December 6 2011 — Bon Iver & My Brother
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
This my excavation and today is Kumran
Everything that happens is from now on
This is pouring rain
This is paralyzed
— lyrics by Bon Iver from "Re: Stacks"
I was in awe ten rows back from the stage on the floor of Massey Hall. The December 6th show is a sepia-tinted memory I protect and preserve. Justin Vernon, also known as Bon Iver, performed for a sold-out crowd that hung on his every lingering cadence. I was with my brother, who is way cooler than me, especially when it comes to music. When we were younger, he would often buy me concert tickets and I was always excited because I knew the curated schedule of shows would be excellent.
When we saw Bon Iver at Massey, it was one of two nights coming off the release of Vernon’s second full-length album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver. He was on the cusp of becoming extremely famous. That show was maybe the last chance for people to see him play a reasonably intimate venue in this city, and you had to be refreshing the Ticketmaster site like mad to get a seat. Overnight, Bon Iver was mainstream folklore. If you’ve been to the old Massey Hall, you know how good the sound was. The reverb and the refrains and the reflections stay with you. I remember when Vernon and his band played “Skinny Love” at the end of the show, every fan was on their feet screaming along, and I felt swallowed by the intensity.
The idea of the “excavation” in the song “Re: Stacks” is something I relate to because I've been engaged in creative exercises that demand a level of emotional mining, and I'm also a citizen in our complicated world. When I’m listening to music I love, I am closest to understanding emotions — especially as they fit into patterns of catharsis. I feel cracked open, or else like I’m walking home in the “pouring rain.” While I’m not sure we’ve really compared notes on this, I suspect my brother might feel something similar. We’re not in sync on everything; he’s more practical and level-headed than I am! But we share a sense of appreciation for music, and we can find common ground whenever we need to dig deep.
I don’t know that I really appreciated it until he left for university, but my brother and I are close. We have the kind of contract where we'll be there for each other no matter what. I feel so much pride when he accomplishes milestones in his life; I can share in the joy even more than when I do something decent myself. When we think something’s really funny, we laugh until we cry, even when other people have no sense of why we’re behaving like buffoons. These instances are reminiscent of our Saturday morning cartoon days as kids.
For me, life is about who you're with and that 2011 concert felt like an important measure of time next to my brother. Bon Iver brings up the accidental discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls with Kumran in his song lyrics. I interpret this as a poetic nod to how time and knowledge can confirm, suspend, or change what we have long accepted to be true. Vernon is commenting on a lost love and the implications of gambling on it. The discovery of the Scrolls in part authenticated the Old Testament. I read these lyrics as authenticating suspicions the speaker had about himself and his relationship before its end. Vernon’s last lines support this theory — “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization / It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away / Your love will be / Safe with me.” I’ve felt how grand the stakes can seem in love before it’s clear that two people are not a good bet anymore. Nostalgia is one of my favourite feelings, but I need reminding in season that “everything that happens is from now on.”
Dave and I saw Bon Iver again on October 6, 2019. By that time, our lives looked very different. He was married to my amazing sister-in-law and working downtown, and I was in grad school writing a poetry thesis. It was the I,I tour in 2019 and Vernon’s band played the Air Canada Centre. We were way up in the rafters. The set list didn’t include a lot of the old songs and there was a purple and green light show that was nothing like the basic setup at Massey. I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been thinking about fate for several months within the confines of this blog project, but I imagine even if we’d been in the same seats, Vernon had replayed the set list, and every audience member mirrored their actions and reactions from December 6, 2011, we wouldn’t return to that night. We were older the minute the music started. We'd discovered something sacred. I’ve been lucky my whole life to define times next to my brother.
Thanks for reading my blog! There'll be a few more posts before the capsule is closed. As always, I'd love to hear from you.
Link to Bon Iver video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhDnyPsQsB0