I spent this past weekend in Boston, and was fortunate enough to have Rob and Barbie squire me about town on Friday and Saturday. We had a blast, caught up on some music, drank some beer and watched UNC demolish Oral Roberts. All in all a fantastic way to spend a day. On Sunday, I headed across the common to the Wilbur Theatre with my friend Alannah to see Bon Iver and Tallest Man on Earth. I was hugely impressed, so I wrote about it. A lot.
The Wilbur Theatre, near Boston's Emerson University, is a diamond in the rough. An almost certainly historic building, the theatre appeared to be in the midst of major renovations, judging by the state of the women's bathrooms. The main hall, viewed from the top of the balcony, is an expansive room with great moulding and architectural detail. Even more wonderful, it's one of those rooms that was made for music appreciation, with near perfect acoustics. Even Justin Vernon commented that this was a perfect place to play. The show was sold out, and judging from the people seated around me, this was a testament to the very, very hip college students in the area.
The Tallest Man on Earth (Sweden's Kristian Matsson) took the stage precisely at 8pm, as advertised. The Tallest Man on Earth might also be the skinniest man on earth, and though my perspective was nearly birds-eye, I don't think I'm exaggerating saying he looked like a peanut on stage. Thankfully, his performance upended any suggestion of him being slight of talent. He played most of "Shallow Graves" with standouts being "I Won't Be Found" and "The Gardener." When he wasn't singing, Matsson swirled around the stage, tangling himself among monitors and mic stands. He often found himself front and center, nearly touching the crowd as he leaned over his guitar, eeking out sounds as much with his fingers as his body. He finished his set with one of my favorite, oft-covered songs, "These Days." He went through his 40 minute setlist with only a few words to the crowd, and scurried about changing guitars between songs, as if he wanted to cram in as much music as he possibly could. I appreciated the effort, and enjoyed the show thoroughly.
At this point, I have to mention the difference in the stage set up since the first time I saw Bon Iver in February 2008. Stage left contained Vernon's usual set up - keys, stool, a sizeable case of guitars (about 5 more than the first time I saw him.) Center stage was a single drum, and stage right was another stool for Mike Noyce on baritone guitar. All par for the course, but I was quite surprised to see 2 drum kits behind, in addition to a bass guitar and more keys. And as Bon Iver took the stage for their opening song, "Lump Sum" I was shocked to see 5 people on stage. I was a bit uneasy to see such an expanded lineup, given that I'm a bit of a folky minimalist type, and having seen Bon Iver stripped down to 3 band members and very few accoutrements, I wasn't sure what the night would hold.
"Lump Sum" was a fair enough beginning to the show, and provided lots of room for expansion both in sound and feeling. They followed with "For Emma, Forever Ago," dropping to the more standard 4 piece lineup - Vernon, Noyce, Sean Carey on drums/keys and another guy on drums/bass. The show continued its upward swing with "Skinny Love." I've never seen, nor can imagine, a more perfect rendition of this song than I saw this night. It was at this moment that the need for 3 backing voices and 3 percussionists was fully realized. The click of drumsticks against the drum reverberated through the room, providing a taut edge to Vernon's soaring falsetto. Watching those 4 guys playing this song, you'd think they'd all had their hearts broken and spent a few months in the woods recuperating. Every single one of them felt something, and it showed. I was moved.
Next, Vernon introduced a new song from the EP "Blood Bank," currently available on vinyl at shows, due out on CD January 20th. "Babys" is a song that also harnesses the power of multi-instrumentalism, but I'd have to say it lacks enough coherence and melody to really survive as a live offering. Personally, I could not connect with the song on any level. Next was "Beach Baby," another song off the new EP. This song is a little tighter, more sedate, and closer to what I have come to expect from Bon Iver.
After the 2 new songs, he launched into one of my favorite songs off the debut album, "Creature Fear." Seeing him the first time, in a tiny room with a very quiet feel, this is the song that blew my top off. The hard parts of this song contrast so beautifully against the quiet, and the changes in tempo remind you that Vernon can convincingly deliver soft folk melodies, or driving indie rock. At one point during the song, Vernon dropped to his knees, rocking back and forth, pressing random pedals to create discordant, distorted noises. It was pretty rock n' roll, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. At the end of the song, everyone but Vernon left the stage, and I knew it meant "Re: Stacks" would be up next. I love this song so much in its live form that I can still recall the quiet buzz of speakers the first time I heard it, the crowd so transfixed that it might as well have been a collective breath holding contest. Mind you, this was in a room that holds maybe 200 people, and I did not expect a similar effect in a huge theatre. But he did it. If "Skinny Love" showcased the full talent of a band of 4, "Re: Stacks" proved that one man with a guitar can command an audience even more powerfully. An absolute gem of a song, and gorgeous performance.
I could have left happy at that moment, not wanting any miscues to ruin a near perfect night. The rest of the band returned for "Flume" which quite honestly, was a bit of let down after the show's ascension. I think it served nicely to bring everyone back to the feel of a more energetic, interactive show, though. The next song Vernon introduced as a cover that we might like to sing along to. I vaguely recognized the opening verse, but it wasn't until the chorus that I realized it was a slowed down version of The Outfield's "I Don't Wanna Lose Your Love Tonight." Strangely, the cover suited the band very well, and wasn't too kitschy or contrived. Vernon then prepared the crowd for the sing-a-long portion of "The Wolves," of which I was very excited to be a part of, particularly in such a large theatre. I'd say we did a commendable job, and it does fill out the song in a way that the band alone couldn't do.
The band took a short break after this song and returned for a one-song encore, "Blood Bank." The titular track from the new EP, this song has the most potential to be a single. Vernon drops his voice into a deeper range, and the dark, brooding guitar riffs suit the song well. I could see the band moving in this kind of direction, and I'd be completely ok with that.
All in all, I got everything I was hoping for out of this show. There were a few fans yelling out for "Blindsided" at the end of the show, but I think it would have been a bit of a disappointment after what we'd heard that night. I left the the theatre thoroughly content, and couldn't imagine anything that would have made it better. Except maybe a Harpoon IPA while listening.