Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, in the wake of Grammy nominations and a high-profile collaboration with Kanye West, has become somewhat of a big deal among people who still think bearded guys with guitars can be a big deal. He’s been satirized on Saturday Night Live, inspired a Tumblr featuring ludicrously romantic stories involving his dramatized persona (entitled Bon Iver Erotica) and even documented his fitness regimen online. Short of giving interviews on E! red carpet specials or being stalked by TMZ reporters, these things mean that indie-folk’s biggest name (and possible avatar for all things hipster) is capital-R Relevant. Naturally, I flocked to his nearest show.
Cooperstown’s Brewery Ommegang looks like it was hand-selected to host a Bon Iver concert. Wandering its grounds prior to Bon Iver’s arrival onstage Monday night, it was like a scavenger hunt for things listed on the Stuff White People Like blog: Microbrews! Flannel! Vegan options! I even saw a guy wipeout while playing hacky-sack! All snark aside (three words I really ought to be using in sequence more often), it was a lovely venue. Surrounded by fields of corn and back-dropped by the Brewery, it provided camping accommodations, plentiful food truck options and delicious (albeit pricy) beer, a combination that made the two-hour commute from Cornell well worth it. Needless to say, I’d advise that you keep an eye on the Dan Smalls ’92 website for his next booking there; it’s a must-visit location for anyone in the area who enjoys a unique outdoor concert space.
In a place as spacious as Brewery Ommegang, though, I began to worry that Bon Iver’s private, emotional and delicate music might get lost in the breezy air of 2012’s first legitimate autumn evening. Those worries were assuaged as the band arrived onstage and Vernon launched into the opening lines of “Michicant.” Whether it was Vernon and company’s stunning musicianship, the lantern-heavy stage set-up or just an impressive job by the sound guy, the show retained an intimacy typically reserved for an audience of 300, not 3,000. The band showcased Bon Iver’s new, polyphonic sound that premiered on its self-titled second record. Featuring violins, woodwinds, brass and masterfully tasteful drumming, the group lends sonic credence to Vernon’s careful, emotionally charged compositions. The slow-build of Grammy-nominated single “Holocene” proved that fullness in sound does not require obscene amounts of volume but dynamic range; “Minnesota, WI” not only showcased Vernon’s lower range, but the swelling horn section; and “Blood Bank” erupted into a rocking guitar solo that evoked Neil Young circa “Cowgirl in the Sand,” silencing the naysayers (which, prior to this night, included me) who thought Bon Iver couldn’t add a little grit to its repertoire.
The full band numbers, while wonderfully affecting, could not match the emotional heft of Vernon’s solo moments. On old tracks such as “re: Stacks” and “Creature Fear,” the captive audience was treated to a man at his most vulnerable. Vernon’s voice is a veritable force of nature; his falsetto is second maybe only to Thom Yorke’s (and even that is merely out of deference to the elder statesman). As members of the crowd tried to emulate Vernon’s wounded croon, you realized that Bon Iver is, at its heart, the project of a singularly empathetic performer. Even as he repeated the cyclical sing-along of show closer “The Wolves” (the vague, melancholic phrase “what might have been lost”), it grew more powerful and sweeping, invoking the participation of most everyone in the ever-reverent audience.
As a music-writer and the product of a Catholic upbringing, I am often cautious to trust those who liken a musician’s concerts to a religious experience; this is because I harbor a proud sense of cynicism and have actually attended church, the home of many things referred to as “religious experiences,” hundreds of times. But Justin Vernon does his concertgoers the greatest of services. He offers no sloganeering, no showboating and no manufactured sense of pomp-and-circumstance; instead, he just provides a raw, heartfelt performance that feels truly soulful and devoid of insincerity. This was a show that proved to me that, amid all the accolades, amid the Twitter scandals and amid the shirtless photographs, the world was right about Bon Iver.