Bon Iver Live at The Forum

by Hannah Jackson

The last time I saw Bon Iver live was Coachella 2017. I came alone and slithered through the crowd, snaking my way to the third row before a fellow concert-goer stomped on my foot as hard as she could to prevent me from getting even closer. Despite her best efforts, I inevitably shed more tears over the incredible live set than my bleeding toes.

It seems like a world of difference since the project’s frontman Justin Vernon first blew my mind in the dusty Indio desert. This time, I find myself perched at the very top of iconic Inglewood locale, the Forum, looking down onto the indie band’s sparse, yet visually intriguing geometric set. Girls with septum piercings and their long-haired boyfriends slosh their beers onto the floor while trying to climb to their seats, and the couple behind me debates whether or not Libertarians are worse than Republicans. As the smell of mint Juul pods wafts over the seats from the people in front of me, I wonder if they were concerned at all about the recent wave of panic over e-cigarettes. As it occurred to me that they probably weren’t—die-hard Bon Iver fans probably have so much emotional baggage that a health risk wouldn’t even phase them—the ambient noise of “Yi!” comes blaring through the speakers. 

Opening with the first four tracks off 2019’s i,i, Bon Iver kicked off the show on a high note. Though he felt far away, Vernon’s voice carried clearly throughout the arena, and I imagined as though he was sitting right next to me. For the autumnal installation of his seasonal albums, Vernon was backed by Flock of Dimes singer Jenn Wasner, whose powerful vocals managed to only amplify the sensational live performance. 

Vernon has always radiated humility. He is never one for theatrics, instead choosing to let set design and lighting support his lyrical and vocal genius. His recent adoption of auto-tune heavy sound has drawn comparisons to collaborator Kanye West, however, the two seem to be the antithesis of one another. Wearing a simple t-shirt, headband, and massive headphones, Vernon thanks the crowd, awkwardly (albeit charmingly) stumbling over his words. “We don’t know what to do except play,” he says. 

With that he launched into an interlude of songs off of older albums For Emma, Forever Ago, and 22, A Million. Vernon performed "666 ʇ" with a wind chime intro, seemingly adapting his body of work to fit his more nuanced experimental electronic beats explored on i,i. "715 - CR∑∑KS,” one of the more popular songs from 22, A Million, was the first to draw huge applause—and for good reason. Vernon sang a breathtaking a cappella rendition of the song, unlike how I had ever heard it before, his powerful vocals sending chilling reverberations throughout the Forum. 

Perhaps the biggest ensemble moment of the night came when the band played “U (Man Like),” during which Vernon and his two backup singers created an awe-inspiring trio of voices that left the audience in a stunned silence. 

Photo by Graham Tolbert

Photo by Graham Tolbert

Around halfway through the set, Vernon blessed the audience with his rendition of “Marion,” my favorite song off his newest LP. Though the song is technically only a few lines long, it is one of his best. Though his poetic finesse and veiled biblical references are always a pleasure to decode, the lyrical simplicity of “Marion” allows the audience to absorb the palpable emotion of the guitar-backed track. 

Performing in a venue of such a great magnitude is a feat not lost on Vernon. “This is fucking weird,” he says with a laugh. “Keep expecting Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] to come out and do a sky hook and shit.”

The second half of Bon Iver’s set was riddled with old favorites, including “Towers,” "____45____,” featuring an extended saxophone solo, and “33 GOD”. 

Vernon, a graduate from the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire with a major in Religious Studies and a minor in Women’s Studies, has always voiced his support for feminist causes, and his show at the Forum proves no different. Taking a pause between songs, Vernon encourages the audience to donate, support, or learn more about the organization he has chosen to highlight, Surviving in Numbers, which seeks to shift responses to domestic violence and victim-blaming, while providing prevention workshops to youths. Calling domestic violence the “least sense-making thing”, Vernon preaches the importance of spreading love and offering help to people who need it. 

Breaking into For Emma’s hit “Re: Stacks,” Vernon played a sparse version of the song. Sitting under a sole spotlight, he took the song to new heights with yet another a cappella portion, leaving the massive venue silent, until a resounding “yeeeeeeew” from the crowd drew uproarious applause. 

Leaving listeners in a stupor is what Bon Iver knows how to do best. Now that the band has finished the autumn edition of their seasonal quest, it will be exciting to see how the band continues to further refine their sound.