Bon Iver treads into jam band territory at Toronto’s Massey Hall
By Ron Johnson
Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon
Thanks to a tweet from Sebastien Grainger of Death From Above 1979, I spent a lot of time yesterday listening to the Art Ensemble of Chicago — a major American avant-garde improvisational jazz band. And, after listening to Bon Iver in concert at Massey Hall last night, I think frontman Justin Vernon should check them out, if he hasn't already.
Wading through a sea of plaid to witness the second of Bon Iver's sold-out shows, I was expecting a lot more of Justin Vernon. What I got was a lot more of Bon Iver. And I ended up feeling very hopeful of things to come, even if the concert itself was a little safe at times and stunning at others.
Highlights, according on the crowd’s swoons, included "Flume," "Holocene" and the acoustic "Skinny Love," saved for the encore. Vernon is not one for banter, but he did thank the crowd a half-dozen times and talked about a giant, steel maple leaf his father erected on the top of his house. Apparently, says Vernon, people in the Midwest dream of being Canadian. Who knew?
The nine-piece band — complete with two drummers and a percussionist, plenty of brass and as many as four guitars on some songs — is populated by a bunch of noodlers and freestylers, including Vernon's usual crew — fellow Wisconsonites Sean Carey and Mike Noyce — along with a number of additions, like saxophonist Colin Stetson (Tom Waits, Arcade Fire) and New York City's Mike Lewis (Andrew Bird), who dropped a serious beat box during an encore Björk cover (a highlight for me, which the crowd seemed to only notice after Vernon stopped singing).
Swapping instruments, turning dials and stomping effects pedals, the obviously talented musicians seemed most comfortable and at home in the all-too-brief moments of improvisation and interplay the evening provided. Even Vernon himself seemed most comfortable when his back was partially to the crowd, or when he was on his knees fiddling with his gear.
That's not a bad thing. There have been many groundbreaking bands that have made a lengthy career out of doing just that, including the aforementioned Art Ensemble of Chicago and others in the avant garde jazz scene, but also the likes of The Grateful Dead and Phish, or even some hip hop crews. If Vernon could somehow marry his sweet and soulful songwriting and vocals with more freestyle, pulling from a number of different genres, this could be the beginning of something monumental. I'm just not sure how Vernon's adoring fans would feel about the whole thing.
They worship this guy, and it is easy to see why. He's immensely talented, has a sweeter-than-molasses voice and is a kind of sheepish, humble crooner that appeals to the ladies, mixed with that good-old-boy Green-Bay-Packers-fan thing that draws in a few fellas too, especially when he sings about smoking a joint. The big question is: are fans ready for more than just the Bon-Iver-is-Justin version of the band? This is a guy that wrote his first album hidden away in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods after a relationship came to its heart-wrenching conclusion. I'm not sure they are ready for the second coming of The Grateful Dead or another seminal jam band, but I hope that's where this train is headed.
Then again, with four Grammy Award nominations, sold-out shows and a growing legion of fans, Vernon could continue to play "Skinny Love" until the cows come home and few would complain. Personally, I think there's something more, but when you're already one of the most talked-about musicians in the world, it gets a little tough to change gears.