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- The Social, Paddington »
- Bon Iver »
On October 2, 2006 plans had come to an end for Justin Vernon. Sat in a high street coffee shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, 1,200 miles from his home town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, he wrote:
“_So, the plan was to pack up a U-Haul trailer and head either to San Francisco or Northern Wisconsin. Money made The Bay nothing but an impossibility, for now… Anyways, perhaps and most certainly, the latter will prove to be more necessary and meaningful: 80 acres of forest in Dunn County, a cabin my father built in ‘79, an outhouse, and another even smaller cabin my family, especially my Father, has been putting work into over three years… that is my destination. My place of refuge, from nothing terrible, but refuge nonetheless.
“My trip... is not a move. It feels closer to a retreat. I do not plan on playing any shows for a while. I do not plan on having a plan, or second destination. I do not plan on doing much of anything but stomping around in freezing October mud for six weeks, or some amount of time. I don’t know what will happen after that. That is really and truly the first time in my life that I can say that. No idea. I have been meaning to take this trip for a while._”
We all now know that what he emerged back to reality with was the beautiful and classic album For Emma, Forever Ago (review).
An independent musician with no physical need or yearning other than to make music. A life dedicated to art, but a reality largely spent broke and sleeping on floors. To fulfil the potential you believe exists inside of you would be the ultimate achievement. Justin Vernon is now at this point in his life. All thanks, it seems, to this ‘retreat’.
The Social, London W1 is the tiny setting for the first ever Bon Iver UK headline show. A far cry from the hunting cabin in Dunn County, but almost as intimate. It’s a tough call to turn this album into a live show. The immense personal significance it holds for many in this audience tonight mean it’s held in the highest of regards – everyone applying their own experiences to its very raison d'être. So, realising that Bon Iver is now a three-piece band fronted by Veron, who uses electric guitar through the entire set, is a bit of an adjustment. After all nobody likes change and having fallen hook, line and sinker for the sounds of Bon Iver several months ago, opener ‘Flume’ is a bit of an icy bath with its heavily effected vocals and psychedelic mound of piercing guitar effects. But the soul of the original recording starts to seep through during ‘Lump Sum’ with choral chants and the addition of extra instrumentation and Gibson Les Paul that take it to a new level. When ‘Blindsided’ later develops into a balls-out electric jam with feedback and screaming solos galore the performance elevates into something other than a regurgitation of what already exists. Vernon is up on his feet and in the zone. As he collapses back to his seat afterwards, having to re-tune his seriously detuned strings (caused during this moment of indulgence) he wryly smiles, “Woooh. Have to get my breath back. I think I got a little too involved there”.
It’s obvious that Vernon’s ten years as a gigging musician prior to Bon Iver were no waste of time. He has a natural affinity talking to an audience and employs their help as makeshift choir on ‘The Wolves (Act I & II)’. We oblige with force and for a brief moment the whole room is in unison. By the time a solo performance of ‘Re: Stacks’ comes only the first few cramped rows have any chance of a stage view as every one of this 100-odd capacity tower to get a glimpse of where this soulful falsetto is emanating. Bodies twisted, necks cricked. A pin could be dropped, everyone would hear it. “This is my excavation and today is Kumran, everything that happens is from now on... This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realisation” he sings. By the end, every one of the album’s nine songs have been aired, except for one absent gem. Vernon digs behind the DJ booth seeking his resonator guitar before precariously making his way into the audience for an unplugged performance of, arguably his finest moment, ‘Skinny Love’.
Unexpected events such as these are what make the experience of live music in small venues so magical. When Vernon opens his mouth his haunting vocal silences the continual camera clicks and bulb flashes. To say that this is a special and intimate moment is pure understatement.
Photos: Tom Milway
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