By: Jeffrey Terich
Bon Iver/Phosphorescent :: 03.19.08 :: Ché Café :: San Diego, CA
Under ordinary circumstances, a hushed and seated crowd mixed with soft, somber folk sounds emanating from the stage before them doesn't make for an exciting concert experience. In the case of Bon Iver (pronounced "bohn eevair," French for "good winter") and Phosphorescent's recent tour stop at San Diego's Ché Cafe, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Eau Claire, Wisconsin's Bon Iver and Brooklyn's Phosphorescent, who each released stunning new albums in Fall of 2007, specialize in intimate, rustic folk-rock. While Phosphorescent has been putting out albums for a few years, 2007's Pride is the group's hazy, melancholy artistic zenith. Bon Iver became the focus of widespread Internet hype shortly after Justin Vernon, Bon Iver's sole permanent member, self-released debut For Emma, Forever Ago received immediate praise (and a proper re-release on 2/19/08 through Jagjaguwar). Yet, given each artist's subdued, subtle nature, a fiery, rollicking showcase wasn't in the cards for the evening.
Opening act The Paddle Boat suggested, upon plugging in and taking their positions, that the audience have a seat, cross-legged, on the venue floor, to which everyone in attendance politely obliged. Having worked so well the first time, Justin Vernon requested a repeat sitting after he and his two bandmates in Bon Iver took the stage. Rather than sucking out the excitement, this course of action merely transformed an ordinary show into something more intimate and special. Opening the set with For Emma's leadoff track, "Flume," Bon Iver's sweet, graceful sound overcame the room, with awestruck audience members gazing toward the band with a reverent awe. Vernon's voice was every bit as perfect and haunting as it sounds on record despite his disclaimer that illness may have prevented him from sounding his best.
Given that the Ché, located on the UC San Diego campus, is a student-run, commune-like venue inside of a house surrounded by tall trees, Bon Iver's performance felt much more like a sing-a-long inside of a rustic, winter cabin than a rock show. That feeling became even more of a reality during the final song, as the trio relocated to the center of the room, positioning themselves to perform "Skinny Love" without amplification. It's a safe bet to say that, in that instant, all skeptics were thereby converted.
As stunning as Bon Iver's performance was, they weren't the headliners. That honor belonged to Phosphorescent, though by the time Matthew Houck (who is Phosphorescent for all intents and purposes) strummed his first chord, the crowd had been dropped by at least half. It's a damn shame, because Phosphorescent's performance was every bit as beautiful as Bon Iver's set, if perhaps a bit more conventional. With a standing audience and an arsenal of electric guitars, Phosphorescent put on something closer to a conventional rock show, though their songs were anything but conventional rock 'n' roll.
Abandoning the otherworldly falsetto heard in the album version, Houck sang "A Picture of Our Torn Up Praise" with a somber and soft baritone, as his bandmates extended the song into a lengthier jam session devoid of wild showmanship and brimming with an epic ambience. The live version of "Wolves," as well, had a more raw, loose feel than on Pride, though its louder, amped-up sound sacrificed nothing in the way of grace or emotion.
Those who called it an early night surely missed out on a wondrous performance by Phosphorescent, though in the early birds' defense, Bon Iver's show was nigh impossible to top. In both cases, those tucked under the Ché Cafe's roof were privy to a rare, feel-good and surprisingly low-key rock 'n' roll experience, one that said much more than deafening distortion or feedback ever could.
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