All Photos by Scott Chernis
It seems only trivial that the bigger the venue, the larger the audience, the less intimate the performance, but Bon Iver isn’t trivial. Playing to a sold out crowd of approximately 2,300 at Oakland’s new Fox Theater, Bon Iver and opener Megafaun created one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen to date. His self-released debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, catapulted him as a favorite amongst music blogs, critics (Pitchfork gave him 8.1), and artists (feature on Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s Dark Was The Night). Now he is showing the world why.
Justin Vernon became Bon Iver in a quiet, cold, and secluded cabin in Wisconsin, where he created and produced For Emma, Forever Ago, which the The Sunday Times called a “minimalist masterpiece.” His voice and arrangement is soft, chilling, and comforting all at once. It’s so minimalist that I was unsure about his live performance without the vocal effects and production layers. Just like the reviews I read prior said—he was brilliant.
His debut album consists of only nine songs, which he has been repeating over and over for the last year (I’ve discovered after reading similar live accounts from several blogs). During his set at the Fox Theater, he commented how he wished he had more material to entertain the crowd. One might suspect the routine has lost meaning for him, but if it has—it doesn’t show. Maybe it’s the magic surrounding his falsetto voice, or the aura surrounding a budding star, whatever it is Bon Iver’s future seems bright.
“This is a special tour for us,” Justin says to the crowd, something that he repeats throughout the set. The opportunity to become a rock star is special, but to share and bring your friends along with you for the ride, well that IS special. Before Vernon went on his solo project, he and the members of Megafaun were a part of a group called DeYarmond Edison. Add to the tour bus his younger brother, Nate Vernon as his tour manager, and the onstage camaraderie becomes clear.
There are no egos on this tour. The stage is arranged so that the band is staged like a group, not a group supporting a lead singer. The front two right corners have microphones and guitar stands, with two drum sets directly behind. During Megafaun’s set, both Vernon and Mike Noyce (guitarist from Bon Iver) join Megafaun for different songs. When Justin joins Megafaun this is his first appearance on stage, but he walks to the back of the stage picking up the bass. It’s a clear message–this is Megafaun’s set.
Megafaun is a folksy three piece band, featuring Phil Cook (keyboard, banjo, vocals), Brad Cook (bass, guitar, vocals) and Joe Westerlund (drums). As they moved through their set, one experimental track stood out called the, “Darkest Hour.” The song begins with a sample of a storm brewing, slowly accompanied by a building drum rhythm. Eventually, the storm breaks as birds chirps issue the end and the group begins to sing repeatedly, “I have been wallowing inside the darkest hour.” Instantly, the song reminded of me of Animal Collective, which is a direction I hope the group continues to explore.
By the time Bon Iver performs, the venue is packed and restlessly noisy. When Justin sits down, and strums the first note, the crowd instantly grows quiet. He begins with “Flume,” which sends chills down my spine. His falsetto voice is beautiful, and accented by the slide guitar. Throughout the set, the crowd listens in awe, occasionally between tracks some people chat, and are shushed by their neighbor when the music resumes. A woman tells me she works at the Fox Theater, and has never heard or felt the entire crowd stomp between tracks in such animated applause.
Before “re: Stacks,” Justin explains the story behind the song. He was in Alabama and “someone gave me the seven of diamonds, and the two of spades—that’ the devil’s hand…sometimes you get dealt that.” It’s one of the softest songs on the album, and with this introduction, “you’re money is gone, and you’re drunk as hell,” sounds so much more poignant, truthful, and sad. It’s moment like this where his music takes on emotions that few musicians ever succeed on an album, and even fewer manifest it live.
After singing his full album, something that passed far too quickly, Bon Iver and Megafaun performed a song together. The seven artists gathered around one microphone, some put their arms on each other shoulders as they sung, “Worry My.” It’s clear this was a special night not just because of the warmth that Bon Iver exudes in his music, but with his friends and now, his fans. I will say without hesitation this was the best performance I’ve seen all year.