On the surface, Bon Iver is a study in contradictions, making hard to define the group or its defacto leader. The debut disc was recorded solely by Justin Vernon, yet the moniker he adopted is a band and he refers to it as such. The group's work is released on a small label from Bloomington, Indiana (Jagjaguwar), but all three discs have been amongst the most popular and critically lauded of the year when released. And although Bon Iver is widely regarded as an "indie," it has built a huge following, climbing to the top of the iTunes and Billboard sales charts and winning two Grammy awards this past February.
It all begs the question "What is indie?" But in a world where even that term has become yet another label used for marketing, we may never know. What we do know is that even though Bon Iver has grown in stature and become more popular than Vernon likely ever imagined, his level-headed approach to the industry and sincerity in addressing the issues surrounding him certainly lends him the credibility of an independent artist.
After all, the irony of winning a Grammy Award for Best New Artist nearly four years after releasing the debut disc, For Emma, Forever Ago, wasn't lost on Vernon. His true nature as an artist also came through when he accepted the award, as he opened by saying "It's really hard to accept this award. ..."
He went on to explain, "There's so much talent out here -- and there's a lot of talent that's not here tonight. It's also hard to accept because, you know, when I started to make songs I did it for the inherent reward of making songs, so I'm kind of uncomfortable up here."
Of course, that wasn't the only irony of the evening. Many were surprised to see the band win anything, especially after declining an invitation to perform on the awards show. Vernon explained that move to Billboard magazine before the awards ceremony by stating "We wanted to play our music, but we were told we couldn't play. We had to do a collaboration with someone else and we just felt like it was such a large stage -- we were getting nominated for this record we made. Me and Brian (Joseph) and a bunch of our friends and we were given accolades for it and all of a sudden we were being asked to play music that had nothing to do with that. We kind of said 'Fuck you' a little bit and they sort of acted like they wanted us to play, but I don't think they wanted us to play."
After the awards, Vernon admitted in an interview with Spin magazine that although he still had some issues with the awards, he was grateful for the honor. "Overall, it is what it is and I had a good time. Now that it's over, I realized I got pretty bent out of shape about it," he said. "But I was proud to win. I was happy to. But I still think the whole thing is inherently flawed. Getting an award for music?
Like I said in the speech, I was uncomfortable."
One of the places where Vernon obviously isn't uncomfortable is on the stage with his band mates. While Bon Iver's sound has expanded on the self-titled album, which Vernon recorded with band mates Sean Carey, Mike Noyce and Matt McCaughan, it still retains the intimacy of the debut. In a live setting, however, the interaction is even more pronounced and the band adds a different life to the early songs, giving them more depth without sacrificing their impact or intimacy.
The honesty of the performances has allowed the group to translate its live show to different sized events and still retain its impact. Whether playing in small clubs, theaters or large festivals like Bonnaroo and Rothskilde (both of which the band will appear at this summer), Bon Iver is able to captivate the audience. On the more intimate or unfamiliar songs, the crowd may be nearly silent as it is drawn into the song. The more popular tracks, such as "Skinny Love" and "Holocene" often turn into sing-alongs, drawing the audience even closer with a sense of inclusion and community. In a club, you're connected to the person next to you; at a festival, you're touching both the girl in the front row and the guy in the back -- in either scenario, you're connected to everyone in the room. The only thing that changes is the degree of separation.
That's always been the magic of Bon Iver's music and the reason why it has been embraced by the indie elite and mainstream pop fans alike. The songs on For Emma, Forever Ago may have been written alone in a cabin in Northern Wisconsin after a bitter breakup and a bout of mononucleosis, but each song is as much the listener's as it is Vernon's. The band performances only serve to cement that connection.
Last fall, Bon Iver took Stillwater-based Other Lives out on the road to open a leg of its North American tour. Although Other Lives bassist John Onstott couldn't say enough about how kind and level headed the guys in Bon Iver were, that tour pairing also showed just how confident the group is in its performance. Other Lives is a hell of an intense band and puts on a great show, but Bon Iver was never overshadowed.
Likewise, Bon Iver brings another impressive group along on its spring tour as sister trio The Staves opens during the stop at Brady Theater this Saturday night, June 2. The Staves opened for The Civil Wars at Cain's Ballroom in January, and although many arrived unaware of the group, everyone left impressed. By layering intimate three part harmonies with sparse acoustic arrangement, the trio had most of the audience stopped in its tracks and set the tone for the rest for the evening. Likewise, The Staves are sure to set up the evening perfectly for Bon Iver. Anyone attending this sold-out event should come prepared to be drawn in and spellbound for the duration of the evening.
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