Bon Iver | 12.15 & 12.10 | PA/NY

Words & Images by: Jake Krolick

Bon Iver :: 12.15.08 :: The Trocadero :: Philadelphia, PA

Bon Iver :: 12.15 :: Philly
We live in uncertain and tumultuous times. Life's daily struggles are getting more serious as economic blows are met with growing anxiety. A bittersweet holiday season has dug its claws into the country as friends around us are losing their jobs. That knowledge can weigh down one's thoughts with an unsettling touch of gloom. It is during these moments that we turn to music as a form of stability and comfort, reminding us that we are not traveling life's crooked path alone. I've always found truth in the candid simplicity of folk songs. From Richie Havens to Woody Guthrie, folk artists touch on something empathetic, which allows a bit of insight to spill onto one's own moments of personal strife. Their acts of expression offer a personal mechanism to dissect the darker moments of your existence. So, when Kristian Matsson, performing under the moniker of The Tallest Man on Earth, and indie folk rock singer Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver stopped in Philadelphia, our sold-out crowd welcomed them with open arms. We were ready for an evening of reflection through some hard-earned and honest music.

Matsson may be a Swede, but he sang folk music on par with any dusty American performer. Matsson's understanding of the Middle-American accent was uncanny. His wailing voice landed somewhere between Merle Haggard and a youthful Bob Dylan. As he performed "The Gardner," off Shallow Grave, his vocals crackled with electric-wound liveliness that beckoned the crowd to sing-a-long. Matsson's performance was diverting and enjoyable. Surrounded by a vocal crowd on a second floor balcony, we found his songs to be pleasing. Whether you could clearly hear what he was singing or just picking up the gravity of his expressions, his music impressed the packed venue.

After a quick set break, out emerged Justin Vernon, the man who charmed the indie world by sharing his deeply personal three months of solitude through his debut record, For Emma, Forever Ago. He paused on The Trocadero stage to reflect whole-heartily on those wintery moments. We watched with baited breath as he walked us through most of his acclaimed album. In between the heart wrench, we discovered a warmth within the new songs as Vernon unveiled tracks from his upcoming Blood Bank EP due in January.

Bon Iver :: 12.15 :: Philly
The cloud of unsettling doubt that hovered about my head slowly dissipated three songs into the set as Vernon strummed out the drowsy beginning to "Skinny Love" on his steel guitar. The red ember glow on Vernon's instrument held the shadows at bay while our new found appreciation for an album and an artist emerged. "Skinny Love's" haunting melody streamed out into the audience, caressing the crowd's ears like fine oriental silk. Vernon's voice acted like the band's fifth member as it expressed emotions far more significant than the words he sang. Vernon let his hand fall across the strings in a cadenced manner. The strings echoed vibrations and let faint high-pitched tones escape between the true notes. Around Vernon sat his bandmates, who banged on the percussion and drums. Even the front rail joined in the rhythm section as they beat along with the drummers. The thumps and crashes added a powerful build and finale to the crowd favorite. Throughout the evening the band offered well-placed accents on Vernon's beloved songs. As a band, they are just beginning to gain a comfort level that should soon allow them to improvise moments instead of simply taking cues.

With new songs came new feelings of warmth and contentment that flowed through Vernon's pronounced keyboard work during "Babys." The uplifting moment stayed through his cleaver cover of The Outfield's "Your Love," whose potential '80s nostalgia was transformed by Vernon's tender voice and aura of hope. Vernon urged us to sing along during the second act of "Wolves (Act 1 and Act 2)." In the bar upstairs, Flyers forward Scottie Upshall mouthed along to Vernon's tender opening. Then, as the crowd started chanting the refrain - "What might have been lost" - the song morphed into something else entirely. The swell of 800 voices grew into a choir creating a poignant experience. The drums came on ferocious and fast, the guitars became harsh but pleasing, and the sound just kept building and building until it was something grander than we had expected. This was a clear highlight of the evening, a moment inside the music that linked us together.

Vernon plucked an electric guitar from his quiver for a touching rendition of "Re: Stacks." The electric version sounded a little like something off of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. It sent shivers down spines and offered up the evening's only taste of Vernon solo. No one dared to move, let alone whisper as Vernon let each syllable roll melodically off his tongue. The guitar played second fiddle to his vocals as Vernon captivated the crowd.

The evening ended on an upswing with a spirited, rocking version of "For Emma." Bon Iver's songs left the feeling that no man is an island and that an existence forging ahead alone in a bitter landscape was not the answer. Whether you're from Eau Claire, Wisconsin or Philadelphia, PA, Vernon's performances let you discover that salvation lies in our ability to bond with others and share our sadness and joy together. It is this coming together through music that allows us to cope and pull through the darkness of a good winter or a bad economy.

12.15.08 :: The Trocadero :: Philadelphia, PA
Blood Bank, Lump Sum, Skinny Love, Babys, Your Love (The Outfield Cover), Beach Babys, The Wolves, Re: Stacks, Flume, For Emma

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