September 22, 2011
Better than: Thursday night network TV premieres (but don't forget to set the DVR).
The Campanile bells of the University of California at Berkeley, solemnly tolling the hours, retreated to the background against an electrified performance and a jubilant fan reception at the Greek Theatre last night. Illuminated by camera-phone screens and uplifted lighters, Wisconsin's Bon Iver launched into a loud, full-band performance that expounded on the act's recorded output.
Singer/songwriter Justin Vernon, the band's leader -- to the point that the group pretty much exists just to back him up on tour -- generally prefers not to make a stir on the band's records, dialing Pet Sounds-esque pop down into hushed Americana-influenced tones. It's a formula that began with Vernon retreating into the Wisconson woods to make a breakup album, and has taken the guy to Kanye West collaborations and spots on the soundtracks of about half the prime-time dramas on TV for the last couple years.
But backed by a gaggle of touring musicians, Vernon takes the opportunity to up the volume -- and he engaged in a couple barn-burners last night.
Take "Blood Bank," the title track of Bon Iver's 2009 EP. On the record, Vernon turns a country-rock melody on its head by removing its rhythm section, the arrangement gradually and inevitably falling apart into something that would make Brian Eno proud. On Thursday, the whole band participated and worked the track into a frenzied rock jam, haggard '70s-style harmonies and all, that probably roused residents in the surrounding Berkeley hills. Standout "Hinnom, TX" (perhaps 2011's most verdant synthesizer hymn) maintained the low-key presence from this year's excellent self-titled 2011 full-length, but the contributions from trombonist Reggie Pace and the rest of the horn section enriched the song's epic airiness.
Vernon himself affected a personal make-over of sorts after initially stuttering his way through initial audience interactions -- "We definitely feel, uh, like you guys like us, and that makes us try hard, San Francisco" (it's Berkeley, Mr. Public Speaker). He dug himself out of the Diffident Mountain Man rut when he introduced the band, a public speaking task for chatting up a sold-out crowd about a nine-piece band. He even had some fun with his song introductions: with a little tongue in cheek, he variously proclaimed things like "this next song is about the power struggle in this band," and "this one is about virginity and non-virginity."
The audience ate it all up, hanging on every three-part harmony and every sustained note through the end of the performance (seriously, like, ten people out of eight thousand bolted before the encore). And that's the power flaunted by this odd little Wisconsonian's project. Bon Iver seems to lie at the intersection of so many past precedents: the hushed folk of Will Oldham's cohort, hints of Grizzly Bear's crunchy rock 'n' roll, Howe Gelb's west-of-nowhere desert jams. He even tries out yacht rock in "Beth/Rest," and this reporter overheard a glib remark in the crowd that Steve Winwood would be making an appearance. Point is, part of Bon Iver's success owes to its ownership of musical styles and an absolute willingness to combine them in intriguing ways.
Despite the enthusiastic crowd response, Bon Iver kept the encore to a reasonable two songs. After closing the main set with "Wolves," the band came back onstage with "Skinny Love," which featured the horn section huddling around Vernon like they were in some sort of old-timey jug band. And, big surprise, "For Emma" finished the encore. The juxtaposition of that comparably straightforward closer with Bon Iver's woozy new stuff showed how this group has moved beyond the perennially tame beardo-folk genre in which it always gets lumped. Vernon talked about how he felt lucky for the chance to play the Greek Theatre, but I have a feeling those the group's rapt audience were thanking their stars for the chance to hang out in beautiful weather and get a close-up of a band in the middle of a meteoric rise.
Openers: Hailing from Stillwater in north-central Oklahoma, Other Lives played a sunset show to what they called the largest crowd they've ever had. With the skyline of San Francisco dimming behind them, the band's performance exhibited a serendipitous sense of gravitas. Its textured, multi-instrumental songs strayed often into beatless, minor key meditations that evoked the nihilism of that dustbowl home. This writer wouldn't be surprised if Other Lives found themselves playing to large crowds more often.
Freeloaders: As always at the Greek, freeloaders lurked in the woods behind the amphitheater during the set, and were sporadically shooed away from the fence by event staff. While their perches left them far up the hill from the stage, fans could clearly hear the performance. Hell, the paying customers up top didn't have a much better view.
BARTknockers: To all intrepid concertgoers who tried to go green by taking BART to and from the show, the end of the night featured ... a single three-car train. Come the hell on, BART. They even throw a couple extra cars on the trains that service ho-hum 2-7 A's losses down at the Coliseum -- so why do eight thousand indie rock fans get the cattle-car treatment all the way back to the Mission?
Rejected Headlines for this Article:
"This Just In: Bon Iver proposes amending 'sex, drugs and rock & roll' to include lattes and Ikea"
"Bon Iver tragedy: fan loses thumb in freak live-tweeting accident"
"Developing Story: girl who snuck strawberry vodka into Bon Iver show 'pissed that Tanya's hogging it'"
"Poll: 68% of Bon Iver attendees think 'we parked THAT way, brah'"