Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver Brings Norfolk a Solo “Good Winter” Greeting with Bruce Hornsby
“So, are you a Bon Iver fan?” I asked the young boy next to me. His handsome young father looked down and said, “Say, yes, sir.” His son grinned up at me and replied eagerly, “Yes, sir!” That was the feeling I found in the air at the Norva in Norfolk, Virginia, a few nights ago as Justin Vernon, in his Bon Iver persona (also the name of his band), was about to take the stage. The crowd was unusually respectful, not talking loudly (with some exceptions) during the show. You could hear Bon Iver even in his most quiet and fragile moments, of which there were many. It was the largest crowd I’d seen in many visits to the venue, and the line for early entry went up the stairs into the next dining room. One couple came from D.C. after being turned away from sold-out shows there and in Richmond, just getting tickets before Norfolk also sold out. Astonishingly, another group came from Florida.
Justin Vernon decided on the name “Bon Iver” after being moved by a scene in the great early ’90s TV series “Northern Exposure.” In the show, town folk of fictional Cicely, Alaska, (filmed in lovely, historic Roslyn, Washington) walked about in gently falling show, greeting each other with “Bon Hiver,” French for “Good Winter.” Vernon brought a “good winter” vibe with him to the show that night, and dazzled us with feats of voice, lyrics, keyboards/piano, and electronics. Joining him for a singular part of the 2-hour continuous set was the many-talented Bruce Hornsby, who lives in nearby Williamsburg. Greeted by shouts of Bruuuuuuuuuce, Hornsby, who’d had Vernon join him on his most recent album, began some gorgeous piano playing with the delighted Vernon on guitar, vocals, and keyboards. For me, it was the highlight of the show.
Vernon said, “You know, years ago I was flying around the hills going 95, playing Bruce Hornsby over and over, and, now, there he fucking is, right next to me on stage!” (Justin wasn’t shy about using profanity during the show.) Hornsby was clearly having a good time too, and played like he’d just come down from heaven to join his friend Bon Iver with some spirited, heart-full, and deeply moving playing on a few songs that included a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” That made sense, as this is one of Hornsby’s favorites, one that Raitt sought him out to play on her recording of it. Hornsby and Bon Iver/Vernon made one feel much of the deep soul of that classic song.
Another heart-melter came with the sole encore, another cover, Vernon’s very individual take on Leon Russell’s “Sing a Song for You,” each syllable melting on the tongue and waiting for the next in the slow buildup toward its end. Then came Justin’s final thank-you to the crowd for their support. “‘Preciate ya,” he told the enthusiastic crowd several times during the night.
He began the evening with “Heavenly Father,” which he called “not religious.” That may be, but it has religiosity in it. The tone and message are sad, yet have notes of triumph, and there is throughout a sense of homage and prayer, faith, if only in the tenacious fact of existence and movement.
Ever since I heard the howlin’ wind/I didn’t need to go where a bible went
But then you know your gifts seemed heaven sent/Just lead me to a choler, dad, that’s the thing/I don’t know how you house the sin/But you’re free now
I was never sure how much of you I could let in/And I’m free now … ‘Cause I’m a known coward in a coward wind/But you’re free now
Late in the concert, the song “Roslyn” extends a similar sense of saddening prayer, with his high voicings placing a tenor piercing of hope through the sorrowful notes. It is about a favorite place of my own, the charming old-western town of Roslyn, setting of “Northern Exposure,” nestled in the Cascade Mountains, home of many bon hivers.
Toward the show’s middle came one of his “hits,” “Skinny Love” from For Emma, Forever Ago, a result of a retreat to his father’s deep-woods cabin in Wisconsin, where Vernon came up with this iconic first album a decade ago. It was something he said he wanted to return to, in a sense, with this tour, paring things down to essentials, without a band or elaborate stages.
And I told you to be patient/And I told you to be fine/And I told you to be balanced
And I told you to be kind/And in the morning I’ll be with you/But it will be a different “kind”
… Come on skinny love what happened here/Suckle on the hope in light brassiere
My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my
Later in the show, he performed what he said was probably his favorite of his own tunes (at least I believe it was this one), also from that first album, the lovely, diminutive “Flume,” which was recorded as well by Peter Gabriel.
I am my mother’s only one/It’s enough /I wear my garment so it shows /Now you know/Only love is all maroon/ Gluey feathers on a flume/Sky is womb and she’s the moon/
There was melancholy in the thought and emotion of Bon Iver’s lyrics. It was, to me, however, balanced by voicings that ranged from the high, more feminine sounding to lower registers more evocative of the male voice. All of this lent, for me, a feeling that was more of meditation and renewal than depression or doubt. Balance came too in, for lack of a better word, “rocking” moments that you could tell the artist enjoyed cutting loose on. He at times bounced his body through parts that romped melodically. Other sections were edgy-sounding and thrust the electronica voicings of keyboards surrounding center stage and the grand piano (I think it was) favored by Bruce.
All in all, it was a grand evening of music by a masterful veteran, an icon at a still-young age. The musician friend I came with said there were parts he didn’t like as well. But, he said, overall he admired the night’s performance greatly, including the artist’s versatile and surprisingly powerful voice. Bon Iver solo, merciful grace in a voice that traces routes of sound from high to low and back, stretching understanding and experience musically in continuingly-newer realms worth the exploration.