Frank YangFor a guy who made his name on being sad and lonely, Justin Vernon sure has a lot of friends. The first Bon Iver record, For Emma, Forever Ago, became the soundtrack for broken hearts when it was released in 2008 and with this year’s self-titled letting some sun into his secluded musical cabin, so to speak, his legion of followers continued to swell. As of this past Tuesday night, he could list two sold-out shows at Massey Hall (approximately 5500 people), four Grammy nominations and high rankings on countless year-end reviews amongst his accomplishments – not bad for someone specializing in writing anthems of being one.
I couldn’t count myself amongst his devoted followers, though. While I appreciated both records well enough, they never reached that crucial frequency of emotional resonance with me that they clearly had with so many others – one perk of not having gone through any kind of traumatic breakup in the last while, I suppose. But having not seen him/them perform since catching a bit of one of his sets at SXSW 2008 and being genuinely curious as to what the live experience was like now – particularly in one of the city’s hallowed venue filled with his devotees – I made sure I was at the first evening of the two-night stand.
Support on this tour came from London’s Lianne La Havas; a new artist but not an unknown, having already garnered much attention in the UK and a spot on the BBC Sound Of 2012 long list despite having only a 4-song 10″ EP in Lost & Found to her name (plus a free-to-download live EP). While she came out on stage solo with just a guitar, she immediately made friends by flashing a megawatt smile and asking to take a photo of the audience before playing a note, then being charmed turned into being impressed when she began to play. Singing with a calm, conversational delivery, she mined a jazz-pop sound with an immediacy that belied its sophistication and showcased her intricate, rhythmic guitarwork and rich, soulful voice. Though she’d come from London at Vernon’s behest, it wasn’t hard to imagine her back on this stage before too long based entirely on her own merits.
To recreate the solitary vibe of the recorded works, Bon Iver wouldn’t need to be anything more than Justin Vernon, a guitar and maybe some snow. So that Bon Iver was, instead, a nine-piece band armed with an orchestra’s worth of horns, percussion and guitars was the first sign that those expecting the show to be a celebration of sadness might be in for a surprise. Intimacy was not to be the tone of the evening, with the introverted nature of the songs checked in favour of grand, extroverted arrangements with big, jammy breakdowns, choral vocals and a constant trilling of horns and strings, all accented by a pulsing, occasionally strobing light show. No, no log cabin atmosphere here.
The way that opener “Perth” segued smoothly via instrumental breakdown into “Minnesota, WI” set the tone for the evening, with few breaks between songs or even much in the way of silence. Perhaps that responsibility was assigned to the audience, because they were pin-drop quiet throughout the show, utterly respectful and even reverent. It was notable that the devoted didn’t seem to mind at all that the songs that they had connected so directly and deeply to weren’t nearly as open-hearted as they were on record, the constant flurry of instrumentation effectively keeping the listener from getting too close. Some of the interludes worked, like Colin Stetson’s circular breathing clinic as his saxophone bridged “Holocene” and “Blood Bank”, but a lot of it felt overdone and unnecessary.
This was made especially clear when his bandmates left Vernon alone on stage for a tender solo electric reading of “Re: Stacks”, which he dedicated to Kathleen Edwards and was head and shoulders the highlight of the night. Even though it only lasted the one song, the moment of vulnerability echoed through the rest of the show which felt more open, more plaintive. Set closer “Skinny Love” pulled two-thirds of the band from their instrumental duties and cast them as a gospel chorus complete with hand claps and foot stomps and the show finale of “The Wolves (Act I and II)” struck the perfect balance of beauty and violence thanks to the room-shaking efforts of the dual drummers.
It’s odd that the person who went into the show demanding the least left as one of the few who expected more, but I’d have preferred more starkness, more of the sadness that I thought was what gave the Bon Iver records their power. But perhaps, given that things seem to be going pretty damn well for Vernon these days, trying to tap into that emotional well or act as though he had might have felt dishonest to him. Or maybe he just wanted to do something different. In any case, it’s completely and objectively true that Bon Iver, the live experience, was an impressive one and left the vast majority satisfied. And that on the way home, it began to snow.
