November 8, 2017
Monday evening marked an unforgettable night for Charlotte’s music scene, as thousands of fans gathered outside of The Fillmore to witness Bon Iver’s first-ever performance in the Queen City. Electricity sparked through the air as the line of attendees grew, nearly wrapping around the block in the shadow of the setting sun. The conversation amongst the crowd spanned from memories of past performances, to the possibilities of the set ahead, creating a cloud of anticipation that sunk deep into everyone’s nerves. All that was left to do was wait for the night to begin.
Despite his global popularity, Bon Iver (a.k.a. Justin Vernon), has always maintained a reputation as a humble artist. The story of his beginnings has become almost as widely known and appreciated as his body of work, giving even further depth to the lyrics and emotional tone of his music. Vernon left Raleigh, NC in 2006 after the split of his band, DeYarmond Edison, and the ending of his relationship at the time. He retreated to his father’s cabin in northern Wisconsin to emotionally recuperate during the winter months, and, after being bedridden from mono, crafted his first album under the Bon Iver moniker, For Emma, Forever Ago. The heartbreak-inspired album was originally self-released, and after being met with critical acclaim, re-released in 2008 to a much wider audience. Since that monumental step, Vernon has released two more full-length records and one EP under Bon Iver as well as several credited contributions to artists like Kanye West, James Blake, and Francis and the Lights. All the while, Vernon’s process, his inspirations, and his very presence have remained shrouded in a foggy mystique, and his appearance in Charlotte was no exception.
The sold-out venue filled up almost immediately after the doors opened. People flooded in, bustling past one another to get to the front of the ballroom, scrambling to get their last-minute drinks and check out the merch table in the back before getting settled for the rest of the night. After a short set from opening act, Aero Flynn, the tension in the room reached a peak as everyone held their breath for what was to come. With a flourish of light in an otherwise pitch-black room, Vernon took the stage alone and serenaded the crowd with “Woods,” from his 2009 Blood Bank EP. From there, the set was off to the races as Vernon and his backing band played through most of the latest record, 22 A Million peppered with gems from previous records most notably, the surprise inclusion of “Blood Bank,” another song rarely ever played by the band also from the 2009 EP.
As the evening carried on, it became increasingly difficult to imagine Bon Iver ever playing a small gig in Vernon’s hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, especially given the grandeur of the stage that faced Charlotte that night. Two full drum-sets facing one another captured everyone’s attention, compounded with the four-piece trombone section that stood directly behind Vernon, armed, himself, with an impressive keyboard setup and a multitude of guitars. Standalone lightbulbs decorated the stage, weaving between the performers as they played, illuminating and strobing with the rhythm of the songs. As if that wasn’t enough, the stage lights created an astounding show, one that perfectly matched the mood of the set as the music ascended to a triumphant crescendo, only to sink into a warm melancholy, time and time again.
As impressive as the band, the lights, and the presence on stage, the most memorable piece of the evening was found in Vernon’s solo performance of the song “715 – CRΣΣKS” from 22, A Million. After witnessing the full-band’s stunning performance, it was a jarring shift to see Vernon alone on stage again, once more shrouded in a beam of white light. His delivery of the song was saturated with such honest emotion, and as the pain in his voice shook the venue floor, the crowd seemed to resonate with his shocking vulnerability more in that moment than any other point throughout.
The band closed the set out with a double-encore of two memorable songs from the first album, “For Emma” and “Skinny Love” completing a full emotional spectrum and leaving everyone in the room entirely floored. There was an aura of shock as the crowd filtered out of the doors, some wracked in excited disbelief of what they had just seen, others speechless as they walked along with tear-stained cheeks and swollen eyes. It’s safe to say that Bon Iver’s first performance in Charlotte left a serious impression, and with any luck, it won’t be the last one.
Check out the remaining 2017 tour dates for Bon Iver.