“I’m up in the woods, I’m down on my mind.” The first words Justin Vernon, lead singer and founder of Bon Iver, uttered on a cool Sunday night at the Mann Center in Philadelphia. These words are not found on For Emma, Forever Ago — the almost mythical début Vernon recorded during one “good winter” in a cabin in Wisconsin — nor on last year’s Bon Iver — the album that marked a new direction away from the one forlorn man and guitar formula, a direction vindicated by his twin Best New Artist/Album Grammys. “Woods” is on the intermediate effort, 2008’s Blood Bank EP. The choice to open with this song was a clear statement of his artistry. It has the same hook that Vernon contributed for Kanye West’s “Lost in the World,” and caused controversy upon its release for its liberal use of Auto-Tuned vocals. As the electronically-steeped croon made its way around the Mann Center, Vernon’s confidence charged the air.The last time I saw Bon Iver live, back in 2008 at the Trocadero, things were a bit different. First of all, there were only three people on stage — one drummer and two other guys who played everything else. All three of them looked as though they had fallen asleep in 1992 and had woken up minutes before the show: beards scruffy and ill-trimmed, t-shirts loose and mangy, and each with their own wooly jauntily resting on their unkempt hair. Seconds later, however, any prejudice was dispelled at the first sounds emanating from the large and bashful member of the band. They were the acutely personal and emotional meditations on loss that permeate For Emma, and they have been present on my Recently Played playlist since that night. On Sunday at the Mann, after Vernon finished “Woods,” stage lights revealed a band of multiple percussionists, saxophonists, a trumpeter, and multi-instrumentalists like Vernon. Their stage was meticulously set, with shredded burlap curtains hanging down in irregular swaths and a curiously mountainous candle arrangement framing the band.
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Vernon then led the band through “Perth,” “Minnesota, WI,” and “Towers” off his most recent LP. A few of the standouts, for me, were the songs he chose to play from For Emma and Blood Bank. After the opening four songs, each one quite boisterous and much louder than the older Bon Iver sound, Vernon moved on to “Flume.” As the opener to For Emma, “Flume” has held a special place in my heart for the past four years: as relationships swelled and crumbled in my life, I could always find a way to apply the lines “Only love is all maroon” and “Sky is womb and she’s the moon,” both intensely evocative yet vague, to a current yearning, past heartbreak or all future loves at the same time. Though his rendition on Sunday was louder than the cherished album version, it proved to me that he can still find the intimacy that burst into expression in a Michigan cabin years ago. Not only can he locate it, he has found a way to convey it to his ever-growing audience and inside giant arenas like the Mann.
This intimacy, which his wounded falsetto carries in each breath and is and has been Bon Iver’s signature since their conception, was at work on the loudest and quietest songs of the evening. Their rollicking “Blood Bank” was a highlight, and culminated with a lengthy guitar solo in which Vernon soared to heights reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.” This is a new band, his guitar proclaimed, a band that can achieve intimacy with any of the instruments on the stage: guitar, saxophone, keyboard, trumpet, and, of course, Vernon’s aching voice.
As the sight of my own breath in the air reminds me tonight, winter is coming, and with it comes another season of Bon Iver.
The sight of my own breath in the air reminds me that winter is coming, and with it another season of Bon Iver.