If 2016 taught me anything at all, it’s the fact that sometimes the world, and everything happening in it, can be a bit too much. Speaking on both a wide-spanning macro level, and a personal micro level, sure, there can be quite a lot of happiness and fun, but with that comes moments of overwhelming despair, times of madness—and times when you just need to shut down.
One of the most effective ways to do this, for those fortunate enough to have the means and setting for it, is to dedicate oneself to a night of live music. On Tuesday night, in the hectic climate of December 2016, that moment came to me on a grandiose scale. I saw one of my very favorite artists, Bon Iver, at something of an out-of-the-ordinary venue, Pioneer Works in Red Hook.
Often, even in attempts to escape, we find things that remind us of the reality that we want to—momentarily, at least—leave in the dust. My attempts to retreat from life with season 1 episodes of 30 Rock on Netflix have me hearing references to Donald Trump and Bill Cosby, which now attach themselves to very different contexts than they had in 2006. Late night comedy like Saturday Night Live, Stephen Colbert, and Seth Meyers is so often centered on politics and news that it can be difficult to use that as a way to escape completely. But from the moment the Bon Iver show began—with a projected Louis C.K. quote about living in the moment and not being on your phone—that was all that was on any of the 1,800 capacity crowd’s mind. That’s what escapism is; a fleeting moment where nothing else in the world is in your mind, and the weights of stress and anxiety are off your shoulders.
After the message was on screen, it was easy to tell that the members of the crowd really wanted to oblige with the request. As Justin Vernon took the stage, all were eager to engage as fully as possible. Given the attention span of people these days, however, this didn’t last longer than a handful of minutes, as not before long phones were flying above heads, angling for photos and videos. Irked, someone shouts out: “Put your fucking phones away!”
Already, by this point, in the midst of his second song of the show with “715 – CR∑∑KS,” from his latest acclaimed record 22, A Million, Vernon comes to an abrupt halt. “God damnit,” he says, no one quite sure where his diatribe is about to go. “That’s the wrong verse.” Not flustered, but clearly having a human moment, he stepped back, momentarily reset himself, and correctly began again.
Often times, Bon Iver’s music is thought of as being melancholy—the debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago is notoriously such, recorded almost entirely by Vernon in a secluded cabin—but my history with it is different. Yes, the content is gloomy, but the relaxing nature of the music has never failed to serve as a relaxer for me. Vernon’s soft plucking of the guitar and his smooth vocals have long been an antidote to any uneven or apprehensive mood.
Mixing in a few fan favorite older songs such as “Towers” from the 2011 album Bon Iver, Bon Iver with the entirety of his latest album, Vernon commanded the stage throughout, whether it was with his signature falsetto vocals, his lower register, his occasional strumming of the different guitars that were strapped to his chest, or even his choreography alongside special guest Francis Farewell Starlite (aka Francis & The Lights), who helped to close out the show with a dual performance of “Friends”. The focus wasn’t anywhere but the stage; the center of attention pivoting between Vernon’s voice, the saxophones, drum, and bass that backed him up.
Whatever it may be, the ability to find an effective means of escapism can make or break a psyche. For someone like my neurotic and anxiety-ridden self, the opportunity to step back and clear my mind of all extraneous thought, for even 75 minutes, to enjoy music that I’ve long used for that very reason—to sooth my mind—made an enormous impact.
My first time seeing a Bon Iver show was a lot like my experience of a first time seeing Kanye West or Arcade Fire, a pair of my other favorite artists. An experience like that becomes bigger than the music itself. Nostalgic isn’t quite the right word, because these are things that I appreciate today, and now. Yes, these songs are great, and yes, the artists performing before my eyes are masterfully talented. But as Vernon clarified late in the set, about his vocal outburst during the beginning of the show: it’s not about the videos on your phone. It’s about inside your head; the “bank,” as he referred to it. It’s the experience of that moment—and the emotional memory that follows—that’s going to help you to escape when you need it most.
Photos by Allyson Lupovich