Bon Iver’s Seismic Shift

Last year, the northeast coast of Japan was stricken by a huge subduction zone earthquake and tsunami.  It caused an unfathomable amount of death and destruction, killing thousands and affecting the lives of millions of people.  The Japanese are a resilient bunch, and life in the land of the rising sun will eventually return to something resembling normal.  That said, the disasters Japan faced last year would test the will of anyone.

Amid the tragedy, some fascinating physical events occurred.  By some estimates, the main island of Japan moved over two metres closer to North America in a matter of seconds.  A large piece of the Pacific tectonic plate dove under the Japanese sub-plate, which set off the tsunami.  With that much mass moving closer to the centre of the earth, it affected the rate at which our planet rotates.  Thanks to the conservation law of angular momentum, the Earth’s rotation sped up a measurable amount (by something like 1.8 microseconds per day) to compensate.  It was testament to how a single event can trigger an effect on a planetary scale.

The laws of cause & effect also seem to hold in our personal lives.  Everybody has days that stand out, days that subtly nudge the trajectory of their lives in one direction or another.  In my decidedly simple life, those days tend to be music concerts.  It may sound churlish that some of my life-altering events are nothing more than rock ‘n’ roll gigs, but it’s true.  I can still remember how awestruck I felt during Pink Floyd’s show in Winnipeg on 1-Jul-1994, and how emotional I got at Radiohead’s Gorge Amphitheatre gig on 23-Jun-2001, and I remember Wilco’s mind-blowingly intense concert in Edmonton on 18-Aug-2007 like it was yesterday.  Each of those shows, in some small way, deflected the course of my life.

Over time, I think Monday night’s Bon Iver gig in Edmonton might just take its place among my pantheon of great gigs.  Walking out of the show, I somehow felt like a different person, as though life was moving at a slightly different speed.

Based on the sonics of last year’s impressive self-titled release and their restrained performances on Saturday Night Live a few months ago, I expected the Bon Iver live experience to be a low-key affair.  What they delivered live in the flesh was instead at times a visceral rock and roll show, accompanied by an impressionistic audio-visual assault on the senses.  The nine musicians on stage explored every nuance of the songs from Bon Iver and injected new life into cuts from the debut album For Emma, Forever Ago and the Blood Bank EP.

The stage of the Jubilee Auditorium was framed across the top by web-like burlap curtains, with post-modern, multi-coloured LED stalagmites below.  The curtains served as ragged makeshift drive-in movie screens for projected images.  Most of the night the stage was relatively dark, bathed in slowly swirling washes of red or blue light.  But during the punchiest numbers, strobe lights and other effects pierced through the haze to add an extra element to the music.  The result was a workout for the senses – eardrums strained to adapt to varying loudness levels while irises constantly adjusted to the ever-changing lights.  It gave the relatively stoic performers on stage a sense of kinetic energy.

The back line consisted of a bass player and horn player, bookended by dueling drummers.  Up front, leader Justin Vernon was flanked by guitarists, another horn player, and various other instruments.  At times, the guitarists kneeled over their pedal boards in reverence to their musical cousins in Radiohead.  Props to the back line horn player who spent most of the gig playing the biggest goddamn saxophone I’ve ever seen.  It looked like someone ripped the exhaust pipe off a top-fuel dragster, put three bends in it, and jammed in a mouthpiece.  Simply epic.

The set kicked off with the formidable 1-2 punch of “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI”.  The same two songs lead off the Bon Iver album, but in a live setting the dynamics of the tunes were much more pronounced.  The drums were thunderous, the guitars squalled, and the horns blared in service to the groove.  And this night was very much about mood and groove and emotion, since so many of the songs lacked a conventional verse-chorus structure.

A personal highlight was the mid-set back-to-back placement of “Holocene” and “Blood Bank”.  “Holocene” was ethereal and gracious as you might expect, while “Blood Bank” was a gut-punch of noise and stomping rhythms.  The sax solo that formed the bridge between the two songs came perilously close to “Jazz Odyssey” territory, but never quite slipped over the edge.

Later on, the unmistakable opening notes of “Skinny Love” and “Calgary” elicited cheers of recognition from the 2500 fans in attendance.  The crowd ranged mostly from university-aged kids to people in their mid thirties.  Bon Iver has virtually no terrestrial radio presence in this town, so the popularity of this quickly sold-out gig spoke volumes about how non-traditional media has changed the music world.  Whether by word of mouth, Facebook, satellite radio, internet radio, iTunes or tastemaker blogs, the kids are discovering groundbreaking music by alternative means.  Make something great and unique, and people will always seek it out.

It was also inspiring to watch a hotly-tipped band come out and juxtapose seemingly incompatible genres like modern rock, soul, 80’s AOR, and chamber folk instead of playing it safe.  Bon Iver fearlessly chose to follow their musical instincts instead of cashing in on their recent Grammy buzz.  Nowhere was this more evident than on the main set closer “Beth/Rest”, where Vernon’s passionate lead vocal revealed a complete, un-ironic conviction in the stirring ideas at the heart of the song.

Perhaps that conviction was the root of the seismic shift I felt in my soul on Monday night.  Bon Iver’s performance, taken as a whole, made it clear that convention doesn’t matter and anything is possible in modern music.  The difference may only be a matter of microseconds, but sometimes that’s enough to rock your world.

The (Approximate) Set List:

Perth
Minnesota, WI
Towers
Michicant
Hinnom, TX
Wash.
Holocene
Blood Bank
Creature Fear
re: Stacks   (JV solo)
Skinny Love
Calgary
Lisbon, OH
Best/Rest

For Emma
The Wolves (Act I and II)

Post-Script: I’m working from memory because the gig was way too dark to take notes.  I’m not sure I got the set list 100% right, but it should be pretty close.  Please submit a comment if you can help me clean it up, especially the bit from “Michicant” to “Creature Fear”.

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