“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” That was Johnny Rotten’s classic rejoinder at the end of the last Sex Pistols show, at Winterland in San Francisco. And come to think of it, Mr. Rotten, I have had the feeling of being cheated many times – exorbitant ticket prices and convenience charges will do that. But seeing Bon Iver at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Thursday night was one of those rare great bargains – an hour of excellent music for just 22 bucks. Seeing a band touring behind a fine debut album is usually a guarantee of a good show, and this was no exception. Imagine seeing Neil Young during the Harvest tour, if that had been his debut, and you get some idea of the power of this concert experience.
Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago was the work of Justin Vernon, who recorded the album in a cabin in the wilds of Wisconsin. To create the album’s haunting atmosphere, Vernon multi-tracked his voice and guitar to infinity, so the one issue I anticipated was how Bon Iver was going to capture that atmosphere without echo-boxes and/or backtracking. But the three piece band playing with Vernon beautifully sidestepped this issue through layers of haunting harmonies that in essence put four Justin Vernons on stage at the same time. Two members of the band were behind drum kits, and for ‘Skinny Love’ all three were banging away on drums to create the driving percussion of the recorded version of the song. During ‘re: stacks’ you could almost hear a pin drop (except for the drunken idiots jabbering away on the second level). The band crowded around a single microphone for a stunning unplugged cover of The Jayhawks’ ‘Tampa To Tulsa’, and Vernon whipped the crowd into sing-along mode for a spirited take of ‘For Emma’.
But the highlight of the evening was a non-album track called ‘Back In Wisconsin’, which came close to actually rocking out. Midway through its ten-minute running time, Vernon busted out a lengthy, psychedelic-tinged guitar solo that wouldn’t have been out of place in Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ – an unexpected development that should give the casual observer much hope for the future of this band. But mostly this was an evening of haunting acoustic music – expertly rendered and rapturously received. On the backdrop behind the group was one of the best light shows I’ve seen in ages – a gently swirling field of smeared pastels that looked like a Monet painting come to life, and perfectly matched the pace of the music.
“Are you kidding me with this room?” Vernon asked the crowd midway through the show, gawking around at the luxurious venue his band was in the process of practically levitating off the ground. Later, he dropped that “This is going to be our last tour for awhile – we’re going to take some time and figure out what to do next.” If time is what Bon Iver needs to make more of this magic, I think I speak for everyone present on Thursday – take all the time you need fellas.