From the moment Justin Vernon walked on stage, sipping from a mug (probably tea), the night’s tone was set. Crowded by giant, gaudy, Buddhist statues in the eclectically decorated Oakland Fox Theater last Thursday, Vernon gave the audience a glimpse of his richly emotional interior life. He didn’t run around the stage with hand-on-heart; neither did he screw up his face during the painful parts or stomp his foot for emphasis. No — for most of the night, Vernon stayed standing behind the keyboard, headphones on, as if unaware that 2,800 enraptured fans were watching him.
Vernon is one of those performers who knows that performing doesn’t equal being “big” or “showy.” It doesn’t mean that the audience has to have its eyes trained on him for the whole two hours. In fact, my eyes were constantly wandering, skimming over the crowd’s bobbing heads, soaking in the whole stage. With an incredible combination of lights and projections, Vernon and his production team crafted a multimedia performance that added another dimension to the music. The projections showed whirling geometrical patterns or walking silhouettes, evoking a sense of constant movement. At other times, they were grainy, black-and-white images that felt like fragments of his memories or passing thoughts. The multimedia show acted as an amplifier for Vernon’s emotions, letting him be his most comfortable on stage: just a regular guy making his music come alive and enjoying it.
That night, Vernon performed his newest album “22, a Million” all the way through — and it was a brimming mess of organized chaos. The angry, gotta-break-something sentiment of “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠” was definitely a surprise when the album first dropped, and it only felt more powerful when every single audience member could feel the dark, crackling bass replace their heartbeats and pound erratically in their chests. The overwhelming percussion gives every song a reality-check punch that doesn’t appear on the album. “715 – CRΣΣKS” felt like something of a reprieve from the suffocating pressure, with just Vernon’s voice breaking through the heavy auto-tune to sustain us. The tone immediately bounced back in “33 ‘GOD’,” which started out with melancholy piano chords and Vernon’s floating falsetto. The suspension quickly devolved into something that was much darker live, with echoing, sustained notes over a desperate drum line.
When the breaking point came in “21 M◊◊N WATER,” it was unbearable. On the studio version, the sound peters out, Vernon playing with one distorted trumpet note. But that night, he decided to fully showcase what it feels like to be falling apart inside: As Vernon shouted “moon water,” unknown symbols and lurid patterns flashed on and off behind him, and spotlights raced over the crowd. The bass volume was raised so high that it was a struggle to breathe. Right when none of us could take it anymore, it all stopped. And “8 (circle)” came gliding in as a sigh of relief.
By the time Vernon got to “00000 Million,” the last song of “22,” it felt like Vernon and the audience had walked out of a long, psychological interrogation. Pure white light emitting from the panels couldn’t erase the fact that the torment within each individual song had fought the whole night against the slow progression to peace. And even in the relief, the impression of fear, anxiety and frustration still remained, buzzing in our eras. It’s a testament to Vernon’s resilience that he could make the typical “from-darkness-to-light” journey anything but a cliché.
The second half of the concert (or the very long encore, depending on how you look at it) was made up of songs from Bon Iver’s two older albums. Vernon performed them like he was free of some burden, no longer looking down at his keyboard, and a little more aware of his audience. Vernon introduced “Beach Baby,” a melancholy piece that always elicits a long sigh from me, as a song about “fucking around on a beach.” He had the sax choir, legit credited as “The Sad Sax of Shit,” come in and play the usually tranquil electric guitar melody as a colorful, anguished burst of sound. Clearly, the guy is in a different place than he was in 2012. When he sang the beloved “Skinny Love,” at first I was disturbed. Vernon practically yelled the lyrics, abandoning his trademark falsetto and his unsteady whisper of a voice. After all the electronic manipulations, it hurt to finally listen to his untreated voice echo through the hall. But later that night, I realized again how far Vernon has traveled from where he was. After making this raw album, a piece about having to rediscover yourself even after unbelievable success, Vernon can never play his old songs with the same, innocent sadness again.
Somewhere in the middle, Vernon finally took off his headphones and spoke to the audience. He thanked us for coming and talked on the difficulty of staying in the present. Between nervous laughs, he stuttered, “Um … yeah … anyways, I hope that all of you got to suspend your day, or your week, just a little.”
Not just a little, Bon Iver. You give us a whole lot.
Contact Andrea Lim at anlim ‘at’ stanford.edu.