There’s this line in that American Masters documentary on Bob Dylan where legendary folk scenester Bob Neuwirth recalls that the go-to question about an artist back in the ’60s was, “Does he have something to say?” This was opposed to how much money could he make or how big could he get. It’s ironic that this line came to mind so clearly at last night’s Bon Iver show, since singer/songwriter Justin Vernon’s lyrics are notoriously difficult to understand, but it did. Vernon really has something to say. Not that I can tell you what it is. Like painting with sound, the nine-person band layers these delicate, carefully applied dollops of noise over one another creating a painstakingly arranged work of art accessorized by lyrics that bypass the brain and go straight to the heart. The thing Bon Iver has to say, it seems, is: Feel.
“When Vernon was snuggled under covers, sick and brokenhearted, in that Wisconsin cabin writing this track, I doubt he imagined 6,000 people holding hands or resting heads on each others shoulders and swaying to it.”
Feelings are always helped along by a trip to the bar. The lines were epic as I filed into Radio City and battled through crowds of well-heeled late 20-somethings, the girls wearing their sundresses with boots and sweaters in a nod to the early fall crispness. Inside, the stage was decorated with hanging tapestries of what looked to me like old lace but also resembled “silly string or lots of dirty old mops,” a friend next to me pointed out. Sean Lennon, in an art house ponytail and linen-ish cloak, accidentally stepped on my toe on his way in, so eager was he to take his seat. And frequent rock-show-going couple Jason Sudeikis and Olivia Wilde were blocking my view as the lights dimmed and the band took the stage. Seeing as how this was only one of four nights Bon Iver have sold out Radio City this week, it was impressive to see so many famous faces in the house. Maybe it was Justin Timberlake’s bold impression on Saturday Night Live last season, but something has popularized this band with the cool kids.
Vernon took the stage looking like an earth-toned version of Born in the USA-era Springsteen in a subtle headband, tufts of hair sticking out in myriad directions. The rest of the crew took their places, beside and behind him, and with the ethereal, blue-and-green themed lighting, the effect was that of an under-the-sea dance hosted by a bunch of polite pirates. Vernon was an interesting blend of plainly nervous and super-commanding onstage. He made fun of the band’s “giant discography” (they have two albums) and spoke with genuine humility about how honored they are to be taking over this “momentous” venue for a few nights.
“This is a song about a lot of hard shit,” Vernon finally said towards the end of the set. Then he paused. “And then it being not so hard later,” then closed, fittingly, with “For Emma,” off their debut. When Vernon was snuggled under covers, sick and brokenhearted, in that Wisconsin cabin writing this track, I doubt he imagined 6,000 people holding hands or resting heads on each others shoulders and swaying to it. But he had something to say, and it’s allowed the rest of us to really feel.