Published on Jambands.com
Despite its remote setting in Upstate New York, the village of Cooperstown has long held a unique significance within American culture and history. Well known as the legendary birthplace of baseball, fabled author James Fenimore Cooper also set many of his greatest works in the village and its surrounding forests. On September 17, nearly two centuries after Cooper wrote his masterpiece The Last of the Mohicans, thousands gathered in the sloped clearing behind Cooperstown’s Brewery Ommegang to see another artist with deep connections to the wilderness, Justin Vernon and his band Bon Iver.
After parking their cars in an empty field, the crowd of roughly 2,600 college students and savvy older upstaters passed through the gates to find an intimate, festival-style atmosphere, including an outdoor stage flanked by the brewery’s towering fermentation silos. Vendors outlined the audience area selling burgers, wraps, merch, and a selection of Ommegang’s delicious Belgian-style craft beers—including the strong but delicious Farmhouse Ale and their Rare VOS Amber ale—all brewed only yards from the venue area.
Vermont songstress Anaïs Mitchell took the stage first, borrowing saxophonist Colin Stetson from the headlining band for her set. Mitchell explained and performed a few songs from her 2010 “folk opera” Hadestown, which featured Vernon as the legendary Greek poet Orpheus on several songs. The enthusiastic opener dictated the mellow mood for the evening, drawing in the crowd and building excitement for the evening’s featured act still to come.
Wafts of smoke warmed the crisp darkness as acoustic guitar instrumentals and a pair of tracks by NYC pop act Francis and The Lights bridged the gap between acts. The house system faded out halfway through their latest album’s title track “It’ll Be Better,” prompting roars of applause as Bon Iver took the stage, every member bundled up against the chilly night.
Clutching his gold Les Paul, Vernon launched into the riff from “Perth,” the opening track from last summer’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The nine-piece band really threw all their weight behind the louder sections of the song, following through on Vernon’s description of the song as “Civil War-sounding heavy metal” with blasts of of loud sound and flashing light. The opening suite continued in the same order as the album with “Minnesota, WI,” delighting the crowd with dozens of small blue lamps around the stage that flickered along to the polyrhythmic percussion. Continuing in album order, the next song “Holocene” proved as tearfully beautiful as the recording, a feat requiring perfect vocal harmonies from virtually every band member.
The show’s first surge of energy and emotion came next as the band eased into a standout performance of “Creature Fear.” Temporarily abandoning his trademark falsetto, Vernon spoke-sang the first verse in his natural register, emphasizing the terrible pain in the song’s lyrics. After returning to his iconic squeal for the next few verses, the song soon took an unexpected, violent turn—erupting into a chaotic outburst of abstract noise and lights as fiery projections covered the shrouds of burlap above the stage. Eventually the unhinged rhythms started to drift together as each musician slowly adopted an organized chord progression, falling into a few measures of assembled aggression before the song reached an abrupt, jarring halt.
The tone shifted significantly for the next song, as Vernon picked up an acoustic guitar to play “Beach Baby,” a track from the band’s 2009 Blood Bank EP that he jokingly called a “snuggly divorce song.” Antony and the Johnsons multi-instrumentalist Rob Moose stepped up with a neo-classical looped violin solo at the end of the song, hypnotizing the crowd below projections of a pixelated sunrise. Hunched over an electric piano, Vernon segued seamlessly from Moose’s solo into the repeated two-note intro of “Hinnom, TX,” harmonizing with guitarist Michael Noyce before segueing again into “Wash.,” again following the order of the album.