We have all most likely come to the conclusion (those of us who are somewhat sensible and experienced anyhow) that out of all the bands that we see play in our lifetimes, we will only remember a handful of them. Of those shows that we will remember, probably about half of them will remain stuck in our minds for the wrong reasons, leaving only a small number of shows that we recall as being truly transcendent. Bon Iver‘s evening at Hollywood Forever was unquestionably one of those rare nights.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, The Hollywood Forever Cemetery, aside from being perfectly named, is a fairly large cemetery located right in the middle of Hollywood on a fittingly unglamorous stretch of Santa Monica Blvd. Founded in 1899 and with the legendary Paramount Studios (I’ll save the Sunset Blvd. references for another time) sitting just behind it, the cemetery houses some of old Hollywood’s most cherished corpses including Cecil B. DeMille, Jayne Mansfield, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and many other stars of Hollywood’s distant past. The cemetery itself is really nice to look at with lots of creepy/beautiful tombs, monuments and ponds but the public’s new interest in the place comes from the films that they’re started hosting there in the summer time. Every week or so in summer hundreds of people stream in through the ornate gates to watch films projected on the cemetery wall, drinking wine and eating picnics on the grass right in the middle of all the deceased. Sometimes the setting seems like pure novelty, like when going to see Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Other times however, the location gives the film screening a special something extra, like when they screened Susperia and Harold and Maude there a few summers back. All in all it’s been exciting to see the place embrace the living in the way that they have in recent years, but all this said, nothing could have really prepared me for the performance I witnessed on the morning of the 27th of September.
I’ve been a Bon Iver fan from the get go, putting last year’s (or the year before’s if you want to get technical) debut album “For Emma: Forever Ago” on my top ten albums of the last year list and everything. That said, I’ve never gotten to see the guy play. He released a top notch EP earlier this year (Blood Bank) and I hoped that with the release of that album that I’d get a chance to see him live and soon. I waited and…no dice. I missed his sold out New York shows, and tried to pacify myself with Youtube clips instead but they just made me sad and bummed out and jealous of people I that I didn’t know.
When I found out that the cemetery show was happening I immediately extended my stay in Southern California by another two days and snapped up tickets without much second thought. It seems that patience is a virtue because I was at last rewarded. The gates opened at midnight; Bon Iver was scheduled to go on just as the sun was coming up. Anyone there early had a long night ahead of them, but the planning was so tight that the evening felt natural. Everyone arrived with blankets, sleeping bags, food, bottles of wine, jugs of water etc. looking more like they were prepared for a camping trip than a concert. Once inside the cemetery, everyone made their way to a large lawn and spread their things out, setting up camp for the early morning ahead of them. I have never seen such camaraderie at a music event- everyone sharing blankets and pillows, food and drinks- a big happy family. Aside from two well picked and placating music sets, the evening also consisted of a screening of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket and an episode of Planet Earth. Over the course of these events many people went in and out of sleep, helped themselves to the free coffee and pastries and wandered around the mostly unlit cemetery as a thick fog rolled in, heightening the already surreal environment. Normally, foggy cemeteries are a thing of hauntings and uneasiness, but somehow it felt more like a safe blanket at the time, a cocoon within which we were all wrapped and waiting.
At about five in the morning a group of Buddhist monks performed a morning ritual, blessing the space, the stage and all attending. On paper this sounds like “new age” bullshit, but somehow it felt natural and welcome in its occurrence. The intention of the chant was not only to bless the space and give us a nice sense of calm before the actual reason we were attending began, but also to wake up all of those among us who had fallen asleep staring up at the palm trees and mist overhead. As the chanting came to a close and we all came to attention, Justin Vernon (the head singer and songwriter) and his band took to the stage. It was still dark and foggy but the energy the evening had built left us all feeling present and alert.
Though the fog stayed thick throughout the early morning set and we never actually got to see the sun in that morning’s sunrise, it is hard for me to recall a better or more rewarding dawn experienced after pulling what was essentially an all nighter. Usually mellow music no matter how pretty it sounds is boring live. It lacks a rawness and an energy, a heartbeat, a propulsion and a crackle. This has proven true time and time again in my life, as I’ve gone to see singer-songwriter types play, usually leaving me with the feeling that I should have just listened to their record again at home instead of going to see them live. This was not the case with Bon Iver. Every song that was played that night, which was pretty much every song Bon Iver has recorded at this point, was given new life by it’s full band arrangement. This is not to say that all of a sudden “Skinny Love” was a salsa number and that “Flume” now tasted of Motown style R&B, but rather every song had been carefully and lovingly re configured and imagined for a full piece band. On record, most of Bon Iver’s material was recorded by Justin alone, laying down multiple layers of instruments and vocals and mixing them together himself, resulting in what is for the most part an intensely hushed and close miked experience. This is what attracts you to Bon Iver on record, the intimacy and the subtle variety of his melodies, lyrics and remarkably beautiful vocals. These are still what attract you to Bon Iver live, however there is an immediacy and a drive when these songs are performed by a full band, an intensity that goes beyond the vocals that starts at the foundation of the songs and builds upon them until they reach out and into the audience, burrowing themselves inside of you. What is achieved is something most singer songwriter bands can only dream of, a charisma and sound that is performance worthy. A reason to watch a band play live instead of just listening to them on record. A justification of your love of the material.
Unlike most outdoor shows I’ve been to in my life where everyone is drunkenly yelling and talking to one another and going in and out of ignoring the band that’s playing, the crowd at the Bon Iver show was shockingly quiet. This is partly due to the fact that they were all very sleepy and had been out all night, but to give that fact all the credit would be undermining the evening and its progression. Everything was not only timed perfectly and laid out in a logical and appropriate order, but the band’s performance delivered with more than what most of us were expecting. There was a genuine sense of awe at the happenings and it seemed to be felt by just about everyone. I came across not one naysayer in the bunch.
Due to the quiet nature of the crowd, the plethora of videos that have turned up on youtube from the event have an amazingly good sound quality. I’ve gone a little crazy on the video usage on this post but that’s kind of what it’s about. I wish you all could have been there and this is the best offering of the happenings that I can muster up. It is amazing that my stay in Los Angeles started and ended with such dramatically different musical experiences for me. What FYF Fest almost ruined for me, Bon Iver more than absolved. I left home for Brooklyn actually wanting to stay longer in LA, something I hadn’t felt since I first moved away as a freshman in college. Though this is not entirely Bon Iver’s doing, I would be hard pressed to find better reasoning.
P.S. Megafaun were called onto the stage to play a song with Justin and his band in the middle of the set after it was explained that they had taught him just about everything he knew about how to play music. Their new album “Gather Form And Fly” is also pretty awesome and I recomend checking it out as well.