon Iver’s musical style is its sparseness, this was taking it to a whole new level that shouldn’t be revisited.
Some early hits were interspersed throughout the set, including the guitar-thrashing “Blood Bank.” It was a unique opportunity to hear the evolution of the band as they have developed. From the almost strictly acoustic songs from For Emma…, toying around with auto-tune and overdub with Blood Bank and finally establishing a trademark “style” with Bon Iver. Three guitarists stood before massive pedal boards, a frightening jumble of wires and dials. Following most songs, they could all be seen toying with tones and volumes and effects. The result was an impressive new interpretation of songs that we have grown to love.
One of the reasons I was so thrilled to see Bon Iver live was to hear Justin Vernon’s infamous stage banter. I craved to discover the meaning behind his ambiguous and poetic lyrics, for him to shed some light on his inspiration. But audience interaction was minimal. When he did address us, though, it was often a comical observation or proclamations of gratitude. He even introduced “Towers” by saying, “This is a college basketball arena, and this is a song about college basketball,” and letting out a self-satisfied chuckle. Despite this minor shortcoming, I did feel that just being present during the performance gave me a new perspective on songs that have made appearances in the soundtrack of my life.
I think the most impressive aspect of Justin Vernon’s musicianship was the dichotomy between his true persona, a lovable goofball, and the crooning guitarist. One memorable moment was Justin revealing, “This is my first gig with beer men. That’s the shit! I’m pretty into that,” before unleashing his heart wrenching falsetto for “Re: Stacks.” No live recording could have matched the energy that radiated throughout the pavilion during that song. There stood a man completely alone, basking in the spotlight, still recovering from the very heartbreak that led him to that stage.
While I could nit pick and criticize the few shortcomings that were present last night, I’d prefer the contrary. I want to remember the concert as a perfect night when the songs that I listen to in my loneliest moments came to life. I want to remember the sense of comfort and companionship that just a man from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and his backing band created. I want to remember it in the perfection that it may or may not have been. Whichever it was, it just doesn’t matter.
The Wolves (Act I and II)
Check out more show reviews:
The National at Aragon Ballroom
Moon Furies at Double Door
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at Lincoln Hall
Austra, Young Galaxy, Tasseomancy at Empty Bottle
Prince Rama, Indian Jewelry at Subterranean