There is something to be said about firsts: first steps, first kiss, first failed relationship, etc. But as time goes on and the list of firsts still left to enjoy gets shorter and shorter, there is one experience that pretty much offers never-ending novelty: first live show of (insert artist/band name here). At the age of 15, 25, or 62, this particular newness can be experienced— like a virginal bride on her wedding night or a child finding out Santa Claus isn’t alive— again and again standing there in front of some stage and hearing this music you’ve only ever heard through headphones or speakers, finally actually truly come alive. Sometimes the experience is one huge disappointment, and then other times its more than you could have ever hoped for, more than you thought was humanly possible; sometimes the experience is the kind of all-consuming physical activity that leaves you lying on your back, breathless, exhausted and utterly satisfied from the way those sounds sang like they will never ever sing for anyone else ever again.
Ok, so maybe my expectations are a little bit high!
But of course, I realize, as with the rest of life, it’s always hit or miss (though God knows we pray for all the hits, all the time, always).
So this past weekend, I had my Bon Iver/Phosphorescent virginity taken away. In retrospect, I admit I had presupposed what the show was going to be like- it was going to be Bon Iver playing his little folk/pop/distorted vocal harmonies/i-recorded-my-last-album-in-a-wooden-cabin set, I’d clap out of obligation, and then Phosphorescent would take the stage, blow everyone’s brains with their sheer musical goodness AND make us all cry at the same time. Our hearts would be pulled out of our chests, fluttering in our hands, as we’d gaze up at Matthew Houk with a drunken twinkle in our eyes. Why cry? Because that’s what Phosphorescent does– they pull from the loneliest, deepest, emptiest rooms of the human heart, add words like “all our torn up praise,” “ a showy amen” , “never get to say goodnight to you again” , “Lord truly I’m afraid” , “we’ll always be pulling away,” “your arms can be magic,” and “it will be all ok,” and then they throw in some strings and strums and bells, a pipe organ or two on top of tired country moans, until the only thing left to do is weep or reach for another bottle of whiskey and worn out blues. I wanted to get my heart broken that night, right there standing in front of the stage, and I wanted it to be slow and long and loud. But something unexpected happened, and that something was Bon Iver.
In one of the most premature comments I have ever made in my life, I prepped my musical companion that night for a Bon Iver that had,” a few great tracks, but then nothing else worth being crazy about.” By the time Bon Iver hit the stage, the sold out show squeezed itself into The Independent’s little room with just enough space left to breathe. I realized my foolishness halfway through Bon Iver’s set when said companion nudged me in the arm, leaned over and asked “So, which songs are the ones not worth being crazy about?” A rhetorical question, to be sure, not only because every song that came out of those three men stirred everyone’s bones, but because what Bon Iver did was make musical magic, dress it up, strip it bare, and dance it around stage without so much as breaking a sweat. Though it wasn’t just the music, it was the band itself- the sheer ease and enjoyment passed between each musician, the making fun of themselves and Justin Vernon’s 6 different guitars or the shirt worn for every show that hadn’t been washed in weeks. Opening with “Lump Sum,” Bon Iver set a playful sort of mood that caught everyone’s attention without being pretentious and then before we knew it, we were all singing along to a good ten minute version of “Wolves 1&2” because we were told to and because we couldn’t help it, really. With nothing more than a guitar and vocals for the first five minutes, Vernon sang in the softest, strongest voice, “Someday my pain, someday my pain will rock you, harness your blame!” and the best we could do was sing that one loneliest question in return, “What might have been lost?”
Somehow, barely two songs into their set, Bon Iver had already earned the right to take their time, nearly 10 minutes, building up into this uneven tempo instrumental climax, with syncopated drums and cymbals flying and crashing in circles, bass lines being swallowed and projected out into the blackest, darkest corners of the room and guitar strings sliding up and down with just enough elegant fury to not drown out the single note Vernon and his bassist screamed out in harmony on top of it all. And then suddenly, with the wave of Vernon’s hand, the entire cacophony stopped dead silent and I swear I heard the entire room breathe for the first time before anybody could physically move to clap.
What came afterward was a natural continuation of the standards set by song number two, but not in any way repetitious or overdone. Song after song hit an entirely different chord and other stand out performances with the well beloved, Skinny Love and Re: Stacks. Here too Vernon and Co. managed to bring perfect balance between simple instrumentation and showcasing Vernon’s voice which, in “Skinny Love” more than any other, rushes out in waves with something like anger tempered by frustration and the boldest sadness, singing, “I told you to be patient I told you to be fine I told you to be balanced I told you to be kind- Now all your love is wasted? Then who the hell was I?” All I can say about “Re: Stacks” is that regardless of whatever happened before or after this song, the one moment that stands out more than all the rest in my memory is Justin Vernon gripping his guitar, chin up in the air, eyes closed, pouring out the last line with such conviction we all couldn’t help but believe him when he sang so reassuringly, “Your love will be safe with me.”
When Bon Iver left us lying on our backs— we were breathless, exhausted, and utterly satisfied.
eds: All photos are taken from Bon Iver’s Myspace. Thanks to the miracle of YouTube and overactive amateur videographers, the live video is from Lina’s show.
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