Months after For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s debut album, turned 10 years old, Justin Vernon turned back the clock last Friday at the Anthem in a rare solo performance that harkened back to the most primitive stages of Bon Iver’s evolution. Lacking the typical ensemble of accompanying musicians, Vernon stripped each song of the 90-minute performance down to its core, with nothing more than a guitar or piano and his signature voice echoing through the brand new 2,500 seat venue. The whole show had an air of intimacy as all the usual buffers of a show that disconnect the audience from the performance were absent. There was no opening act, no lights other than a single spotlight, no visual beyond Vernon, surrounded by a circle of instruments, sharing with thousands of people the penetrating stories of his experiences and relationships.
Vernon at Eaux Claires music festival in 2016. Credit: NPR
Unlike previous shows this year, Vernon kept the setlist focused on his earlier songs, performing only four from his most recent record, 22, A Million. The existential worries and feelings of uncertainty that dominated 22 were largely absent as Vernon centered the concert around his feelings and experiences with others. “Hazelton,” a rare performance of his early solo work, and “Roslyn,” a song originally featuring St. Vincent, are both desperate attempts to connect with others—to find meaningful relationships and mend broken ones.
Songs about failed relationships came with even more fervor. “Skinny Love,” a song most associate with anguish, was driven by, and infused with, anger. Vernon’s guitar strings were on the verge of snapping with each violent strum prompted by what felt more like malice than heartache. By the song’s end, he was hardly singing but rather screaming the lyrics.
Vernon even offered a glimpse of an upcoming project, unveiling a new untitled track with sputtering Bruce Hornsby-esque keys layered over his raw voice exploring the depth of his vocal range as he repeatedly cried out the song’s hook, “I can hear cryin’.” In that performance more than any other, Vernon’s music felt much more like catharsis than entertainment, his pain manifesting itself into song to teach and to heal.
Vernon bared his insecurities further to the crowd of misty-eyed fans in expressing the discomfort he feels in playing a show without the rest of Bon Iver. His uncertainty was only subdued through the trust he placed in his music and his ability to captivate an amphitheater full of people to follow him and his words. His music speaks to so many people because that is precisely what it is about—people. Vernon once prefaced a 2015 show in Wisconsin by remarking, “if you don’t have friendship, then you don’t have anything. And I know that it sounds like a Hallmark card, but…I think what we give each other, and what we can believe in each other, I think that’s how we can become greater.” A message fittingly summed up by a shirt sold at the merchandise table—a plain white shirt with black lettering that spelled out “PEOPLE.” No fancy graphic—no distracting colors—nothing to separate the audience from the message.
In an odd way, Vernon’s performance felt more spiritual than it did musical, conjuring up that same rare sense of community found only in places of worship. That feeling of belonging is what now drives his performances. Vernon surrounds himself with people to find comfort—a maturation from locking himself in a cabin for the winter as he did prior to releasing For Emma. The healing now comes from human connection, not isolation.
Vernon during a 2009 tour of For Emma, Forever Ago. Credit: WBGO
Watching as one man shares the full range of his musical and emotional capabilities with an audience, you feel as if you are intruding on his thoughts. As if such an experience was never meant to be shared with anyone, and yet you are offered this slice of intimacy with a musician you have never known nor met, no matter for how brief a time. Such is the feeling of the profound beauty found beneath Vernon’s music—all you are left doing is standing motionless, entranced by a deep calmness and gratitude for a balding 36-year-old man from Eau Claire, Wisconsin as you and 2,500 other people scream the final lyric of “The Wolves (Act I and II)” into a crescendo, together.