Bon Iver
Aladdin Theater; Portland, OR

Justin Vernon, née, Bon Iver, recorded his album For Emma, Forever Ago while living alone in a cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin. It is almost impossible to read anything about Bon Iver without this nifty fact being called to your attention. While it is almost certain that Vernon retreated to the cabin and recorded these songs without lucre or fame in mind, you can see the dollar signs in the eyes of record execs and publicists with such a juicy story to exploit. So, in case you didn’t know, Justin Vernon recorded his music while living alone for months. Let’s get that out of the way first.

But marketing tools aside, there are a great set of songs that populate Emma. They are hushed, pained elegies that sprung from Vernon’s isolation. The melodies unfold slowly as the ghostly vocals drift over the strum of a spare acoustic guitar. Though some additional overdubs and recording were done elsewhere, this album is Vernon and Vernon alone. It made me curious how such a personal collection of songs would translate in a live setting.

This event marked the first show I would attend since relocating to Portland, Oregon. There is a special thrill when visiting a venue for the first time, but after a few years and scores of shows elsewhere, that initial trip can be disorienting. There is something comforting when a club or ballroom becomes familiar. After seeing scores of shows at the Black Cat and the 9:30 Club over the years, I had the corner on when to arrive, where to park, where to stand. Even the venue staff had become recognizable. This, however, was a whole new world.

The Aladdin Theater is an intimate setting with a 600-person capacity. It reminded me of a high school auditorium with general admission seating. I took a seat near the soundboard, halfway back from the stage where a nice pitch in the floor would give me good visibility. But as more and more people filtered into the sold-out show, the pit and aisles became free game for standing room. Without the proper neck angle to see through the crowds, it was either stand or not see much.

Vernon took the stage, with three other musicians, and launched into “Flume,” the opening track from Emma. As Vernon strummed, his striking tenor almost identical to the tracks on the record, guitarist Mike Noyce pierced the fragile song with laces of electric feedback. Silence filled the theater (beyond that obligatory dick who claps at first and then is stared down by displeased neighbors). The song had transformed from a personal ballad to a powerful anthem. Vernon is no longer alone in the woods.

With only nine songs to his credit, I had assumed the concert would be fairly short. Even Vernon, himself, joked, “Guess what, everybody? We only have so many songs. We’re probably going to play them all.” But the metamorphosis from the introspective tunes on the album to the southern rock crescendos of the live show brought more vitality and drama to the music. Highlights included the soaring “For Emma” and the slow-building “The Wolves (Act I and II).” For the latter, Vernon told the audience that he has a nightly audience sing-along where the crowd must sing “What might have been lost/ Don’t bother me” over the rattling percussion on-stage. Before we had our chance, Vernon said San Francisco and Amsterdam were tied for first place. The members of the Portland audience seemed to give it their all. Vernon never said who won.

The concert only dragged when the band played two covers. While covering Talk Talk’s “I Believe in You” and Graham Nash’s “Simple Man,” Vernon allowed other members of the band to take over the vocals. Though the singing wasn't bad, the voices could not equal the haunting quality of Vernon’s pipes. Consequently, the aisle cleared during this segment of the show and the visibility became perfect as folks fled to the restrooms or out to have a smoke.

Bon Iver closed the first set with “Creature Fear.” As the theater filled with a barrage of drumming and feedback, the transformation of Justin Vernon became complete. Reclusive music had become a full-scale rock show. Although no one danced, the audience remained frozen in rapt stillness. The band came out and finished the show with the plaintive “Blindsided” and “Skinny Love.” While Vernon played the dobro, the three other musicians drummed. This is a far cry from the woods of Wisconsin. Justin Vernon is alone no more.

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