Bon Iver | 09.22 & 09.24 | Bay Area

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Steven Walter

Bon Iver/Megafaun :: 09.22.09 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA

Bon Iver :: 09.24 :: Fox Theater :: Oakland, CA
It doesn't take two songs before Bon Iver has us in the palm of their hand. Even the normally incessantly chatty San Fran audience is hushed, rapt, engaged. Folks in outfits they spent way too much time putting together have tears in their eyes as they soundlessly mouth, "Tear on tail on/ Take all on the wind on/ The soft bloody nose/ Sign another floor." I'm not even clear why these words - so odd and poetic and non-specific - move so many so deeply but there's no denying the impact that For Emma, Forever Ago has had. Released to a wide audience in February of 2008 after building a small cult, the album - the product of pastoral isolation and separation of several sorts – is singular. On the surface nothing about it suggests a broad enough audience to sell out two major Bay Area venues or become a cultural touchstone, one of the shorthands lazy writers will use to describe new music for years to come. If you'd asked me if I thought Bon Iver was going to be this big when I spoke with creator Justin Vernon last year (see feature here) I'd have probably said no. Yet, here I was pressed cheek-to-cheek with the most attentive crowd I've witnessed at The Fillmore this year.

In many respects it's kind of amazing that music so fiercely personal and almost impenetrably individual has exploded in a way that speaks to a mass audience without completely losing its original character. Hearing these songs live is akin to being in the recording studio with Joni Mitchell when she cut Blue or sitting on the couch as Crosby, Stills & Nash carved out their debut. We are not often welcomed into such states of being, such openly wounded moments in human existence, and the result of such exposed honesty has been Vernon's meteoric rise. For a guy with only 14 officially released tunes (save for the odd b-side or comp track), what was once a one-man operation has blossomed into a empathetic, beautifully textured group capable of fully delivering this poignant, undeniably strange fare in full concert halls.

Bon Iver :: 09.24 :: Fox Theater :: Oakland, CA
In America and the U.K., where Bon Iver has become a real sensation, there's a huge need to grieve and heal on a national level. The past decade has been tumultuous on a grand scale (not to mention our own personal travails, shattered romances, etc.) and standing amongst the hip, literate Fillmore crowd I got the sense that part of Bon Iver's rapid-fire proliferation is how Vernon seems to be healing before our eyes, not only recovering from shattering loss and extreme emotional distance but thriving and blossoming into one of the most interesting musicians today. We love to see broken people rise up. It affirms our faith that we, too, can dust ourselves off and go on after we've been creamed by love, work or whatever. And the healing this tour - which Vernon announced would be the final one focused on the For Emma material – began with the choice of opening act.

Megafaun is simply one of the most wildly, warmly interesting things going right now. Capable of modal turns that'd make Pharoah Sanders grin and pop chops that'd make Ray Davies slap them five, this Durham, NC trio - Joe Westerlund (percussion, vocals) and brothers Phil Cook (guitar, banjo, keys, vocals) and Brad Cook (guitar, bass, vocals) - were once part of a quartet with Vernon called DeYarmond Edison, whose dissolution in 2006 at least partially inspired For Emma. By legend, the four men met at a H.O.R.D.E. show in the late '90s and in interesting ways their shared and separate paths reflect that pioneering fest's doggedly diverse nature and commitment to one's own sound, convention be damned. By all reports it was not an easy band breakup so it was surprising that Vernon asked his old mates to join him for these West Coast dates. Both he and Megafaun obliquely mentioned there was "lots of history" between the two bands and how wonderful it was they were sharing a stage. When Vernon joined them for a blazing throwdown their chemistry was apparent, if suitably ragged for the time apart. "This is Blind Justin Vernon on guitar. Do you have the blues?" asked Brad Cook, with a single whoop from the darkness inspiring the retort, "Well, one person does. Well, you're all about to." The four guys then leaned heavily into the sweaty burn of "Solid Ground," which revealed Vernon's shredder side and honored the impolite handling of the blues The Fillmore has been legendary for since its '60s inception. Later, Vernon remarked, "We couldn't be doing this tour with any better people. The boys that are Megafaun taught me to play music."

