Bon Iver | 08.01.08 | Washington, DC

Words by: Eric Zimmermann

Bon Iver :: 08.01.08 :: Black Cat :: Washington, DC

Bon Iver
Justin Vernon (or Bon Iver) stumbled onto stage looking like he just woke up and hadn't shaved in weeks. And, quite frankly, he didn't seem to care. As the ensuing set clearly showed, this is a man whose polish and nuance is internal.

Bon Iver's first and only album, For Emma, Forever Ago (read JamBase's review here), is the product of months of solitude in a quiet cabin. On a strictly sonic level, the album is quiet and distant, featuring choirs of cavernous background vocals and sparse acoustic guitars. Emotionally, however, it is piercing and immediate. Vernon's performance on Friday mirrored this dichotomy: he was reserved in temperament and demeanor, rarely sparing more than a few mumbled words of obligatory commentary to the crowd; his vocals, however, were fervent. It's not surprising that the moments when Vernon seemed most connected to the crowed were during cathartic sing-a-longs like "Skinny Love" with the crowd nailing every word.

Many of his songs took a different shape live than on the album. Vernon stretched out and amplified the crescendos on "Creature Fear," and escalated the drumbeat in volume and intensity. It seemed as though Vernon were insisting the dramatic tension burst out of its recorded confines. A drum solo similarly transformed "Skinny Love" from a tortured soliloquy of sorts into a true foot-stomper. Indeed, one gets the impression that Vernon interprets his work in a multitude of ways and that distilling each song into its album version was simply a concession to pragmatism.

Bon Iver :: 08.01 by Zimmermann
If a musician's live performance is a window into the state of his artistic tendencies, then we should expect Bon Iver's next album to be louder and more assertive, sacrificing a bit of self-reflection for musical experimentation. Throughout the evening, he turned short instrumental breaks into extended, almost psychedelic guitar riffs. If Forever Emma, Forever Ago was comparable to Iron & Wine, then Friday's concert was reminiscent of Band of Horses.

Though the sold-out crowd packed the Black Cat to capacity, the show had the feel of an intimate confessional. Of course, this is due in part to Bon Iver's lyrics. A song like "Flume," with lines such as, "I am my mother's only one/ it's enough," somehow pull us into emotions, saying so much with so little. But, it's truly the combination of what he sings with how he sings it. A startling falsetto that seems incongruous with his grizzly visage and imposing stature, Vernon's distinct, exposed vocals are what give his sound life. The effect was most clear on "The Wolves (Act I and II)." "Someday my pain/ someday my pain/ will mark you," Vernon sang, his voice reaching an almost inhumanly high pitch as he moaned the second "pain."

The set closed with a cover of Talk Talk's "I Believe In You." Vernon extended the disorderly instrumental interludes with a bit of psychedelic flair, and his voice was eerily similar to the high-pitch croon of Talk Talk's Mark Hollis.

It's unusual for an artist to come out of the gate with a debut album as artistically complete as For Emma, Forever Ago. It provides layer after layer of aesthetic and lyrical texture, proving itself both accessible and nuanced. But Friday's concert suggests evolution and change. Vernon, it seems, has come out of that quiet, backwoods cabin for good.

Bon Iver is on tour now, dates here.

Check out JamBase's exclusive feature/interview with Bon Iver here.

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[Published on: 8/11/08]

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GratefulHokie starstarstarstar Wed 8/13/2008 07:57AM
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Good review on a real up and comer. This really put out an incredible album with "For Emma, Forever Ago". It's the perfect album to play alone, with friends, or best of all...when you take your date back up to your apartment for some "coffee" :P

I was hoping to catch him here in NY at Union Hall on the Oct. 11th, but it sold out in like a day. Announced yesterday the addition of a second night...the night before. GOTTA snag these while i can!

Deucesturf Wed 8/13/2008 12:54PM
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kind of bummed I missed the show, this album is definitely something different, check it out if you can.