Written by Colin Kirkland
When my friend, Gilly, and I pulled into Red Hook, we looked around wondering whether or not the driver was planning on murdering us, or if he simply drove to the wrong location. Desolation: wide littered streets, abandoned warehouses; there was no one to be seen. I had never been to Brooklyn before, though. Maybe this was how it was – so hip, I thought, that everything was unmarked and underground. Obviously, that was untrue, even though the restaurant we ended up eating at literally had no sign. What it did have was communal tables, at which we invaded the personal space of other – better dressed – Bon Iver fans. “Are you going to the show? Oh my god, us too!” This short introduction played out several times with various sets of strangers while Gilly and I sat drinking the only beer offered on the menu: Narraganset tall-boys.
“Line up!” shouted a security guard, as Gilly and I tried to make our way into Bon Iver’s final performance at the non-profit post-ironworks factory known as Pioneer Works. They played the last four nights there as well. We were desperately confused after smoking a joint beside a stoop down the street. Unlike any venue I had previously been to, Pioneer Works was clearly a multipurpose space. Ushered through a wide garage-door-like-opening, the atmosphere transformed from a dingy street to a bright white backdrop, with large hanging artwork scattered along the walls. There were rafters above us hidden in the dark and other rooms sectioned off behind the crowd. We picked up our tickets, which were only purchasable if you were a subscriber on the band’s website – thankfully Gilly was. I was a bit surprised by this because even though Gilly is deeply influenced by music, his tastes tend to differ from mine. Recently he left me a live Mumford and Sons video on my Facebook wall and I could only assume that it was because he loved the band’s newer pop sound, while I only made it through thirty seconds until dearly missing the banjo. With this being said, Gilly and I have never had an argument about the precious originality of Bon Iver and their remarkable growth depicted on each consecutive release.
The place was packed, with elegant purple lighting that shone down over countless gyrating heads – a choppy human ocean. After we bought posters – our first planned objective – we checked our coats and drifted outside into a surprising landscape: a sort of Brooklyn forest meets southern backyard party vibe. Set upon a large bed of white pebbles, there was a condensed plot of spruce and pine trees with a path that zigzagged through it; tilted and half-broken statues lay in the dirt. At the other end of this path was an impressive three-story structure that looked like it was covered in wavy metal roofing sheets. We walked up the spiral staircase and explored the second floor from which we looked out and saw a breathtaking view of lower Manhattan, it’s brilliant lights sparkling across the East River. From this lookout, one could get a feel of everything going on: the roaring bon fire down below, the casual hangouts happening around picnic tables, and the venue’s great brick wall with glass windows showing both ends of the audience patiently holding their spots inside, waiting. Gilly and I made eye-contact and nodded: “We should get in there.”
Pioneer Works was hand-chosen by Justin Vernon, front-man and visionary of Bon Iver, because of its absolute dedication to the creative arts. About mid-way through the show, Vernon made an announcement about the space and the undeniable goodness that it harbors. When I did some minor research later on, I discovered that Dustin Yellin,
contemporary artist and founder of Pioneer Works, has made the former abandoned building into a haven for aspiring and renowned creatives by incorporating education programs, a recording studio, science labs, photo-labs, a 3-D printer and more. And after only six years, it is now sustained entirely through money from grants, donations
and fundraisers. Yellin’s artistic vision can be compared to Vernon’s through their all-encompassing approach to a goal. The personal depths at which Vernon connects himself to his art and formulates his creative process are difficult for the average person to wrap their head around. In the last eight years he has written and produced only
three albums and an EP for Bon Iver because he needed time between projects to reflect and develop – to muster up strength and power while pursuing separate pathways. Even though Vernon has done only one in-depth interview during this current tour, his old friend, Trevor Hagen, gives a stirring account of what lives behind Vernon’s music – a longing, painful search for understanding. Sharing that knowledge with us is an unmistakable feat, one that Yellin accomplishes as well through other aspects of art. Both men are guides for their audience and to do so means forever attaching oneself to their craft.
