Bon Iver and Other Lives
The Shrine Auditorium
September 19, 2011
Better than… Monday Night Football
Last night around 8pm most of the crowd in the Shrine Auditorium was under the crystal chandeliers in the lobby fighting for a drink and trying to forget that Monday had even happened. The more curious among them wandered inside the grand theater to catch the openers, a little band from Stillwater, Oklahoma called Other Lives. What they got was not a band, but rather an orchestra.
Sharply dressed in suits and ties, the long haired six-piece took the stage with quiet dignity. Each band member with the exception of the drummer was surrounded by instruments. Like five mad cooks trying to create a five course meal in record time, it appeared that each was writing their own tune, adding whatever seemed necessary at the time. Trumpet! Harmonium! Cello! Violin! Piano! Their faces glazed over with masks of concentration, it was almost as if they didn't see their band mates. Within the same song each musician appeared to sprout extra arms in order to create these rich, complex songs that sounded like they came from fifteen people, not six.
It was the kind of mysterious cinematic music you would want before setting off on an epic journey into the sunset, across the Sahara on your camel to your probable doom. It had that kind of weight. They were songs that painted their stories on the inside of your skull in ink mixed with the blood of your rivals and the ash of past campfires. Music that cornered your imagination and made it talk to you, whether you wanted it to or not.
They were great openers for a man whose empire is built on vivid storytelling and music that rends your heartstrings one by one. Bon Iver has come a long way from his cabin in the wilds of northern Wisconsin where he wrote his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. If you had told anyone three years ago that his next album would go to number two on the charts and he would be playing with Kanye West at Coachella, no one would have believed you. But then again very few people will believe this either: last night Bon Iver rocked.
Not in a metaphorical, hypothetical, or symbolic sense either. Justin Vernon and his giant nine piece band simply rocked out. Revamping his previous arrangements, he made his debut album sound like a cover. His work was gorgeous before, but with the power of nine vocalists, a horn section, and two drummers providing the heartbeat that could be felt in your sternum, it reached new heights. It felt like Dorothy stepping into the Land of Oz in all of its Technicolor glory. “So this is what happens when indie artists get the budget to do what they want,” I thought.
Dressed casually in a red striped shirt and khakis, Justin Vernon looked like he was headed to a BBQ. There were no big special effects or back up dancers in feathers. Instead, the fire came from the music. Big bright bursts of song erupted from the stage as Bon Iver proceeded to tear the house down culminating in a raucous version of “Blood Bank” that ended in a standing ovation, which surprised everyone.
Vernon was so astonished by the reaction that a few bars into the next song, which happened to be a slower one, “Beth/Rest,” he decided to skip it to keep the momentum going. The crowd stayed on its feet for the encore and sang along mightily to both “Skinny Love” and “Wolves.” The echoes of our voices bounced off the walls and shook the foundations, repeating over and over again the cryptic refrain, “What might have been lost?” It was as if to give thanks for the fact that we are alive and lucky enough to be together in one place to sing with this band.
Personal Bias: I've liked every album Bon Iver has put out. If you can catch him tonight at the Gibson Amphitheater, you should.
Overheard In The Crowd: One apologetic friend to another: “Sorry dude, they wouldn't let me buy two beers.” “This is bullshit. If I went to the Cheesecake Factory while you were working, you'd get me a beer wouldn't you?” “No dude, I don't want to get fired.”
Random Notebook Dump: Haters be damned. No one sounds like this.
Set list below.
Who Is It (Björk cover)