I am old enough to remember when Bon Iver was just a weird-beard folkie lumberjack with a broken heart and a bad liver haunting the woods of Wisconsin, cranking out subterranean heartsick blues in his dad’s hunting cabin like the Unabomber of Love. This was back before he went prog-rock at Newport and started a riot — that was way cray. I remember Father John Misty threatening to cut the power with an axe and the guys from Mumford & Sons had to wrestle him to the ground. So much drama. And yet, despite the confusion of the moment, when the smoke finally cleared it was obvious that the times they were a-changin’.
The disconnect from the naked light bulb starkness of 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago to the dense, 17-layer prog cake of 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver was jarring — like going from Wednesday Morning, 3 AM to Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by way of TV On The Radio. Mostly, I blame Kanye, who lured him to his studio compound in Hawaii to give 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy some of that Barton Fink Feeling Vernon has in spades. But as the days turned into weeks, it turned into one of those Hotel California situations where you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. Bon Iver music was never the same after that.
Judging by the ecstatic crowd that packed out the Tower back in 2011 for the tour in support of Bon Iver Bon Iver, I was the sole naysayer. He doubled down on 2016’s 22, A Million, and the just released i, i. Both albums are, like Kanye, either crazy-level genius or genius-level crazy depending on the day and whether or not you took your meds, and the multitudes that flock to his concerts have grown into a cult of the deeply devoted.
The live band is a tight five piece — two drummers, two guitarists (counting Vernon) and a bassist — capable of rendering the densely idiosyncratic sonics of the last two albums with razor-sharp precision and note-perfect fidelity complimented by a mesmerizing, magnificently choreographed light show. They look less like a band than starship technicians manning their work stations within the elaborate H.R. Giger-esque Rube Goldberg contraption that is the stage set.
Vernon, usually rocking a head band and big, blocky old school earphones, is still in full possession of the most heartbreakingly beautiful falsetto to emanate from a hairy guy in blue jeans and flannel since Neil Young woke up in a burned-out building with a full moon in his eyes. That is, when he’s not atomizing his dulcet tone into bewildering fractals of sound with a Auto-Tune and sundry alchemical sonic gadgetry. Live, the newer material has a chest-thumping physicality and sweaty friction that is somewhat muted on the albums, despite the crystalline clarity of the recordings.
You can decide for yourself when Bon Iver plays the Liacouras Center on October 10th. We have a pair of tickets to give away to the 36th Phawker reader to email us with the correct answer to the following Bon Iver trivia question: What was the name of Justin Vernon’s pre-Bon Iver band when he was still living in Raleigh, North Carolina? To qualify to win, all you have to do is sign up for our mailing list (see right, below the masthead). Trust us, this is something you want to do. In addition to breaking news alerts and Phawker updates, you also get advanced warning about groovy concert ticket giveaways and other free swag opportunities like this one! After signing up, send us an email at Phawker66@gmail.com telling us a much, along with your answer our Bon Iver triva question. Put the words UNABOMBER OF LOVE in the subject line and include your full name as it appears on your photo ID and a mobile number for confirmation. Good luck and godspeed!