Friday, December 8, 2017
State Theatre, Portland, Maine
In a sentence–for me, sadly, this show was a surprising disappointment.
I saw Bon Iver for the first time in September of 2012 at the Bank of America Pavillion in Boston. Caroline and I went together, and she wrote a lovely guest post giving the show a five star rating. I was in the third or fourth row for that full band show, and I was over the moon to hear some of my Bon Iver favorites in person and to sing “The Wolves (Acts I and II)” together. The energy at that show was palpably positive.
When I saw that Bon Iver was playing so nearby in Portland at State Theatre, I was thrilled. I set an alarm to buy tickets in the presale, but the timing of my teaching plans were a little off because we had an unexpected fire drill, so I selfishly asked my students to work on their homework for a few minutes while I tried to get tickets on both my laptop and my phone. My phone came through for me and I snagged a pair of tickets a few rows from the back of the room, and I can’t think of a time I was so happy to have basically back row seats. I checked again when tickets went on sale to the general public, but they seemed completely sold out right away. I read through more than a hundred comments from angry Bon Iver fans about how impossible it was to get tickets for the show, and revelled in my luck. I even looked online at StubHub just to see if I could get seats closer to the stage, but seats in my far away section were selling for $250 each (a huge markup over the $65 face value). I scoffed at the idea of selling my tickets for profit anyhow, but then I went to the show and thought twice.
Bartlett was my lucky date for the night, even though many people inquired about my extra ticket for the show right up until the night of the show. We met for dinner at El Rayo, had a couple of tacos and cocktails, and made our way to State Theatreearly to make it through their added security and because there was no opening act. Justin Vernon took the stage solo, which I am usually totally in favor of, but this was an odd night. I was surprised by how many people were back and forth to the bar and bathroom during the show because we’d all paid a decent amount for these highly sought after tickets and I figured everyone there would be a big fan. (A sarcastic shout out to the annoying super fan couple in the third row that spent most of the night dancing wildly on your feet–rudely obstructing the views of and distracting everyone all around you. You guys made me glad my seats were so far away). There was some sort of chatter coming from the other front orchestra section, I guess, because Justin interjected a snarky comment about them, and then followed up with a comment about how we should all just love each other. Later, someone from the crowd shouted out “I love you, Justin,” and he responded “I have plans later. But I appreciate that.” I thought some (but not all) of his banter with the audience was awkward to the point of kind of mean spirited. It felt like he didn’t want to have to perform for us, and it ruined the show experience for me.
I didn’t feel at all this way five years ago when I first saw Bon Iver live, so I have some theories about this night’s cringeworthy moments. The easiest explanation would be that folks nearest him were being rude and I couldn’t hear it. That, sadly, has been the case at other shows I’ve been to in Portland, where people talk all night over the performer. Regina Spektor’s show earlier this year at State Theatrecomes right to mind. Maybe something has shifted for Justin during these years that makes performing difficult for him, or, he was just having a bad night. If I missed something, please tell me. I’d love to know there was an obvious cause for his somewhat grumpy demeanor.
Musically, Justin was great. I loved hearing so many songs I love live–“Flume,”“Perth,”“Blood Bank,”“Skinny Love,”and “Woods”–and his cover of“I Can’t Make You Love Me”was heart wrenching, as expected. I enjoyed hearing the heavily electronic songs from his 2016 album, 22, A Million in person, too. It felt good to sing “The Wolves (Acts I and II)” together to end the night at Justin’s invitation, but I was very surprised he only played a one song encore (a cover of Mahalia Jackson’s “Satisfied Mind”), because he was on stage less than an hour. I’d felt so lucky to have the opportunity to be in the room, but was genuinely sadly disappointed during and after the show. It felt like an off night from start to finish, and it seemed to me like Justin struggles with the pressures of being a beloved musician, which seemed to shine through during this show. In the end, I am fine with having spent $65 to see Justin Vernon from basically the back row, but I probably wouldn’t do it again, which is disappointing given how much his music has positively impacted my life.
If you missed this show, I honestly don’t think you missed much. Maybe something was going on with the crowd up front that I couldn’t hear. If folks were being rude and Justin was annoyed with them–I can totally live with that. From where I sat, though, this show was a bummer. If you saw another night of this tour and had a very positive experience, I would also like to hear from you so that I know this was simply an off night and that Justin is just fine. I’m truly hoping for that.