It’s hard to believe that Bon Iver have gotten so big. By now, everyone knows the story of the creation of their debut, For Emma, Forever Ago — the painful breakup that inspired it, frontman Justin Vernon’s self-imposed, Thoreau-esque seclusion, etc. — and the lore surrounding the band has proven as enduring as the music itself. That oft-repeated narrative has helped earn them scores of fans who might have otherwise never payed attention.
Just a few years ago, shortly after For Emma‘s release, Bon Iver played an intimate show at the Che Cafe to a handful of people, positioning themselves in the middle of the room with the audience seated in a circle around them. That quaint show bore no resemblance to Friday’s hotly anticipated performance at Spreckels, which sold out in minutes and prompted the addition of a second show the following night. If Vernon and company had tried to sit in the middle of the room this time, they would have been mauled by hundreds of screaming, lovestruck fans.
That type of rabid enthusiasm is bizarre when you take into account how bookish and difficult Bon Iver’s music can be. There are no hooks to be had, and though there is plenty of beauty to be found in the songs, picking it out often requires a steady ear and a quiet mind.
On Friday night, the band employed sparse guitar, fluttering percussion, and Vernon’s unmistakeable falsetto to unfurl a dramatic, gorgeous set for the crowd. It wasn’t all delicate though; Vernon and his seven backing musicians utilized a quiet-loud-quiet formula that punctuated the softer moments with strobe-lit, pillar-shaking bursts of noise that vanished as suddenly as they appeared.
And though the former trio’s roster has swelled along with its popularity, the spotlight remained fixed on Vernon, sometimes literally. Vernon had a humble, amiable stage presence, effortlessly commanding the crowd’s attention. He performed For Emma closer “Re: Stacks” unaccompanied, and when he sang “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization / It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away / Your love will be safe with me,” you could have heard a pin drop.
Openers Other Lives provided the visceral counterpoint to Bon Iver’s cerebral set. Beginning with the haunting, rhythmic “As I Lay My Head Down,” off their terrific new album Tamer Animals, the Oklahoma six-piece treated the unsuspecting audience to an assortment of captivating, cinematic orchestrations.
With long hair hanging over neck ties and cardigans, Other Lives looked like a group of professors who’d spent the last few months lost in the woods. Their music supported that impression — it was at once wild but studied, tempestuous but restrained. Their expansive songs felt not just written but composed, whether they were evoking Radiohead on the feverish “For 12,” or adding Twin Peaks-style guitar lines to the transcendent “Old Statues.” All the while, frontman Jesse Tabish and cellist Jenny Hsu’s rich, expressive harmonies floated atop a maelstrom of swirling strings and thunderous percussion.
They may not have benefitted from any intriguing backstory, but Other Lives proved a perfect lead-in to Bon Iver, and came damn close to upstaging them. If the crowd’s gushing reaction was any indication, Other Lives might be on the verge of blowing up in a way that no band has since, well, Bon Iver.
Photos – Bon Iver and Other Lives at Spreckels, September 17, 2011