Bon Iver and the big rooms
He was never going to stay on the downlow, was he? Too much has happened since Justin Vernon released that first Bon Iver album, the flawless, desolate wildness of “For Emma, Forever Ago”. Too many people have copped onto his …
He was never going to stay on the downlow, was he? Too much has happened since Justin Vernon released that first Bon Iver album, the flawless, desolate wildness of “For Emma, Forever Ago”. Too many people have copped onto his voice, his songs, his sound for him to remain a secret. When your narrative includes references to Kanye West and your song “Skinny Love” becoming a favourite to be butchered by kids with stars in their eyes on The X Factor, things were always going to get strange. He was never going back to that cabin in the wilds of Wisconsin.
The last time Vernon was around these parts, it was 2009 and he was playing the Big Top at the Galway Arts Festival and the craziness was just about to begin. Of course, he’d played three Dublin shows in the space of six months the previous year, as the promoter made the most of a hot act, but what happened between then and now is quite something else. Those off-stage noises mentioned above and the second Bon Iver album meant Vernon had to move on up. Forget about the big tents and the festival turns, the big rooms were calling and about to become the norm.
It’s always telling when an act reaches this juncture and can sell out a venue like the 2,111-capacity Grand Canal Theatre without blinking an eye. The move from the micro to the macro demands a response. What do you, as an artist, do in these circumstances with your show when you have to fill a big room? Do you add dancers, backing singers, orchestras and elephants? Do you keep the core of the sound intact and hope the venue gets in enough extra PA to reach the back rows? Do you curtain off large sections of the stage and hope no-one notices? Or do you do something else entirely?
In the case of Vernon, you get the gang in (the Gayngs? in and book an extra tour bus. There were nine musicians onstage for last week’s show, which means the songs can be stretched, amplified, reworked, recast and spun in far different directions than was the case when Vernon was first in these parts and hunkering down on stages with a handful of musicians. Instead of enticing the listener in by virtue of the sparse, spooky space between the lines, the Bon Iver band now have the manpower (and the chops) to provide an abundance of musical scaffolding to build and augment the melodies.
There are times, though, when all that extra punctuation from brass and strings threatens to flatline and muffle the songs. But as the musicians win out the room, the hurt and melancholic tones in Vernon’s voice are beautifully balanced by the band’s pows and wows. Their sound turns songs like “Stacks”, “Calgary” and especially “Holocene” into glorious, strange symphonies. Yes, there’s the occasional moment when Dan Fogelberg, Phil Collins and the gorilla from the Cadbury’s Dairy Milk ad stride that stage – and not just on the soft-rock indulgence “Beth/Rest”, to be fair – but let’s call that a cul-de-sac and move rapidly on.
Many may find the new Bon Iver width, depth and volume too much of a remove from the Bon Iver who initially coaxed our interest in 2007 and 2008 (certainly, it’s a different beast to the one encountered by me at SXSW ’08). Artists change and move on. You either embrace what’s happening and let your ambitions roam or you do a Ryan Adams and sulk back to your pit. And if those ambitions entail supersizing your band and touring the bigger rooms of the world, so be it. Remember that there would also be complaints had Vernon simply went back to a cabin and killed a few more deer. It’s only when artists evolve and challenge themselves that you see their true colours.
Overall, it’s a triumphant show, as much for how the audience are willing them to succeed as the newly minted melodic pyrotechnics in the songs. By the time next summer comes around and the band are playing in the open-air, this show will be a very interesting beast. What happens beyond there is down to Vernon and the songs which come next. The strange narrative may well have many more chapters to run.