Bon Iver Bring the Woods to Oakland

Nicole Lim/Illustration

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Bon Iver's is music that puts you in a place. On Thursday, Sept. 24, frontman Justin Vernon brought that very place to his devoted fans at the Fox Theater in Oakland. While their debut album For Emma, Forever Ago, which comprised most of the night's set list, seemed initially to only lend itself to a record listen with its reticent and exquisitely painful composition, Bon Iver proved they could balance their modestly-scaled act onstage.

Disheveled, unwashed and feral-bearded Vernon came onstage with little banter and even less of a sense of humor. But as the night carried on, he grew more and more comfortable with the audience as he strummed his tragic musical poetry and crooned his chilling howl. Most striking was the delicate passion and deliberation with which he held the guitar, as if he were dedicatedly sculpting something before our eyes.

The night's overture was "Flume," the first song off their only full-length album, slowed down and elegantly sustained to an entirely haunting effect. In Bon Iver's emotionally naked songs, they manage to crystallize a feeling and a moment, evoking nostalgia in the concertgoer and appealing to their own experiences and memories. "Flume" paints a vivid picture of that fated cabin in Wisconsin where Justin Vernon embarked on a self-imposed exile to create For Emma, Forever Ago.

Naturally, Bon Iver played "Skinny Love," a new classic amongst indie anthems, but this was a song that almost gets lost amid the rest of the band's seductive yet meager collection of music. To the hushed sounds of "Blood Bank" and "Lump Sum" were added backbeats, putting a more uplifting spin on two otherwise morose and elegiac songs. Vernon and his band also performed the folky ballad "For Emma," a song steeped in Americana with its catchy twang and harmonies.

In a sense, Vernon acted out onstage the catharsis he experienced in that cold cabin in the woods, where he expunged much of his heartache and disillusionment with the world around him. Through his lyrics and performance, he also acted out the tragedy of the break-up that so infamously inspired the album's creation. The inner-workings of his genius are apparent more than ever in a live concert setting, because he is a man who may talk slowly and may not appear to have much presence on the surface, but his interiority, on full display, bears fruits of artistic wonderment.

Still, he is by no means a sap. Performances of "Creature Fear" and "The Wolves (Parts I & 2)" brandished a rawness and a vitality that is anything but indigestibly sentimental. On "Re: Stacks," Vernon sings of a loss of selfhood to compulsion and addiction and yet the joy with which he played this song implies that he has reconciled his personal collapse.

The other members of the band--Michael Noyce, Sean Carey, and Matthew McCaughan--complemented Vernon harmoniously, in both the literal and figurative sense, without allowing him to overshadow their contributions. Though the show mostly belonged to Vernon himself, the others remained a necessary integral to each one of these tender, eulogy-like songs.

By the end of the night, Bon Iver painstakingly demonstrated that their songs aren't exclusive to a headphone or turntable experience even though it is the kind of art you might want to listen to alone on a night of self-pity and overwrought despair. Instead, indie-music natural selection has allowed Vernon and his band to evolve into massive and accessible appeal, as well as into a contemporary classic and a defining group for our generation. Even if this means they are on the fringes of selling out, I would gladly sell out with them.


Go off to a cabin in Wisconsin with Ryan at [email protected]

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