The Toronto Sun, Toronto Star, and NOW have reviews of the show, while Paste has a feature piece on the artist who made their album of the year. Lianne La Havas is profiled in NOW, The Fader, and The Guardian and performed sessions for Le Blogotheque and Black Cab Sessions.
Photos: Bon Iver, Lianne La Havas @ Massey Hall – December 6, 2011
MP3: Bon Iver – “Holocene”
MP3: Bon Iver – “Calgary”
MP3: Bon Iver – “Blood Bank”
MP3: Bon Iver – “Skinny Love”
Stream: Lianne La Havas – “Don’t Wake Me Up” (live)
Video: Bon Iver – “Holocene”
Video: Bon Iver – “Calgary”
Video: Bon Iver – “Wolves (Act I & II)”
Video: Lianne La Havas – “No Room For Doubt”
Californian ambient-electronica artist Tycho will be at Wrongbar on January 14 as part of a tour to showcase his album Dive.
MP3: Tycho – “Hours”
MP3: Tycho – “Coastal Brake”
The Heartless Bastards will be at The Horseshoe on February 20 in support of their new record Arrow, due out the week before on February 14, tickets $15.50 in advance. The first MP3 from the album comes courtesy of Rolling Stone.
MP3: The Heartless Bastards – “Parted Ways”
Just here in October, Neon Indian have set a return engagement for their latest Era Extraña at The Phoenix on May 8. Admission $20 in advance, full dates at Pitchfork.
Video: Neon Indian – “Polish Girl”
So apparently Toronto has a new outdoor venue up at Downsview Park, and it’s called The Meadows and may be an inland equivalent to Echo Beach at Ontario Place. In any case, it’ll be hosting at least one show next Summer – Foster The People on June 19. The Grid has a little more info on the space.
MP3: Foster The People – “Pumped Up Kicks”
Rolling Stone talks to Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal about their new record Paralytic Stalks, out February 7. Pitchfork has a track from the album available to download.
MP3: Of Montreal – “Wintered Debts”
Spin has posted the first MP3 from the new Shearwater record Animal Joy and it sounds a damn sight tougher than anything off their last three records. Quite keen to hear the rest. It’s out February 14 and they’re at Lee’s Palace on February 21.
MP3: Shearwater – “Breaking The Yearlings”
Also in preview mode is School Of Seven Bells, showing off the first track from their new record Ghostory, out February 28. Ben Curtis and Ally Deheza talk to NBC New York about the new record.
MP3: School Of Seven Bells – “The Night”
JAM checks in with Matt Berninger of The National, who’ve begun work on their next record but make no guarantees about when it might be done. They play the Air Canada Centre tonight.
The Toronto Star and NOW profile The War On Drugs in advance of their show at The Horseshoe on Friday night.
Spinner chats with Annie Clark of St. Vincent. She’s at The Phoenix on December 15.
The Quietus talks to Real Estate. They’re at Lee’s Palace on January 20.
The Wooden Birds have released a new video from Two Matchsticks.
Video: The Wooden Birds – “Criminals Win”
How do you make Mates Of State even cuter? Put them behind a Tiny Desk. NPR did.
Daytrotter has posted up a session with The Submarines.
Having just confirmed the existence of their new record Reign Of Terror last week, Pitchfork reports that Sleigh Bells have given it a release date of February 14.
Andrew Bird has announced a March 6 release for his new record Break It Yourself; details at Exclaim.
The AV Club reports that bassist Shonna Tucker has amicably left Drive-By Truckers.
Quite a scare for Guided By Voices fans yesterday when word came that they had cancelled their European festival commitments for 2012 and had supposedly split up again. A clarification from the band’s PR confirmed that all live dates had been pulled due to “personal problems”, but that in addition to the January 1 release of Let’s Go Eat The Factory, the band were already working on a second album of new material entitled Class Clown Spots A UFO with a targeted release date in May.
But the silver lining of that cancellation was that it allowed The Afghan Whigs to confirm that they had reunited for their first shows in 13 years and would be taking GBV’s place at the May All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in May as well as curating their own event in New Jersey in September. Details at Spin.