Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, aka Kanye West’s favorite Midwest auto-tuned crooner, graced Minneapolis with his presence in the form of Volcano Choir, a band that combines members of Collections of Colonies of Bees with Vernon tackling lead vocals.
Unmap, released in 2009, is Volcano Choir’s only album. While not as accessible as Vernon’s other work as Bon Iver, the experimental nature of the music, combined with Vernon’s signature falsetto, made for a very interesting and at times emotional listen, something that would be challenging to reproduce in a live setting.
Live setting be damned, Vernon and crew decided to do two live shows in the U.S. after a one-off performance in Japan last year. And boy, did they do a number on Unmap.
After quietly walking on stage a little after midnight, Volcano Choir opened the show with the slow burning and mostly electronic “Dote,” a perfect opener that sounds like the electronic equivalent of slowly waking up under the sea, the synthesized keys fluttering around like bubbles as sun rays reach the bottom of the ocean. No but like really, that’s how it sounds. And it’s even more impressive live, as the gentile sounds gave way to “Seeplymouth.” With Vernon’s auto-tuned vocals brought to the front in the mix than blending in like they did on the album, the meandering “Seeplymouth” was suddenly immediate sounding.
With audience members Martin Dosh and Mike Lewis cheering them on, Volcano Choir ripped into “Island, IS,” the most song-centric cut from Unmap. Clipping along at a faster pace when compared to the album version, it sounded exciting and uplifting, capturing everyone’s attention that had packed into The Cedar.
“Island, IS,” Live @ The Cedar
“Husks and Shells,” as well as “And Gather,” provided the soundtrack for the more contemplative, quieter moments of the show, yet each sounded lovely in their own right, Vernon singing his soul out with eyes closed, playing with his own voice and the effects layered upon it.
And then, a surprise – Vernon introduced a new song. Titled “Blue Ni Ni,” the song is more in the spirit of “Island, IS,” but packs a deeper emotional punch. With spiraling guitar riffs and a galloping beat, “Blue Ni Ni” ends with one of those power choruses where everything builds to a point and then comes crashing down again, Vernon’s vocals ripping out everyone’s heart. If this is what Volcano Choir are up to lately, we are very lucky.
“Blue Ni Ni,” Live @ The Cedar
The show ended with the spiritual “Youlogy” before the band returned to the stage to perform the now famous “Still,” a song that makes an appearance in the form of “Woods” on Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP and would eventually go on to serve as the backbone of Kanye’s “Lost In The World.” And although I was secretly hoping that at any moment the beat would drop and Kanye would come roaring on stage to support his boy, the song in its Volcano Choir form was transfixing.
Making the jump from a meticulously engineered album to performing content live is one that many bands try to make and sadly more than often fail. Yet on Friday night, not only did Volcano Choir prove that it’s possible, they one-upped themselves and gave the audience something better than the album, wrapped in the memory of being present for perhaps a once in a lifetime show.
Let’s hope we get to experience this again.