There are a few things you should probably know about our state of mind as we made our way to the extremely sold-out Bon Iver show at the Ryman Auditorium: We rode our bike there, we were wearing plaid, and we haven’t shaved in a month. In other words, short of living in a cabin and making pals with a friendly grizzly bear (that’s what Bon Iver fans do, right? Befriend bears?), we could not have been more predisposed to being at least moderately stoked about this show. And guess what? We totally loved it. Shocker.
You know what we don’t love? Shows that start at 7:30 p.m. To our credit, we couldn’t have timed our arrival at The Ryman better. By the time we procured our tickets, bought a $6 beer (our sole point of contention with The Ryman) and found our designated spot on the pew, the lights dimmed and out strode The Rosebuds from Raleigh, N.C.
We immediately recognized Roman Candle member and intermittent Nashvillian Logan Matheny behind the drums before the band launched into a set of songs that stylistically spanned just about every moody indie buzz genre over the past 15 years. Sadcore, shoegaze, chillwave, woods folk — you name it, they sounded vaguely like it. Thanks to our recent (and almost certainly short-lived) love affair with Spotify, we already knew that the duo of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp built their initial fame on twee love songs and cutesy pop — not unlike The Brunettes or Belle & Sebastian, except distinctly American in their tone and musicianship. This isn’t that band anymore. In 2011, The Rosebuds are moody, and we didn’t get the sense that they exactly knew what they wanted to be, but rather what they were done with (i.e. cutesy pop songs). Hence the whirlwind tour through indie-rock past.
There were bits and pieces that we dug — “Boxcar” was a highlight, for instance — but we couldn’t shake the feeling that it sounded so much better and so much more comfortable on the record. And that the styles they were aping had been done so much better in 2001 by Carissa’s Wierd and other bands of that ilk. The crazy shoegazey bass rumble coming out of the speaks felt so incongruous with the band’s aesthetic that it threw us off early on, and we never quite got all the way back on board.
During the mid-show intermission, we couldn’t help but notice how diverse the crowd was. We expected the ironic facial hair brigade, but did you guys know that bros are into Bon Iver? Because bros are totally into Bon Iver. We suspect Kanye. We’re not sure how to account for the lady carrying around a small dog though. Also, douchey Seth Rogan look-alike who insisted that “black people don’t like Bon Iver,” you could not have been more wrong. Also, you’re kind of a dick.
Here’s what we were expecting from a Bon Iver show: Justin Vernon serenading a fawning audience with limited accompaniment with his spooky falsetto, taking full advantage of The Ryman’s acoustics and an enraptured crowd. Here’s what we got: Justin Vernon backed up by an eight-piece band that included two drummers and a slew of brass instruments. Had someone told us three years ago that not only that would we be seeing a nine-member Bon Iver in 2011, but that it also would totally work, we would have shunned them for their impossibly stupid predictions. Sorry, hypothetical psychic, we were wrong. So very, very wrong.
They were the same Bon Iver songs, equally drawing from both records, as well as the Blood Bank EP, except bigger, more robust and, dare we say, kinda epic. We can already hear our punk-rock friends making fun of us for loving a show that, at one point, featured a clarinet solo (you can take The Spin out of junior high school band, but you can’t take the junior high school band out of The Spin. Or something.), but even they would probably shut up by the end of the arresting rhythmic drone during “Creature Fear.” Then again, they’d probably be lost again by “Beth/Rest,” a song that sounds like it belongs in the background of a Twin Peaks remake.
The only way that this kind of music can work in a live setting is by forging an emotional connection with the audience, and Bon Iver accomplishes that admirably — even without the one-on-one we expected from the get-go. Vernon did, however, eventually circle around to it with stripped-down songs like “RE: Stacks.” Even the always-out-of-place country cover (they obliged tradition with a rendition of “If Hollywood Don’t Need You” by Don Williams) didn’t feel as out of place as it usually does.
As the night winded to a close, the Ryman clichés crept in further with an unyieldingly earnest sing-along to “The Wolves” and the obligatory unplugged version of “Skinny Love.” Unless you’re The Flaming Lips, there are two ways to go about performing at The Ryman: Either you struggle against the history and attempt to ignore the weightiness of the occasion, or you embrace it without hesitation. Bon Iver embraced it, and we couldn’t have been any more satisfied with the outcome. Even if it does ruin our mosh-pit street cred.