Friday, Sept. 25 – The Wiltern
Justin Vernon might be a deity, hidden beneath a shaggy, unkempt mane and rugged blanket of facial hair.
The 28-year-old singer-songwriter genius behind the indie folk band Bon Iver is not so much a musician as a creator of spiritual experiences — like the one he initiated at the Wiltern on Friday night.
A testament to Vernon’s musical ingenuity, the concert was the kind of event you only have the good fortune to experience a few times in your life — the kind that takes you out of the mundane and into the realm of the extraordinary.
Most of the set was dedicated to Bon Iver’s 2007 self-released debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, a collection of contemplative songs that sprung from a cathartic period of isolation spent in a frozen Wisconsin cabin in the middle of the winter (the name Bon Iver comes from the French “bon hiver,” for good winter).
Vernon’s arresting vocals, strikingly understated melodies and precise balance of instrumentals instantly catapulted For Emma, Forever Ago — as well as this year’s equally moving four-song EP, Blood Bank — to sanctified indie status.
But if his music cuts deep on recordings, it devastates live. Vernon’s agonizingly beautiful falsetto single-handedly brought the Wiltern’s packed house to its knees.
After a delightful opening by the heavily bearded (the clean-shaven were the minority that night), pastoral folk group Megafaun, which produced sounds ranging from clean, folksy harmonies to discordant instrumental chaos, Bon Iver took the stage in a modest flourish.
Vernon humbly settled with his guitar in an unassuming corner of the stage, establishing himself as just another member of the band. If you didn’t know any better, you might have overlooked the woodsy, scraggly-haired man tucked away like a hidden treasure.
Until, of course, he opened his mouth.
Vernon’s prophetic voice flooded the Wiltern from the very first lines of the opening song “Lump Sum,” rendering the crowd powerless in its wake. You could almost hear the collective sighs as his pure, sensuous vocals caressed the audience like the warmth of a fire on a winter evening.
Thus began the crowd’s intimate coupling with Bon Iver Friday night — an affair that only intensified as the band unfolded its immaculate nine-song set (fitting, since For Emma, Forever Ago also consists of nine songs).
It goes without saying that Bon Iver’s quietest, stripped-down moments were its most powerful. Vernon took the stage alone with his guitar for “Flume” and “Re: Stacks,” offering two crushingly exposing performances. “Babys,” with its ethereal piano motif and ebbing and flowing falsetto harmonies, felt like a spiritual experience in and of itself, especially as it made its final descent into dissonance.
But the accompanying instruments of Bon Iver proved vital during the rest of the show: A potent drumbeat carried “Creature Fear” and “Brackett, WI,” a song from indie compilation record Dark Was The Night, while a banjo enlivened “Skinny Love” and a consortium of guitars buttressed Vernon’s intoxicating voice in an energetic rendition of “Blood Bank.”
Even in the band’s louder moments, the overriding message of the night was that of raw simplicity and grateful humility — a message furthered by the band’s low-key appearance, no-frills stage set and Vernon’s frequent, genuine words of thanks.
The climax of the night arrived when Vernon invited the audience to sing along to the refrain of “The Wolves (Act I and II).” As the crowd repeated the wistful line — What might have been lost — again and again, louder and louder, the noise from the stage escalated to overpowering levels, vibrating even the innermost recesses of the theater.
Then came an explosion of sound, a moment of total clarity and darkness.
Such a powerful exit could only leave the crowd wanting more, and when the audience erupted into pleas for an encore, the band was eager to oblige.
Bon Iver returned to the stage with a graceful performance of “For Emma,” then closed the night alongside Megafaun with two upbeat acoustic numbers. As charming as it was, the encore seemed a little lost on the crowd, which was still reeling in the aftermath of a powerful spiritual awakening.
“Thank you so much for listening,” an immensely gratified Vernon repeated for the hundredth — and last — time.
If only the man knew how many souls were indebted to him that night.