The lights were up, recorded music was piping through the house speakers, and half the crowd had shrugged and shuffled out onto Telegraph Avenue — but none of that mattered. The floor of Oakland’s Fox Theatre wasn’t going to be rid of the people who remained, stamping their feet and shouting, until their hearts got broken one more time by Justin Vernon.
The fans chanting “ONE! MORE! SONG!” with growing fervor weren't asking for just any song, but for the song: “Skinny Love,” the despondent ballad off Bon Iver's 2007 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, written a decade ago in the self-imposed exile of Vernon's father’s Wisconsin cabin. Songs from For Emma had been worked into the night's set list, but sparingly; the occasion for Vernon's first major tour since 2012 is the release of 22, A Million, his remarkable third full-length, which he played through in its entirety for the first half of the concert. Select cuts from 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver and a couple of one-off singles thrown in for good measure followed, as did a goofy, rainbow-drenched dance routine with Vernon's recent collaborator Francis Farewell Starlite. “Skinny Love” had seemingly been forgotten by the time the huge digital video panels started rolling production credits, but the idea of Vernon wrapping a nearly two-hour set without it was evidently preposterous to the stubborn audience. Eventually, two members of the crew came out and hastily tweaked the mics that Vernon had been working with for the whole show, and he strode back out, shaking his head and chuckling to himself.
This wasn’t part of the plan. Vernon doesn’t favor dramatic encores — he insisted that he was “halfway out of here!” before the audience more or less forced him back onstage — but this time he made an exception, picking up an acoustic guitar for the first time that night. “Skinny Love” might as well bear a warning label for anyone experiencing breakup-related feelings of any kind, and that was especially true when Vernon laid out those last lines a cappella — “And now all your love is wasted, and then who the hell was I?” — for maximum soul-fraying effect. If Oakland wanted “Skinny Love,” they were going to get the most devastating "Skinny Love" they’d ever heard. It’s far from the only lost-love song Vernon’s got in his arsenal, but it’s still the one that cuts the deepest.
Throughout the show, Vernon worked overtime to show us how his voice has evolved since those early days. The only common denominator between the reclusive folk of For Emma, the softly washed electronic explorations of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and the complex, experimental collages of 22, A Million is Vernon’s unmistakable tenor. Onstage, he forced us to see the connections between those distinct periods of his work, to think of “Skinny Love” when he played through its descendant, “715 - CR∑∑KS” — which people absolutely loved singing along to, thanks to those “TURN ARoOoOoUnD” lows — and recognize the might of “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” when he brought out “Calgary” later on in the set. His varied catalog felt like parts of a continuous whole instead of four competing visions; again and again, Vernon was able to renovate his older tracks and make them sound wholly modern without compromising the features that made them great in the first place.
In a recent conversation with The New York Times, Vernon talked about the emotional effect of getting photographed all the time thanks to his rising popularity — “I felt very exposed, with scarred skin from the whole experience.” His face is largely obscured in the visuals paired with 22, A Million, as though he’s masking himself with the work. Vernon’s allergy to the spotlight is felt as much on onstage as it is on record, with the panels behind him showing dizzying displays of the iconography created especially for the album, cool floods of neon, and glitchy, jarring black-and-white contrasts. He was never once lit straight on, his baseball cap and headphones casting welcome shadows; his silhouette was made only as prominent as those of the bandmembers and instruments behind him, to the point where he frequently faded into the background, as much a part of the surroundings as the visuals themselves.
Still, the brightness surrounding Vernon made it possible to see how ecstatic he was as the horns swelled behind him on “___45____,” or how committed he was to filling the space with as much noise as possible for “Calgary.” By the time he took that unplanned encore, the stage was dark, the only lights a few spots shining from behind so that his face stayed hidden in plain view. Maybe that’s why “Skinny Love” was such an exquisite surprise in Oakland, and a perfect closer to a triumphant tour kick-off. Vernon spent an hour and a half reweaving the tapestry of his career, connecting his old heartaches to his new challenges. At the end of it all, we just needed to hear his voice.