It’s insane how popular Justin Vernon has become in just a few short years. After his incredibly personal debut, he went to working with Kanye West, making a powerhouse second album, winning a Grammy for Best New Artist along with Bon Iver, years after their debut, and now is involved in several side projects popular for the most part due to Vernon’s involvement with them. So when Volcano Choir, Vernon’s latest project, came to the 9:30 Club Thursday night, it was understandable for Vernon to not want to be in the spotlight for once, relegating that honor to the rest of the band who are maybe just as incredible as he is.
Opening up for Volcano Choir was Sylvan Esso, a band that understands that you don’t know who they are. According to them, they just performed their first show 6-months ago and they only have about two songs on the Internet thus far. The duo – comprised of Amelia Randall Meath on lead vocals and Nicholas Sanborn on everything else – is sort of a two-person party. The two work in loops, distortion, heavy bass and the occasional robot moves. At times in their set, specifically their opening and closing songs, this combination was highly effective, surprising with bass drops and loops that hit at just the right moment. However at times Sanborn could almost seem like a little kid messing around with the setting on a car stereo. There’s definitely something interesting to watch with Sylvan Esso, and I imagine as they mature as a band, they’ll get to be pretty great.
Volcano Choir came to the stage in darkness, as they started with their opening track to the new album Repave, “Tiderays.” The band started before Vernon joined in, standing behind a podium with notes ready. “Tideways” is a gorgeous example of where the night will go, building up to a wonderful crescendo, which led directly into one of the only songs of the night from their first album,“Island, IS, ” and followed by “Comrade.”
Throughout the entire set, Vernon almost stays in complete darkness. In Volcano Choir, Vernon isn’t the lead of the band, his voice is just another instrument in the mix. Vernon never says a word, only gesturing to the audience in head nods and hand gestures. Everyone clearly is there to see Vernon, but by doing this, Vernon takes the attention off of himself and back on the music where it belongs.
In the thirteen-song set, the band sprinkles in three new songs. The first, which seems like is entitled “Valleyonaire” is a gorgeous new track about youth and high school days. This is one of the first times Volcano Choir have played these new songs, and all three already sound wonderful. Their recent release Repave is breathtakingly wonderful, but if their third album is anything like what was played, it’s going to be bonkers.
“Keel” and “Dancepack” are boosted by a wonderful vocal performance by Vernon, who kneels and drinks after almost every song, at times even seeming like he has to compose himself before the next. The entire group together is majestic, something close to a combination of Explosions in the Sky and Bon Iver, naturally.
Their second new song, which I hear is called “The Agreement,” is a bit more country-ish than expected from the band, but still fantastic. The end of their set is a combination of some of Repave’s strongest songs. First the quiet of “Alaskans,” then the more upbeat “Acetate” – which during Vernon mimed the drummer exactly without ever looking at him – and then hitting the peak of the set with “Byegone.” During the line “he’s a legend,” Vernon pointed to the rest of the band, but during “I’m a legend,” everyone in the audience yelled in agreement. Then bringing the audience back down with their final song was “Still,” which left Vernon on his knees by the end, seemingly exhausted from just how much he’s giving the audience.
For the encore, they returned with another new song, quickly followed by “Almanac,” which combined all the elements of what makes Volcano Choir great: the electronic experimentation, Vernon’s vocals, and a build to a wonderful conclusion.
Volcano Choir’s performance did two things: proved that Vernon is much more than just Bon Iver, and that Volcano Choir is much more than just a Vernon side project. Volcano Choir has a power all to its own, that even without Vernon, they’d still have an incredible power to their music that could move, elevate and excite, much like they did in their performance.