Bon Iver Comes to Paradiso

by Reed Sprague


I’ve heard it said that Bruce Springsteen gives amazingly long shows.  People have told me about three plus hour shows with three to four curtain calls.  Bruce may now be able to claim James Brown’s long standing self-monicker ‘The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.’  It’s easy for Bruce to let his shows run past the three-hour mark.  He has a song catalog that spans over 35 years.  So what would you do if you’re a young band?  What do you do if you only have one album out that comprises of 9 songs and only 37:19 minutes worth of music?  This was the challenge Bon Iver faced Saturday night when they arrived at Paradiso.


The fact that they only have one album doesn’t mean they are unpopular.  The recently released album “For Emma, Forever Ago,” has been received (even before it was officially released) with nearly unanimous critical acclaim.  It has been the most talked about and blogged about album in years, made all the more notable by the fact that until very recently it hadn’t arrived at stores and nobody could buy it.  The TV crowd has already picked it up and snippets of songs have shown up in “House,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “One Tree Hill.”  Jason Vernon, the man responsible for all of this, has performed for a late night talk-show in the UK and completed a lengthy interview with ABC news.  Which all goes to explain why the standing room only in the Paradiso’s zaal klein (small room) resembled a cross-town city bus at rush hour, with people packed so close together I inadvertently took the pulse of the stranger standing next to me a couple times during the show (it was a bit high, I suggest cutting down on the eggs).

Bon Iver’s success is born from great mythology.  In 2007 Justin Vernon, the creator behind the album, suffered a broken relationship, a recently dissolved band, and lots pent up history that he simply wasn’t able to let go.  For all these reasons he escaped North Carolina and headed home to spend a winter in his father’s hunting cabin in northern Wisconsin to combat his demons in solitude.  He applied a “chop wood / carry water” zen-like therapy of simple daily work and slowly the music started to come forth.  Soon he was spending his days in 12-hour recording sessions punctuated by trips with the tractor to get more firewood.  In the end, he had purged his demons and was left with 9 songs of cathartic release that when put together offer a wonderfully delicate and vulnerable album from a truly unique voice.  Justin says all his previous work was about trying to sound like somebody — like Dylan, like Bruce — and here for the first time he didn’t care what anyone thought of the sound.   Because of this, a unique gem has been captured on a few microphones and some aged recording equipment in a cabin in the snowy north and released into the wild. 


When Jason strides onto the stage in Amsterdam he has a full beard and still looks the part of the northern woodsman — as if he flew here directly from the cabin, took off his flannel shirt, and headed out on stage.  He addresses his audience with his wonderful mid-western ‘aw-schucks’ innocence.  He speaks in a deep ruddy voice, which is a surprise since all the songs are sung falsetto.  Although he recorded the album on his own, he’s brought two musicians with him on the tour.  Mikey Noyce — who looks young enough to be still working on his learner’s driver permit — is on rhythm guitar and Sean Carey, with an unstoppable boyish grin, beats a simple drum kit with one cymbal. 

The album is delicate, but “live” the music ripens into something more substantial.  The songs start delicate but mature into anger recognizable by anyone who’s trudged through the resentment, confusion, and disappointment of relationships not working out and not quite knowing why.  Shouted vocals, spittle flying over the mic, Mikey helping the drums by wailing on a tom-tom drum as hard as he can; this is music played at full volume and shows the other side of the emotions processed in the cabin; the anger, the hurt.  This is not to say it destroys the vulnerability found on the album.  It’s all done in perfect conjunction with the spirit of the album and none of it feels forced or showmanshippy; it’s raw and real.  Some songs disintegrate into fragments and chaotic free form music, while others into more traditional jam band with three way sheets of sound with full chords, full on strumming, and occasional visits to the Fender amp for some feedback mixed in. 

And yet, there are only nine songs.  This explains why Saturday night in Paradiso Jason sounded a little apologetic.  “We’re going to play through the songs on the album and hopefully it won’t suck.”  Meaning ‘we have no other songs.’  Forty-five minutes into the show he again hinted at the limited play list, “I don’t want to be presumptuous,” he said in reference to a possible encore calling, “but this is the last song we want to play for the night.  We’ll be back in Amsterdam again, with more songs.”  Five minutes later they were gone.

Reed Sprague is on a four-year work assignment in Amsterdam.  He can be reached at .

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