For the first time in its short history, The Anthem felt as small and intimate as a cabin in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Billed as Bon Iver despite playing completely unaccompanied, Justin Vernon’s performance on Friday night resided in a place beyond words – reflected in the crowd’s misty-eyed and silent rapture throughout the evening, breaking only to roar with acclaim between songs – including a standing ovation for an a cappella version of “Woods” near the end of the set that flattened me.
The audience for the sold-out seated show was perfectly behaved and attentive, with Vernon commanding the room in a fashion seldom seen in D.C.; there was very little by way of flash photography or phones in the air recording videos for extended periods. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding that we were witness to something unique – a special, standalone performance unlike any other Bon Iver show on recent tours. Vernon himself acknowledged as much, sharing some of his insecurities about getting on stage to perform these songs by himself after so many years on the road with close collaborators Sean Carey and Matthew McCaughan. But his worry was the doubt of a perfectionist, and ultimately for naught. For ninety minutes, we witnessed a man slowly baring his soul on stage, and we followed along every step.
A decade after the release of his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon has played several roles within popular music: hinterland raconteur, hipster icon, folk revivalist, avant-garde visionary, and Kanye West collaborator/muse. Despite all the permutations and stylistic changes, Vernon has remained grateful, unassuming, and candid – qualities he displayed throughout a show that is easily one of the best I have seen in years, even if it was completely different from what I expected. For all of the additional production and effects that Bon Iver have incorporated in their live performances, Friday was a reminder that all we need is Justin Vernon and his guitar. His emotional honesty sits at the very core of what originally drew many of us to Bon Iver, and it’s evident that despite the new tools and tricks at his disposal, vulnerability remains the anchoring element in each and every song he writes.
Photos by John Shore, courtesy of Secretly Group