Come on Bon Iver Just Last the Year

Julia Schabas


Video: Bon Iver Concert


               It was a cold Tuesday night in December on Shuter Street in downtown Toronto. Christmas shopping season had begun. Across the street at the Eaton Centre, crowds buzzed and the sounds of live street music from Dundas Square were pouring down Yonge. Instead of joining the throng, my friends and I rushed through the great red double doors of Massey Hall, anxious to be warmed by another kind of seasonal sound: the soft harmonies of Bon Iver.

                Although pronounced like the French, bon hiver, for “good winter,” Bon Iver is actually a Wisconsin group made up of vocals, percussion, guitars, violins and horns. This eclectic ensemble plays a variety of folk, rock, and experimental music.

               The band’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago was released in 2008, containing one of the band’s most well known songs, “Skinny Love”. Even with the thousands of covers surfacing on YouTube, including the unfortunate recorded cover by British singer, Birdy. Many would agree that nothing can meet the mood that lead singer Justin Vernon sets in the band’s hit.

               More recently, last June the band released their eponymous album, Bon Iver, which has grabbed four 2012 Grammy nominations, including “Song of the Year” and “Record of the Year.”

               I first heard Bon Iver this past summer at camp, and I instantly fell in love; going to the concert was the cherry on top to my recent encounter with them, as I’m sure it was to older fans.

               “I probably saw six or seven concerts in December,” says fellow attendee and NT English teacher, Mr. Dickstein. “And in my life, I’ve probably seen one hundred and fifty [concerts]. That was top five.”

               The warm, cozy and rustic Massey Hall was brightened by brilliant neon lights, playing as an accompaniment to the soulful music of the band and heart-wrenchingly beautiful vocals of Justin Vernon.

               “We’re going to be dipping a lot into our back catalogue,” announced Vernon at the start of the show, which was received by a roar of cheers from the crowd.

               With a mixture of numbers from For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, it felt as if the whole concert was a lead up to the finale: “Skinny Love.”

The song is almost like a pleading; a song begging for love to last a little longer, even when you know that it can’t. In a June 2011 interview in the online journal Pitchfork, Justin Vernon described the song as a situation when “you’re in a relationship because you need help, but that’s not necessarily why you should be in a relationship. And that’s skinny. It doesn’t have weight. Skinny love doesn’t have a chance because it’s not nourished.” 

Bon Iver performed “Skinny Love” that night with Vernon set centre stage on the acoustic guitar, accompanied by a percussion of drums, claps and foot stomps supporting him from behind.  As the final song in their set list before the encore, it was truly an epic ending. 

               “I thought it was impossible to top his recordings,” says a fellow concertgoer. “Then I saw him live.” “Skinny Love” felt more genuine than any live music I had experienced, and the soul and meaning of the song reached right into my gut.

               In Bon Iver’s two encores that night, they played an upbeat, yet poignant, “For Emma,” and finished with “The Wolves (Act I and II).” A song searching for love, the band had the audience join in with the lyrics, “what might have been lost,” a perfect finish to a perfect night.

               As a whole, the concert felt like a story. One song led into another, a new chapter with a new title; piecing together the broken pieces, and making one, unified aura.

               “What might have been lost,” I sang along with Vernon? Probably my heart.