Bon Iver brings powerful album to life

Alex Schaaf

Every once in a while, “the power of music” becomes more than a trite and clichéd statement. Sometimes, it’s an actual living, breathing thing that refuses to be dismissed, pushing its way past preconceptions and ignorant attitudes to hit your very core, making you forget everything you had thought to be worth worrying about.
Last Sunday night in a crowded room in Eau Claire, Wis., Justin Vernon, going by the stage/recording name Bon Iver, gathered his closest friends and family to privately perform his newest album. At least that’s what it felt like.
While a few in the crowd were either related to Eau Claire native Vernon or one of the other two band members (most notably including Mike Noyce, who left Lawrence last term to tour with Vernon), the rest of us were joined instead by his music.
The story of Bon Iver is almost as famous as the music itself. Following the breakup of his band DeYarmond Edison, Vernon returned home to Eau Claire, and took to the outdoors. He isolated himself in a hunting cabin in the northwestern Wisconsin woods, and recorded “For Emma, Forever Ago.” Filled with haunting, brooding melodies over very sparse instrumentation, usually just a guitar or two, the nine-song album gained much attention after review website Pitchfork gave it a high rating and a feature spot on their website.
In the months since the original release, Bon Iver has signed with a label, started a national tour, and officially re-released the album under the Jagjaguwar label. The show Sunday night served as a kickoff for the tour, which will reach from Los Angeles to Washington, with several stops in between. According to Noyce, the band will also travel to Canada before heading off to Europe later in the spring.
Coming onto a crowded stage in front of a small but eager audience, Vernon thanked the crowd for coming and apologized for anyone who couldn’t get in, promising, “We’ll get them in next time.” He said he would perform the whole album, from track one to the end, because, as he put it, “How else would you do it in this situation?”
Before Noyce — who was in his sophomore year here at Lawrence — left for the tour, he accompanied Vernon on varied guitars, playing both bass and rhythm parts, filling in the beautiful texture that was created on the album.
He also was responsible for contributing backup vocals for almost every song, not an easy task by any means, as Vernon’s vocals found a solid home in his upper falsetto throughout the night. A drummer filled out the remainder of the band, and also contributed vocals.
Vernon executed a fairly faithful reenactment of the album, matching both the musical and emotional levels that made it onto the tape in his hunting cabin. A few moments marked clear departure, however, as Vernon exhibited his chops on “Blindsided”, finishing the song off with a crippling guitar solo. “For Emma” was also much more energized than on the album, steering away from the more somber take that he went with for the recording.
A crowd sing-along on “The Wolves (Act I and II)” provided a peak of the evening. The chorus of “What might have been lost” found a resounding new life in the hands of the audience, as they sang out while the band broke down the song in an almost manic, chaotic fashion, disassembling the beat almost to the point of no return.
Bon Iver’s Web site states, “It wasn’t planned. The goal was to hibernate,” referring to the recording process. Whatever it was that got Vernon through those long winter nights, it provided the backdrop to create a masterpiece of an album, one that he will be proud to support for many long winter nights to come.