When you hear Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon talk in between songs with a deep vibrato, you wonder if this is the same guy whose ghostly falsetto made him a bit of a cult hero. Like Where The Wild Things Are and PBR, Bon Iver’s debut For Emma, Forever Ago is a proud keeper amongst the hipster elite, perhaps to the state of over-rated. But as music journalist Jason Gonulsen recently described Vernon’s undecipherable vocals – “everything about this tune is so simple and true, except the clarity of Vernon’s voice, which sounds as if he is singing in a dubbed code that he discovered in his father’s cabin while he recorded For Emma.”
So even if you can’t make out what Vernon is exactly singing about, the audience hung onto every word and then some, to his near sell out at the Mesa Arts Center . The Bon Iver live show contradicts the sparse recordings on For Emma, as the additional musicians that makes up the Bon Iver proper band(Michael Noyce, Sean Carey, and Matthew McCaughan) load Vernon’s acoustic numbers with the multi-layered power of a full ensemble. With a few curveballs thrown in, including a lonesome version of Graham Nash’s “Simple Man” sung by Mike Noyce in the performance had its ups and downs, with the most of the downs coming from a belligerently loud audience member who forgot he wasn’t at a Papa Roach show. Nonetheless when Vernon tackled favorites like “Flume,” “Lump Some” and “Skinny Love,” the later which featured three drums and one guitar, it gave the young crowd the familiar melodies they came to absorb. And as Vernon urged the audience to sing and scream in union in the set closer “The Wolves (Act I and II), ”everyone not only gripped his words but voiced them aloud too, indecipherable or not.
Admittedly Bon Iver may have a bit too much hype too fast, when there are many others in that same neo-folk scene doing the same thing but to less avail, but there’s no argument that Vernon’s ghostly falsetto draws you in and keeps you there.