Megafaun :: 09.24 :: Fox Theater :: Oakland, CA
As for Megafaun's set itself, well, it was pure sterling. There's so much going on, so many subtle layers yet none of it feels forced or gimmicky. This is how they hear music in their heads, with divisions dissolving and the super string of things revealed to be braided into new shapes. As fab as their 2008 debut, Bury The Square, was, their sophomore effort, Gather, Form & Fly (JamBase review) has a reach and grip that suggests the emergence of a real future great, and this performance focused entirely on new material only added oomph to that feeling. With vibrant harmonies that capture the best parts of the Carter Family and creamy West Coast '70s rock combined with fiery instrumental chops that produce a sound far larger than three dudes seem capable of, Megafaun seem on the tipping point of something big. While perhaps not the NPR/Pitchfork quantity their pal is, they are carving out an identity just as rich, if not potentially richer since their work delves into the gnarled burrows of Henry Flynt, Sun Ra, John Fahey and other outsider geniuses and then makes the outré accessible and appealing. "The Process" was all bold, exploratory statements with a gutsy rhyme scheme, yet it was organically followed by "The Fade," which has all the lilt and perfect, succinct construction of an early Beatles original. As disparate as some elements seem, they made them work wonderfully, right down to the simmering, hypnotic ending – a conclusion so lovely, delicate and unexpected it stole the air from my lungs for a few moments.

They're funny, too. Amongst the instantly chummy exchanges with the crowd was one that speaks volumes about just how welcoming these three spirits are: "We have two extra bags of chips in our dressing room. That shit never happens," said Brad. "So, if you got a little stoned before the show and are hungry just track us down." Then, from the shadows a lone voice barked, "I want those chips!" to which Brad replied, "No problem, dude. We'll hook it up." One has zero doubt that they tried to feed that guy after their set.

Bon Iver :: 09.24 :: Fox Theater :: Oakland, CA
Returning to the headliner, right from the start of Bon Iver's set I found myself intentionally mishearing lyrics, just as I've always done with his recorded work. There's a slur and flagrant individuality to his phrasing and pronunciation that invites one to make a line their own. For instance, on "Flume" I like to sing, "Only love is on the run," sometimes instead of, "Only love is all maroon." Over time I've figured out what the correct words are but somehow my brain still personalizes these tunes, and mayhap this too is part of Bon Iver's appeal – a place for one's own stamp within his framework. Like Nick Drake, Judee Sill and the aforementioned Joni, Vernon's creations feel as if he's speaking directly to us personally. Sure, there's albums being sold and other folks around at shows so clearly we're not alone, but it's nigh impossible to shake the sense of direct intimacy his work engenders.

He's got a fine band - Michael Noyce, Sean Carey and Matthew McCaughan - that finds ways to circumvent the occasional claustrophobia of For Emma, while carefully utilizing tactics that draw one into things in a way that mirrors the record. It was a cool, fascinating dance to observe, and almost without fail they achieved powerful results. For example, the arrangement of the much adored "Skinny Love" was still driven by Vernon's slashing acoustic guitar and sweet 'n' angular pipes but now has thick, hard clacking percussion courtesy of the other three musicians, who readily switched instruments depending on a tunes' needs. If anything, "Skinny Love" is more powerful now, especially with nearly everyone in the building throwing in as Vernon cried:

I told you to be patient
I told you to be fine
I told you to be balanced
I told you to be kind
In the morning I'll be with you
But it will be a different kind
I'll be holding all the tickets
And you'll be owning all the fines

Bon Iver :: 09.24 :: Fox Theater :: Oakland, CA
There is much to connect with here, and this set hummed with intimations of more spots to attach to on the way. Newer material like "Babys" from 2009's Blood Bank EP point a way out of Emma's woods, a burbling simplicity that suggests a pop response to Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, and the other guys are starting to put their toe into the creative mix, including a fantastic, on-the-money cover of Graham Nash's "Simple Man" sung by Noyce. Everything about this band feels organic and active, and the sense that they're going somewhere together and not just doing Vernon's bidding is encouraging.

Before "The Wolves" Vernon asked us to sing along with the signature refrain. "Start off quiet and then get louder. At some point it takes a turn and you just scream because it feels real good," he said. "This might be the point to light that spliff you brought." As we moved together towards the main set's conclusion, the auditorium vibrated with people singing, "What might have been lost," over and over. But even as I added my own voice, undeniably moved in the moment, I caught myself focusing more on what had been found and how the darkest days so often emerge into a light that quiets and sustains us.

Bon Iver :: 09.22.09 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA
Creature Fear > Team, Lump Sum, Skinny Love, Brackett, WI, Flume, Babys, Blood Bank, Simple Man, Re: Stacks, The Wolves (Act I & II)
E: For Emma, Worried Mind

Continue reading for Lindsay Colip's review of Bon Iver at Oakland's Fox Theater...

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