I enjoy visiting Los Angeles. It gives me a chance to catch up with some good friends while temporarily suspending whatever weather I’m currently experiencing. Idyllic climate doesn’t come without a cost. Though what you hear is true about it never raining in Southern California, the infamous downside is the not insignificant mind-numbing traffic. You can count on the cake arriving but nobody gets to eat the damn thing.
My latest visit was last month for what I would have preferred to be a purely indulgent few days of summery carefree activities instead of the boring work related reasons. However, never one to be blamed for not taking advantage of advantageous situations I took the opportunity to make the decidedly Swankster move of catching Bon Iver’s show at the Echo in Echo Park – the hipster neighborhood near downtown LA.
Although I’ve recently professed my admiration of Bon Iver’s magnificent For Emma, Forever Ago I really wasn’t sure what to expect with the material’s live treatment. This is typical for singer songwriter types, even more so for ones with mythologized back stories of isolation as muse. With the thinking going, If other musicians were not involved in the songwriting then would any be enlisted for a tour? Turns out that was entirely faulty logic as Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, has a full touring band. A good one at that.
It didn’t take long to recognize that his band transcended appearing like set pieces filling out the stage, and more importantly rounded out the mix quite nicely. I was struck by this very early in the set during a moment that had little to do with an actual performance. During vocal tuning exercises the band appeared to do what I can only describe as a group harmony check. To presumably match tones and collectively clear throats while warming the innards involved in the singing process. It stuck with me in ways a comparable on-stage guitar tuning session never does. And it was pretty pleasant to listen.
Later in the set I would think back to these precursory actions with sincere admiration that is rare for such a shortened reference point of reflection. It struck me that on the stage was a special group of talent not limited to the star of the band. Moment after moment of vocal dexterity was showcased with Bon Iver’s disposition towards playfulness with pitch tones. Proper execution of such arrangements demands perfection. A fact that cannot be overestimated enough with music when it’s this sparse and airy, albeit heavy air weighed down with intense emotionality. Unlike the hard driving, punk ethos flavor of ‘less is more’, mistakes are infinitely more noticeable when the material is of decidedly lighter fare. You can growl your way out of a missed cue here and there when you’re a snarling punk, but good look if your section of harmony gets pooched.
Worth noting was Vernon’s resiliency with singing duties while battling a cold. Something he referred to repeatedly during the night whether apologizing for setlist changes or trying to rationalize having a beer. It seems clear that no returning SXSW attendee from the flocks of artists, fans, and industry left Austin without carrying some sort of bug. The tenderly pulsating “Lump Sum” was the third song of the night and introduced as a wild card addition because “I’m sick.” It was dedicated to “Matthew, a new and eternal friend.” As with much of the lyrics on For Emma… Bon Iver takes a poetically deceptive route even in banter.
“The Wolves (Act I and II)” followed. Sounding even more like TV on the Radio gone acoustic than the single “Skinny Love” ever will. Just think of the scene, Tunde Adebimpe, alt-folk artist playing in a Brooklyn coffee shop. Hmm. Unclear whether “Wolves” was another setlist change, but I’m sure the extended audience participation of the refrain, “What might have been lost” didn’t bothering the Austin-irritated throats of the band. Not to say Vernon or his mates sounded effected by illness for even a second. If it was not for smalltalk from the stage referring to the less than 100% internal comfort, nothing else hinted problems. Maybe it was the cool California night, or perhaps the friendly pro-Eau Claire attendees excited to see a native son perform.
Shouts from crowd members citing Bon Iver’s hometown were part of an ongoing audience/artist conversation. Any one of the many exchanges seemed to teeter dangerously into full digressions of “oh do you know so and so from high school, me too!” and “I totally dig that bar” type things. The proclivity to tie Bon Iver back to a neighborhood coffee shop where the locals call for songs and ask how the family is doing may be obvious, however it would only seem that way. And that would mean we were talking about yet another generic singer songwriter with a guitar and not, Bon Iver.