My love for Bon Iver grew out of their first album, For Emma, Forever Ago in the winter of 2008. “Re: Stacks” caught my attention and “Skinny Love” stole my heart. Somehow, I knew that most likely everyone at Pioneer Works that night felt the same way. Justin Vernon has the power to make music that encapsulates a complete atmosphere of emotions. There isn’t one feeling that can be pulled from any of the songs on “For Emma,” the self-titled record, or his most recent, 22, A Million. I’ve always felt that the force of his music pulls people –lovers, strangers, friends – together so tightly in a moment that there’s no chance of banishing that original sensation from the soul. Because of this, I sometimes find it excruciatingly painful to listen to those dark, early songs on the first album. What comes rushing back are long, cold indoor-track practices my freshman year of high-school; when my teammate grabbed one of my headphones and reacted with utter confusion: “That’s not pump-up music!” I was never the best runner. And my experiences with a girlfriend a couple years later and the nights we spent by the fire exploring the power of a first-love while my earliest vinyl purchase spun out “Creature Fear” from the corner of the room. Because of this musician-to-fan, human-to-human relationship, I could feel the true history of personal music appreciation flow through the sea of people at Pioneer Works while we waited for Bon Iver to take the stage.
Two drum-kits, four saxophones, a bass, two guitars, and a sampling booth with a keyboard and microphone that Justin Vernon positioned himself in front of for most of the show. In terms of his outfit, he was probably the most humbly clad one in the warehouse, wearing a simple t-shirt, jeans and a massive pair of Audio-Technica DJ headphones. Without an introduction, the lights died and a processed vocal humming broke through the muffled silence repeating that “It might be over soon…” Swirling purple and green lights covered the bare brick behind the stage with incredible shapes symbols, reminding everyone that this was just the beginning. The first six tracks they played were in order from 22, A Million. “22 (OVER SooN)” bled into “10 d E A T h b R E a s T” and magnified the realization that this was a new sound; no matter what followed wouldn’t take away from the sheer sweetness of hearing something you’ve never heard live before – something original in a time when that hardly exists. Things began to stick to the audience when “715 – CREEKS” came in. Vernon’s auto-tuned vocals without any background instrumentation sounded like an otherworldly confession – “Honey, understand that I have been left here in the reeds / But all I’m trying to do is get my feet out from the crease” – where devil and angel combine into something beyond good versus evil. He had us then, and used this raw power to segue into angelic piano broken up by hard drums and spurts of precisely timed saxophone. With “33 ‘God” the confessional continued and so did a lone sense of searching, an integral part of the album that Vernon passed onto us. Maybe having an audience cleanses the artist?
After playing the first six songs off the album in order, Vernon reconnected us to something more known. He picked up the guitar and began playing “Towers” from Bon Iver’s second album. Hearts reattached, and an ease swept the crowd with the combined realization of “Hey, I know this!” What was impressive was the way Bon Iver improvised the older hits. “Beach Baby,” a mellow acoustic number off their For Emma follow-up, was layered with swelling sax (Andy Shauf-esque) and “Minnesota, WI” came together through a myriad of ricocheting synth staccatos: “Never gonna break, never gonna break” swam across the sea of jumping lights. Unlike some popular artists that shy away from changing something good, Vernon takes what he’s created and alters it, taking the original message and building it up. Things were evolving before our eyes inside the glowing factory walls. “Heavenly Father” was a treat to hear due to the absence it has on any Bon Iver album. Vernon wrote and recorded the song, with his new trademark sound of looped auto-tune background, for Zach Braff’s most recent film, “Wish I Was Here.” Honestly, I had never heard the song before Gilly and I were hit with it live. I was amazed by my “noob-ness” but more amazed by its immediate effect. Whenever Vernon addresses someone in his songs, it seems like a catalyst for self-inflection. The subject can be anyone in your own life, or sometimes it can be everyone. Before the show ended, without an encore – which Vernon warned us about earlier – For Emma was revisited through “Creature Fear” and an epic version of “Wolves.” Both of these songs brought me back down inside myself and a slideshow of memories spanned my mind. And like a warm washcloth at the end of a meal, “00000 Million” delicately cleansed our experience, reintroducing hope for whatever was to come outside of the trendy safe-haven that was Pioneer Works.
When Gilly and I emerged back into the dingy street, we took a long cab ride to Rockefeller Center; I wanted to see the tree. I was a tourist, after all. When we arrived, I couldn’t quite get into the towering green pyramid, still marveling at memories of the concert experience. Before we headed back home, I tried to buy two hotdogs at a food-cart on the corner. After taking a couple bites, the man informed me that I owed him 22 dollars for the dogs. At the time I let Gilly yell at him until the price was sufficiently lowered, but now I’m a little creeped out by that particular number.
Watch Bon Iver perform at Pioneer Works a few nights before in NPR’s full-length video of the show!