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Concert Review: Bon Iver with Bonny Light Horseman in Asheville, NC 06-26-22

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver at Rabbit Rabbit, Asheville NC 06-26-22
Claire Powell
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on keyboards

Everyone experiences concerts differently, but the usual way involves being in the audience and focusing, more or less, on the performance. This was the way I took in every show until I started representing WNCW at concerts and festivals by emceeing, and by writing and producing podcasts about them. This fundamental shift took me from being in attendance to being a part of the production, and it was a rush to be so plugged in. Backstage, onstage, snapping photos, chatting up artists and fellow music professionals: this became the dominant mode for seeing live music. With this came a decline in seeing all of the shows themselves -- the new mode of posting photos to social media immediately, of futzing with and brooding over audio devices, of happy reunions with fellow travelers, of an overarching approach treating events as a palette of paint for my own works rather than as paintings to enjoy at face value -- this MO became a kind of double edged sword. The fruits of access blighted the way I first took in all of this musical bounty, making it impractical and increasingly less possible (because of the three or four other things going on) to fixate on a performance for very long. On the other hand, I got to talk with artists, create something unique out of the experience, and feel like I was living up to my potential. I am not going to complain.

On Sunday June 26, 2022, though, I wound the clock back a bit. Instead of interviewing artists backstage in a green room or in a motorcoach, I stood in the audience the whole time. The fact that you are reading this review makes it obvious that I did not entirely abandon my usual mode, but it is a compromise that was easy enough to make. I hope you enjoy the results, and can imagine being a kind of fellow traveler in these moments while I recount the night’s events at Rabbit Rabbit in Asheville, NC for the Bon Iver show with opener Bonny Light Horseman.

Downtown Asheville, NC would be almost unrecognizable to someone who last saw it twenty years ago. New hotels (So. Many. Hotels!), new businesses, new venues. Add to that list Rabbit Rabbit, a 4000 capacity outdoor venue in the South Slope district. The show was sold out, but it never felt so crowded that moving further up front would have required elbowing through people. The stage was clearly visible from where I stood, back near the audio engineers’ tent.

Bonny Light Horseman opened promptly on time, with the roots music supergroup of Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats, and formerly The Shins) and Josh Kaufman (Muzz, and many other credits including recent collaborations with Taylor Swift) being joined on bass by Asheville’s own Michael Libramento (Coconut Cake, Floating Action, and many other credits including Flock of Dimes and Tedeschi Trucks Band). They played from their self-titled debut album and added at least one more recent tune into their set, the song “Green Rocky Road” from their 2020 single Green/Green. It is a song with a similar vibe to their brand new bittersweet folk shuffler, “California”, from their upcoming sophomore collection Rolling Golden Holy (out Oct. 7 via 37d03d Records), but I did not hear that in their set. Both “Green Rocky Road” and “California” depart from the old-world feel of their debut with prominent placement of American states and cities in their lyrics. Johnson's lead vocals lent a sweetness and light to the minor-key feel of much of their show, and we would be treated to a return of all three core members of Bonny Light Horseman later that night during Bon Iver’s set.

In between sets there was time for guilt-free conversation, and luckily enough I caught up with Jeff Whitworth, Anya Hinkle, and briefly, David Wilcox. While it is never unusual to see Jeff (who books acts for The Bijou Theatre and The Grey Eagle) at any given show, I was not expecting to see singer-songwriters like Anya and David there, which was a pleasant surprise. It was also a testament to the widespread appeal of Bon Iver.

There were also some notable spur-of-the-moment conversations with fellow concert goers, and my WNCW t-shirt got a couple of those going. I had on what we dubbed “the golden ticket” t-shirt, with the station logo in the middle, “Admit One” to its left and “Est. Oct. 13, 1989” to its right. Anya Hinkle’s friend Greg from Chicago noted that October 13th is his birthday, and minutes later we met someone who was born the same day (!) as our first day on air on October 13th, 1989. Hailing from Carrboro was Haleigh, who at first spied my friend Greg Gerald’s Infamous Stringdusters shirt and started talking us up about her love for that band, only to then notice mine, informing us of the coincidence. It could only happen in Asheville, apparently.

Full disclosure: I am not incredibly well versed in Bon Iver’s catalog, so the night was always going to present some unforeseen turns. Justin Vernon’s debut For Emma, Forever Ago remains my go-to album, a largely acoustic collection which seemed to stand in contrast to his later works. Seeing him in a six piece band where five members had a keyboard (one of them being one of the pair of drummers on hand) reinforced that preconception. However, as the show progressed, I realized that the old saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same” was somewhat in play here. Even though Vernon has hit the stratosphere with collaborations with Jay-Z, Nas, Taylor Swift and Kanye, and has produced artists ranging from Brittany Howard to Bruce Hornsby, his work in Bon Iver shows continuity. Even though his band has over eleven million monthly listeners on Spotify, you cannot say that Justin Vernon has lost touch with the version of himself that spent several months in the fall and winter of 2006 sequestered in a hunting cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin writing that first, watershed record. The seeds of later, warped R&B tracks like “666 ʇ”, played midway through the night's set, are easy to dig up in the warbling, softly blurred auto-tune of songs like “The Wolves (Act I and II)” from For Emma, Forever Ago; his full-on rock treatment of “Salem” (with Josh Kauffman joining in on a much more intense version than the one from 2019’s i,i) was presaged by the quiet fervor of Vernon’s sustained falsetto wail coupled with electric guitar, trumpet and trombone in the proxy title track “For Emma”.

Overall, seven of the show’s twenty songs were from Bon Iver’s album i,i. They included 2020 single “AUATC” (“Ate Up All The Cake” for those unfamiliar with Vernon’s employment of acronyms), with several earlier favorites like “Blood Bank”, “Holocene” and “Flume” also in the mix. Anais Mitchell, Josh Kauffman and Eric D. Johnson joined in the band’s closer, a cover of Bob Dylan’s early classic “With God On Our Side”.