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Midwest “neo-soul” shines at Portland venue

What’s the difference between folk music and the sounds that Bon Iver produced at Holocene recently? I pondered that as I reveled in the beautiful soundtrack to an introspective life that the band (whose name is a play off of what Francophiles and others know translates to “good winter”) reproduced.

I am not a big fan of the watered-down stuff that passes as folk (the stuff you hear in Starbucks, generally); Justin Vernon’s music captures the human experience as only recording in isolated places – like his father’s Wisconsin hunting cabin – can. But it is music also informed by modern anxieties. Vernon himself refers to his music as “neo-soul”.

So, it was no surprise to learn mid-set that Vernon has a punk-pop band called Michael Jordan, as well. Hearing the edge of Bon Iver’s music emphasized in their live set reminded me of when I saw Iron & Wine in town and witnessed Sam Beam and Co. growl, and not ironically cover New Order. It’s the stuff of early Dylan, where traditional sounds were often the shell of a more disturbing sonic narrative.

But it’s the heartache in Vernon’s voice which is the difference (which, especially live, reminded of a cross between Jeff Buckley’s falsetto and the aforementioned Beam’s raspy world-weariness). Bon Iver found new dynamics in its already subtle fledgling debut For Emma, Forever Ago. When Vernon asked the Holocene crowd to sing along to the refrain from “The Wolves (Act I and II)“, nervous looks abounded. The song ended up becoming a magic moment that somehow produced harmony from a group often more concerned with appearing to be coolly indifferent.

Though For Emma is not a perfect album, it is an early front-runner for my record of the year. In these troubled times, this album reflects my hope that a talented guy from the Midwest might bring a good winter.

DBD David Bailey Design