Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Winter Blues

Sike! I'm not actually that blue this winter. Busy replaces blue most days, truth be told, though yesterday's bitter, bitter cold was enough to make anyone want to give up.

Nope, I wanted to write about winter because I wanted to sing the praises of one Bon Iver. Being the lucky girl that I am, the main dilemma of my week is whether or not to attend the Bon Iver show this coming Thursday - do I cram one more thing into an already busy pre-Christmas week?

To help me decide, I listened to "For Emma, Forever Ago" twice today while working on some freelance writing at a coffee shop. (Yeah, I just name-dropped freelancing - what up.) From my extensive musical reading, I feel fairly confident in reporting that "For Emma" was recorded in lonely Wisconsin hunting cabin one winter. I don't know why it took me until the snow falling at Thanksgiving to realize that "For Emma" is the perfect accompaniment to everyone's least favorite season. Well, everyone except my weird dad and brothers. I still think they're lying about loving the cold.

The album, as far as I can tell, was written for Emma. Though maybe not forever ago. (haha, sorry I had to.) This lucky Emma, whoever she is, had the good fortune to break our Justin Vernon's heart (even Bon Iver has an alter ego). I think Vernon's biggest success is the fact that this chronically lyric-obssesed listener doesn't know, and worse yet, doesn't care about not knowing, half the lyrics on the album. (Though I must say that the lyrics that do strike me hit HOME.) This album is about the way Vernon's broken heart sounds in a lonely hunting cabin, surrounded by snow and self-doubt. It's hard for me to describe. There's a lot of slight, slight distortions and strummy guitar. Voices lay softly on top of each other and create a minor howl at times. It's awesome.

Last spring, I had heard snippets of the album, and decided to buy it. The next day, my friend was lucky enough to score us two tickets to one of Bon Iver's sold out shows at this tiny venue called the Lakeshore Theater. We're talking high school auditorium tiny. Really, she wasn't lucky. She just showed up a few hours before the show and bullied someone into selling her the tickets. She's awesome like that.

Anyway, it rained that night and I had to make the best of really wet feet and a frizzy head. After an obligatory two vodkas (I had to pay my friend back for the ticket, and I couldn't let her drink alone), she and I found seats in the tiny auditorium. Now, the Lakeshore Theater is primarily a venue for live comedy - stand up, revues, what have you. I had never been in before, and was fairly surprised to see that there was no standing area. It was just seats. After a funny little opener, Bon Iver took the stage.

Vernon had two other people on stage with him. One, the bass player, I recognized because one of the guys on All Songs Considered had said "The bass player looks like he's 16." Vernon apparently had met this kid because he taught him guitar. The other kid, a drummer, looked barely old enough to buy me a third vodka. Vernon looked like a man who'd spent a winter in a hunting cabin, writing songs that speak to my innermost heart. He was wearing a flannel shirt and a beard a few days (weeks?) old. Good enough to eat.

Then, he started playing. I think I realized I was holding my breath about three songs in. Four songs in, I realized that everyone else was holding their breath, too. The happy truth is, Vernon sounds as good live as he does on disc. His voice is amazing. I haven't been to a concert that made me feel like that since I saw Wilco in 2005, and I don't know that I've ever been to a concert with the same rapt intensity from the audience. It was like we all thought that Vernon thought that he was alone in a room, singing, and we didn't want to burst in on his privacy and break the spell. So we kept still.

I can't believe how lucky we were to get those last minute tickets. I saw Bon Iver again in July, at the Pitchfork Music Festival. He managed to cast his net over that crowd too, but it certainly wasn't the same as that churchly still Lakeshore Theater performance, on one of his first touring go-rounds. So I think I'll sit this week out. It's snowy, it's cold, and I have a house full of cookies. I can listen to the album in my warm bed, humidifier at hand like a true nerd.