I'm actually working on a couple of different entries that I intend to parcel out over the coming week. This is the first of those, but I assure you there is more to come soon.
Thanks in large part to my little brother (who has unfortunately abandoned the ranks of active blogger forgreener pastures of grad school and the married life), I have spent a good deal of time listening to For Emma, Forever Ago over the last year or so. In that time, Justin Vernon's haunting wail and the isolation that permeates the first Bon Iver album filled a hole--one not entirely unrelated to a healthy measure of homesickness for the Upper Midwest.
Having grown up in the same area as Justin Vernon, there is also a certain degree of somewhat misplaced hometown* pride. He went to UW-Eau Claire, where my brother and brother-in-law both did their undergrad. Vernon lived in the same dorm they did. And while Eau Claire is not La Crosse, it's not far from it (and they've both been repeatedly targeted by the Smiley Face Killer).
*I realize that I am not from Eau Claire, but this is the most appropriate term my limited vocabulary is affording my right now.
But I digress.
These things made me fall for the album.
All that being said, I was not sure how the music of Bon Iver would translate to a live show, despite my brother's assertions that they put on a helluva show.
It was with these tempered expectations that I went into the Paramount last Sunday.
Taking our seats in the opera box (a free upgrade, which was totally awesome), we sat down to catch the first band. While their name leaves a bit to be desired (understatement), Megafaun was surprisingly good. They seamlessly blended their brand of Americana with noise and had the crowd totally into their set, even bringing ex-bandmate* Justin Vernon up to play bass on a song.
*The members of Megafaun and Justin Vernon were in the band DeYarmond Edison together, the very band that broke up--one of the developments in Vernon's life that led to the penning of the universally renowned For Emma. As such, they are also originally from the greater Eau Claire area originally, although they are now based out of Raleigh.
When their set was through, I added Gather, Form, & Fly to my list of CDs to buy and began to get a little more excited for the impending Bon Iver set.
I was not prepared for what was to follow.
In their live shows, the sparse, acoustic guitar-centric arrangements are fleshed out with a much more percussive backdrop, adding a level of urgency and intensity that is not entirely present on the album tracks. On songs like the sublime "Skinny Love", Vernon's bandmates (Mike Noyce, Sean Carey, and Matthew McCaughan) occupy two drum sets and a single floor tom, picking up as the song progresses until by the end they're propelling the song to its conclusion. The same drive is provided on gems like "Blood Bank" and "The Wolves (Act I and II)", with the bass coming in and forming a full rhythm section for Vernon's act.
What all of this works out to is a shockingly great show. One of the best I've seen in a long time. Maybe it owes to tempered expectations. I know there have been times in the past where I've seen a band be amazing the first time, only to be underwhelmed in subsequent concerts*. Maybe my feelings owe largely to having a set of relatively low expectations going in. That often affects my judgment more often than I'd like to admit.
*I'm looking at you, Badly Drawn Boy the second time around at the Fine Line and a ladies-less Broken Social Scene performance two days prior to this Bon Iver show over at the Seaholm Power Plant. I know every show cannot be a great one, but those two stick out as being especially disappointing, and the latest Broken Social Scene show had the advantage of being in front of the dramatic backdrop of the Art Deco, long-restricted Seaholm Power Plant. Granted, the show was free, but the performance was still less than breathtaking.
Regardless of my pre-set notions as to how the show was going to be, coming out of it, I was floored.
You can take that for what it's worth, but anyone throwing in a cover of The Outfield's "Your Love" is all right in my book.