Bon Iver, Tower Theater [Upper Darby, PA] 8/3/2011

Courtesy of Clash Music

The morning after Bon Iver [singer/songwriter Justin Vernon and his ten-piece band] played in Philadelphia at the Tower Theater, the Inquirer published a review titled, “At the Tower, Bon Iver shows that less can be more.” The basic premise of the review was: “The new album [S/T] is bad and the old album [For Emma, Forever Ago] is better.” From this premise, the critic concluded, “Thus, Bon Iver should not have played tracks from his new album. He should have stuck with his old songs because they are the best.” I beg to differ.

My first three to four listens to the 2011 self-titled album led to the following reactions: indifference, teenaged-crush, confusion, satisfaction. I was satisfied with the record, but not wowed. I’ll admit, much like the Inquirer critic, I far prefer “For Emma.” Who doesn’t? Come on, it was written in a cabin in the woods when Vernon was an emotional wreck recovering from mono.

The fatal flaw in the critic’s reasoning is that live performances should not be critiqued based on the quality of the record, they should be critiqued based on the quality of the performance. Bon Iver’s performance was outstanding, regardless of the album off of which the song came. In fact, I entered the theater a skeptic of the new record, and left with a new appreciation of it.

What’s wonderful about Bon Iver’s newest record is its stark contrast from “For Emma,” and “Blood Bank,” and the depth this adds to a live show. Soft falsettos and acoustic tracks were replaced with powerful rock-style pieces. The best part is – he pulled each style off equally as well live. Veron’s voice shines whether it’s just him and a guitar or him and an [overly] talented band blasting behind him. This is the mark of a truly talented artist and performer – an ability to produce something completely different and pull it off on stage equally as well [see also: the development of artists such as Radiohead and Arcade Fire through their discography].

So to the Inquirer, I say: don’t confuse your review of the record with your review of the show. The performance itself was spot-on. Will most of us [or perhaps only the older-generation of Bon Iver listeners, for it seems the younger crowd knew every word to the new record] turn on “For Emma” more often than “Bon Iver”? Likely. Ten years from now, that’s the record I’ll turn to.* Were many of my favorite moments in the show Vernon’s acoustic pieces? Yes, but I am an emotional mess. But that’s no reason to ignore Bon Iver’s new direction. Tracks like “Calgary” and “Perth” off of the self-titled album sound so good live that it’s easy to learn to love them when you return to your iTunes library.

Best moments of the show:
1. “Flume” (For Emma) – Vernon began acoustic and his band [have I mentioned how insanely talented this band was?] slowly joined him.** Made me forget that Peter Gabriel ever attempted to cover this song. Listen here.
2. “Calgary” (Bon Iver) – Me, to Shaun: “I hope he plays Calgary, I think that’s my favorite track off of the new record.” Justin Vernon: Reads my mind and begins to play it. Listen here.
3. “Re: Stacks” (For Emma) – enough said. He took the song down a few keys, but it was still as haunting as ever. Listen here.
4. They serve Philly pretzels at the Tower Theater.
5. During the encore of “Skinny Love”***, the string of his guitar snapped, so Vernon threw it across the stage and sang the rest of the song sans accompaniment with his band circled around him, providing the clapping and stomping rhythms. Listen here.

Worst moments of the show:
1. It’s easy to taste that the bar waters down the beers to make more money when you’re drinking a stout. Don’t pay 8$ for watery stout.
2. The teenaged girl who apparently had a life-or-death texting situation going on during “Re: Stacks,” requiring her iPhone to be on “loud.” If you’re wondering, I snapped at her.
3. “Beth / Rest” – Seriously, no one gets that song. Listen here.

* I’m also willing to concede that this could just be because I’m a huge emotional wreck who sits alone and cries listening to Re: Stacks in her kitchen.

** By the way, this summer on the G-Train platform in Brooklyn, a completely unassuming young guy with a guitar started belting out “Flume” while we waited for the train [which wasn’t coming because the G sucks on weekends]. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard, and was the first time I was ever compelled to give a musician money on the streets in NYC, even though I lived there for four years [see above comments about “huge emotional wreck”].

*** Shaun will always be convinced he can sing this song better than Vernon. Justin, if you’re reading, I’d be happy to test this theory.


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Categories: Music


Courtney grew up in Reading, PA, and has lived in New York City (where she earned a bachelor's degree at NYU), Prague, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville (where she received a J.D. from UVa Law). Courtney and her new husband will settle in Philadelphia following a six-week Euro-trip extravaganza in September of 2012. Courtney's interests include music, writing, criticism, fitness, travel, cooking, and sports. Please enjoy the blog. LinkedIn: Tumblr:


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    […] Iver” – In all honesty, I trashed this record at first. It wasn’t until I heard it live – where its power and strength nearly blew out the speakers in the venue- that I had the, […]

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