New York City finally felt fall approaching last Saturday night, and the drop in temperature could not have been more timely, coinciding with the performance of Justin Vernon’s side project, Volcano Choir. Several citizens packed Webster Hall to hear the wispy sounds of the Bon Iver front man, hoping to be enchanted by the pain-stricken voice affiliated with the Grammy-winning “indie poster-child.”
Volcano Choir’s members, comprised of Vernon as well as members of Collections Of Colonies Of Bees and All Tiny Creatures, came on to a backlit stage. Illuminated by gorgeous electric blue and red lights, the crevices etched into the backdrop further enhanced the sensation of a peaceful yet isolated cavernous setting. With no acknowledgement of the audience, the band dove straight into the set, opening with Tiderays, the first track off the group’s recently released Repave. The ethereal synthesizer complemented Chris Rosenau’s light picking of the acoustic guitar, building the auditory layers of tranquility characterized by the band in general. Vernon’s falsetto-tinged vocals pierced those layers, serving as a tonic for the crowd’s sense of anticipation.
The band played every track off of their latest Repave, as well as some fresh-off-the-bus-jamming new tracks and others from their 2009 debut, Unmap. Vernon never faltered in note or pitch, and Rosenau, even with a gray mane, jammed around like he was 25. Islands, Is, with its tropical sounds and eclectic guitar riffs, was a must-do as a contrast to the mostly chilly auditory crashes of the songs that would follow. From the slower power ballads like Dancepack to the dramatic Keel, the band’s harmonious sounds were gorgeous. With such technically exact rhythms and chord structures, it definitely was an impressive feat that each song, even newer ones like Valleyinaire, perfectly echoed their original studio renditions, all transporting the listeners to a cold, rustic northern land akin to the band’s album artwork.
Despite Vernon claiming to have severed his ties with Bon Iver, it seemed quite obvious that few in the crowd were there to see Volcano Choir. They were there for Vernon’s woeful wails of anguish and despair (even if vocals on Repave were flat opposite of For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver). Rosenau attempted establish an intimate connection between the band and the crowd with the promise of a lengthy setlist for this last stop on their short tour. The echo of applause, however, really thundered during the brief moments of Vernon’s speeches, with him hitting all the right expressions of gratitude for having a crowd with which to appreciate the music.
Oddly, Vernon’s prestige ultimately imposed a depressive, sleepy ambiance onto the crowd. Many fans, although shouting their lungs out and clapping hysterically through each song break, reverentially ceased their ecstasy during the songs themselves. With Vernon upon his mic pedestal, shouting lyrics to a mind-tired crowd, the concert could almost be seen as a solemn church mass with musical accompaniment. Even during the more upbeat-inclined tracks, minimal movement could be detected among crowd members. There was the occasional heavy head bobbing or shoulder shuffling but overall there was scant excitement in the crowd’s faces. One fan nearby pumped his fist proudly alongside Vernon but just as quickly whipped out his phone to snap a quick photo to iMessage his friend.
In Vernon’s recent interview with Australia’s Triple J radio, he discussed ceasing his ties with Bon Iver. However, with the crowd just begging for Vernon to play one of his former glories, the iconic, wispy lyrics of “I’m up in the woods” came very well-received. However, the band was not covering Woods, (a fact that may have gone unnoticed to many fans) but was in fact performing Still, the experimental counterpart to the popular Bon Iver track. The heavy ambiance of the track saturated the crowd members, wide-eyed with amazement, but immediately several fans could be overheard asking, “Where’s Kanye?” Even though Yeezus made no appearance, Still proved to be a dramatic feat, ending with Vernon sitting down behind his pedestal from exhaustion.
The members returned quickly for a three-song encore, opening with the unreleased track Nini. It was the body shaker, with people actually dancing alongside the fast-paced synth melodies and funky rhythms. The remaining songs though were definitely on the slow end of the tempo spectrum: Almanac, another power ballad, and the ghostly Youlogy, coincidentally fitting the churchly vibe of the evening.
After the band finished, crowd members turned back multiple times as they were leaving, anxiously hoping for a second encore. Or maybe they were thinking it was technically Sunday morning, and time to go to church again.
Photos by Suyi Tay.