You never really know what to expect from an artist the first time you see them live, as was the case Wednesday when I ventured the block from my house over to the Canopy Club to see Justin Vernon, better known as indie-folk artist Bon Iver. His debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was self-released in 2007 and re-released in 2008 by Jagjaguwar Records.
Since Bon Iver has released only one CD, I thought I had a pretty good idea what I was getting myself into; an hour-long set in which I would hear most, if not all, of the nine tracks from what was one of my favorite albums released within the last year. I was right for the most part. What I didn’t count on was the opening act, Collections of Colonies of Bees, to play loud ambient music. What I was more surprised by was the fact that apparently this particular ambient/noise rock band just happens to be Justin Vernon’s self-stated “favorite band ever.” Though it doesn’t show in his record, which is basically a collection of songs featuring only an acoustic guitar and Vernon’s voice, it certainly shows up a lot in his live performance.
Bon Iver opened their set with “Flume,” the first track from the album, and from the start it was quite apparent he had entranced the crowd. Every word that came from Vernon’s mouth seemed to strike a chord with the audience and put everyone in sync, not only with what was happening on stage, but with everyone in the crowd around them. And when Vernon asked the crowd if they felt like singing along to “The Wolves (Act I and II),” the answer was a very exuberant yes.
The influence of ambient/noise rock music on Bon Iver’s live show came out multiple times throughout the course of the performance, often incorporating powerfully moving segments of tumultuous music-making amidst what was, for the most part, a very laid-back and intimate show. This was most noticeable on “Creature Fear,” which ended with the three artists on stage layering sound after sound for two minutes, only to come back down to a soft, beautiful conclusion.
The feeling during the last song was really what the night was all about. Vernon reverted back to the album’s roots and played on stage by himself, happily obliging the audience’s request to play “Re: Stacks.” It was when he sat up there with nothing but his guitar singing to a silent crowd, that I realized what his music was all about. For Emma, Forever Ago alludes to it, but until you see Bon Iver perform live, you are only scratching the surface of what is a truly talented, passionate musician.