When Bon Iver’s 2016 release 22, A Million dropped, my roommate kept it on repeat for two months.
September and October’s calendar boxes were colored in by the album’s oozing synth, jagged drum beats and lead singer Justin Vernon’s firm grip on autotune. This release marked the band’s third album and another round of Grammy nominations. They quickly climbed the steep ladder of Indie Rock Gods. So when I heard that their first round of touring post album would fall, coincidentally, in the southeastern circuit of the U.S., my friends and I were quick to grab our tickets.
Charlottesville’s Sprint Pavilion rejected a traditional set up. Where hundreds of sweaty bodies usually pile atop of one another for a chance at front row, there were instead 30 rows of neatly placed chairs set closest to the stage. This was a sit-down show. The lights dimmed, and eerily from the speakers a voice told us: “it might be over soon.” The band emerged slowly, opening with a haunting performance of their leading track “22 (OVER S∞∞N).” Justin Vernon wore grey sweatpants, a grey hoodie and sipped leisurely on a Guinness. Smiling, he said to us: “It’s crazy. You want to be here. I want to be here. What a coincidence.”
Vernon brought a fierce cohort with him on stage. Four brass players stood behind him, breathing life into performances of “10 d E A T h b R E a s T” and “8 (circle).” There were moments where I was watching a symphony with Vernon conducting the band’s pianist, drummer, and guitarist with his shifting vocal ranges. There were moments where I was at a raging metal show, with Vernon desperately playing guitar on his knees. However, this show moved with startling fecundity — a moment of cacophonic noise and instruments bleeding quickly into a synchronized duo of vocals and alto sax. One of the most surprising moments was the long-awaited performance of the 2008 chart topper “Skinny Love.” Vernon went solo on this one, strumming along on his acoustic guitar until the song’s final hook. Here, he sang in absolute silence, the strength and vigor in his voice leaving the crowd dumbfounded, chin nestled in hand, mouth hung open in silent invitation for more.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the significance of this band kicking off their tour in this region of the United States, specifically in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, where only a few months ago the protests and counter protests of the KKK rallies were spilling out into the streets that ran over the audience’s heads. While never directly referenced, one of the most striking parts of this concert were Vernon’s monologues between songs. Back to the crowd, Vernon lazily plucked piano keys while telling us about the duality of others. In that, there are those who live to make life easier for others, and there are those who live to only make space for themselves. He said to us, “this is a beautiful day in a beautiful town with a lot of love in it.”
The band gracefully slipped off stage after “Skinny Love,” but the roar of the crowd dragged them back for more. Vernon spoke to the crowd one last time, telling us to sing along as loud as we can. The band closed with an echoing performance of “The Wolves (Act I and II),” and metaphorically handed the microphone to the people of Charlottesville. Together, the packed Sprint Pavilion sang in unison to the song’s main hook: “What might have been lost.” Over and over again, hundreds of voices collided into one — to drown out the noise of the city, of the hate, of the loss. Bon Iver sewed a soothing suture into the wounded Charlottesville streets, and let his audience leave the concert to find it a bit easier to breathe.