Saturday, December 20, 2008
I'd been looking forward to Rob and Tamala's trip to Madison for the months since Bon Iver's Barrymore show was announced. As the date drew closer, it started snowing. And snowing. ("Good winter," my ass. Well, I guess it depends on your definition.) Thursday into Friday brought yet another winter storm and snow day, but luckily the snow stopped in time for everyone to make it to town.
As it turned out, I couldn't have imagined a more fitting atmosphere in which to see Bon Iver. I had never seen Justin or the band before, and I was truly blown away by the show. Having nothing with which to compare it, I don't know if it was any better than other Bon Iver shows. If they're all this good, I have definitely been missing out. Justin's songs are gorgeous, and eminently suited to a late December evening in the cocoon of a small Wisconsin theater. Opening the show was The Tallest Man on Earth; Kristian Matsson of Sweden. I was very impressed by his set, and see a purchase in my future. (I will report that he is not really, however, the tallest man on Earth.)
Bon Iver is from Eau Claire, and the Barrymore concert was the last show of a long year on tour for the band. (There is one final 2008 show, Monday night in Eau Claire.) Justin struck me as a very sincere guy - he definitely has a sense of humor that came across onstage, but you could also tell that he very much wanted to communicate with the audience. He brought up more than once that they've had a pretty amazing, inspiring year - and that he's been told he says thank you too much onstage, but he really did want us to know that he was extremely grateful. It seemed like many thoughts were swirling around in his head throughout the night.
There were many standout songs, but my favorite was probably "Skinny Love." Apparently that's the 'hit,' and accordingly the band played it second - otherwise they may have heard drunken calls for it all night. It may be one of those songs that seasoned Bon Iver veterans await with polite enthusiasm. For me, though, standing right up front, "Skinny Love" was one of those performances. You know, those performances. I love live music, and I go to more concerts than the average bear. I've seen plenty of great bands play plenty of great shows. But every once in awhile there's a particular song or moment that just utterly sucks me in and reminds me: "this is why I go to see shows. This, right here, holy shit." I can remember a handful of them in my concert-going life. Colin Meloy playing "Red Right Ankle" at Luther's the first time I saw the Decemberists. "One" to close out the first U2 show I saw from the front of the pit. Jon Brion and Flanny playing "All is Full of Love" at the last show in the old Largo. The crescendo of "Bleeding Heart Show" the first time I saw the New Pornographers. "Sunken Treasure" the first time I saw Jeff Tweedy play solo. And Justin Vernon channeling Lord knows what; putting everything out there on "Skinny Love," the first time I saw Bon Iver. (Close runners-up: "Creature Fear" and "Wolves." And "Blood Bank.")
Madison isn't Eau Claire, but it's not too far away. This show seemed like a sort of homecoming. It was December, and it was Wisconsin, and there was a foot of fresh snow on the ground and more on the way, and we were all in the Barrymore under the twinkling ceiling stars, and we were home, and Bon Iver was home. And it was good.