Live: Bon Iver at Bowery Ballroom


Want to play darts?

Bon Iver
Tuesday, July 29
Bowery Ballroom

Bon Iver’s been called many things this year. I think Jesus has been one of them—the new messiah of Sunday-morning folk, where those who are named Emma are forever haunted, or at least swearing up and down that they’re not like his Emma. But what hasn’t emerged is a different description: he looks like a beer-gutted schlub. He wears a somewhat form-fitting T-shirt onstage, and some baggy hiker-type pants, and could totally be your best bud that is really good at darts and will help you move. These are all good things, and as anyone who’s confronted aging recently, working off those Milwaukee’s Best calories is a bit tougher than you might think. In an odd way, it almost makes Justin Vernon more endearing than his fabled back story—not only does guy make nice break-up record about breaking up in the middle of nowhere, but the “whatever” appearance he favors gives his “fuck off, Emma” sentiments much more validity. And in a weird, perverse, lucky-for-him sort of way, probably makes him even more attractive to the sundress-clad ladies that packed Bowery last night.

Still, Bon Iver’s quick rise to the top of the indie food chain seems to have taken him a bit by surprise. He’s quite gracious, as he thanks us and thanks us for coming out. No probs, bro. His only defense mechanism these days yields itself during his explanation for a few new tunes, a bit of self-deprecation as to his reasoning. “We’re so big now, that’s what you do,” he says, his voice rife with humility. But his fondness for unkemptness isn’t by any means a defining feature of Bon Iver; its just something that you’d notice, had you not seen him before—but it’s his falsetto that keeps you hooked. He delivers tunes nearly in the exact form they exist on record, captivating us during “Skinny Love,” “Flume,” and “Creature Fear.” The one moment his backing band left the stage, Vernon isolated himself for an evocative rendition of “Re: Stacks.” The silence in the room was only broken by overzealous Bowery workers taking out the garbage, prepping for the nights’ end. The sound of the double doors opening and shutting echoed throughout the space, but it didn’t break anyone’s concentration (maybe, except for mine, momentarily). “Re: Stacks” is a song that requires you to hang on to his every word, trying to decipher it bit by bit, even if at times, its hard to do—his annunciation morphs into a sort of wailing moan, a siren-like howl at times that inevitably will move you, or at least try to possess you just for a second. It’s hard not to be possessed.

Of the two new songs, “Blood Banks” and “Babys,” the latter won for weirdest tune of the night. It utilizes a keyboard and a piano, slowly building into a haze of discontent, where words started sounding less like words, and more like ramblings of a guy, who is either “so cold to multiply” or “to cold to multiply.” It’s probably not one to look forward to, but maybe it’ll evolve into something different down the line—it was really the only moment that lost our collective attention. But he was unaware of this; whether he’s playing the introvert, or is the introvert, it’s a fine line he’s content to coo through, and it’s this ambivalence that makes him (still) one of the more fascinating subjects this year.

Melissa Giannini on Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago