Live: Justin Vernon, Rock Star

08/11/2011 12:32 PM |

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Bon Iver
Live at Prospect Park Bandshell, Celebrate Brooklyn!
Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sometimes these big outdoor shows can be a wash—the sound merely decent for the people right up front in the audience, and terrible for everyone else, with those furthest away craning their necks to see a performer who appears no larger than a raisin. Last night, Bon Iver made the most of it, and then some. As the night cooled to a pleasant, tepid humidity, the first sounds from the nine-piece band, at their thunderous best, supporting the strong precision of Justin Vernon’s voice, latched onto the atmosphere and carried well. There was no wash-out whatsoever.

He started off with “Perth,” and as opposed to the gentle, ebbing jam of the track on the album, this version played up the crunch and grunge of electric guitar. The drums too made it clear that whatever fears one might have had about this show being slow, at times mopey, were unfounded—this was a rock show, goddammit, and that theme carried through the rest of Bon Iver’s set.

Seriously, who knew Justin Vernon could shred? I didn’t until I heard and watched the breakdown in “Towers,” or an epically energetic, rock-and-roll version of “Blood Bank” (off the EP of the same name) with the stage, and Vernon flooded in red. Another highlight of the show was the live version of “Calgary,” in the middle of which Vernon pulled the favorite high school rock band pedal trick, stomping on it to turn his electric guitar into an instrument of face-melting destruction. Don’t read that incorrectly—that’s not to say it’s immature. Just unexpected (in a good way) is all.

However, the best use of the electric guitar of the night had to be Vernon solo, playing “Re: Stacks” off of For Emma, Forever Ago. Recorded, it might just be the most stand-out beautiful of the strummy acoustic songs on the album, yes, above “Flume” or “Skinny Love.” But live, with just Vernon, just the guitar—you could hear all the intricacies, the teasing and restraint of dynamics, and it became clear that the nine-piece band was really just an extension of Vernon solo, the other instruments expressions of what Vernon would imply here or there with a hammer-on or a pause. The audience, one of the most rare, genuinely appreciative groups of people I’ve been in ever, held an almost perfect silence for this one: the chirping of crickets was detectable in the greenery behind us, and when a man dropped his plastic cup in the middle of the song, he hurriedly, embarrassedly apologized to the people around him.

Somehow the lyrics from “Re:Stacks” have a sort of prophetic quality to them, especially now, upon witnessing the live version of the grand, musical departure from Justin Vernon’s minimalist, one-man-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods past. He sings, “This is not the sound of a new man or a crispy realization. It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.” And then, as if to reassure the audience of dedicated fans this time, rather than the woman he wrote the song for, about or to originally, he finishes, “Your love will be safe with me.”

The set ended with a double set of encores—a stripped-down “Skinny Love” was one of the songs played, and an audience singalong version of “Wolves” another. It was good to see Justin Vernon do what he’s done before, but the takeaway from this show was ultimately an introduction, either to what Vernon is capable of, or willing to do, with his music going forward.

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