A few nights ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver live. 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver was my “album of the year”, so there’s no chance I was missing this. As it turns out, Bon Iver is just as great live as it is in the studio; and much more beautiful and alive sounding.
The show was opened with “Woods”, a relatively a cappella track from the Bloodbank EP, of renewed popularity from being sampled by Kanye West’s track “Lost in the World”. “Woods” is one of Bon Iver’s more demanding songs, which makes it such an effective opener. You can’t listen to “Woods” from beginning to end without transporting yourself from your current situation over completely to the world of music, and that’s right where I was when Bon Iver went into the next song, Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s opening track.
There were eight people onstage alongside Justin Vernon (two of them drummers) in what was a performance of supreme audio and visuals. The sound at the Mann Center in Philadelphia was crisp and clear as ever, as the band appeared performing amid haze, phosphorescent curtains, and illuminated in electric candlelight. As the band played song after song– almost all of those from last year’s sophomore record and a good chunk of those from their debut and subsequent EP– Justin interacted warmly with the crowd, sharing a number of jokes and suspicious anecdotes about the meaning of songs. Performances were tight and precise, but loose enough to be supplemented with the occasional jam or melodic variation. Bloodbank tracks and solo-spots alike provided atmosphere as the band segued between the folksie For Emma, Forever Ago songs and the more experimental soundscapes of Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
Masterfully arranged versions of For Emma, For Ever Ago were some of the best of the night, with Vernon proving that the rest of his nine-man band can do something to enhance what would normally be solitary performances of “Skinny Love”, “Flume”, and “Creature Fear” without veering too far from the classics that everyone loves. Meanwhile songs from the sophomore album were more faithful to their studio counterparts. The best part of the night, though, was the “Wolves” encore, where Justin encouraged the crowd to sing along the lines “what might have been lost” before erupting in a climactic scream.
Ultimately, Bon Iver live is full of special musical moments like that, shared from one generous and passionate music lover to thousands of others. As the sun set on Philadelphia, Vernon and Bon Iver continued to play on a stage of mellow music and light. It was a reminder that, even amid darkness, there is still brightness, magic, and art in the world for those who seek and unite around it. In sum, Bon Iver live is perfectly representative of the melancholy beauty and optimism that Bon Iver’s music stands for.