Last week, I spent a couple nights at the 9:30 Club, the premier spot in Washington, D.C. for new music. The 9:30 Club itself is a more than serviceable venue, comparable, to those who know, to the Work/Play Theatre in Birmingham or The Royale in Boston. But while the 9:30 Club has undeniable character, it is as sparse as they come, lacking the assortment of tables, booths, and general seating that those other two venues can boast. In short, the 9:30 Club is designed to simply pack as many people into its two and a half stories as possible. Still, it is better than many of the venues I’ve visited, just don’t expect much (and the food service is lacking as well, so eat ahead of time).
But I digress. I spent two consecutive nights at the 9:30 Club—September 11 and 12—last week, first to see Shakey Graves and Shovels and Rope. Shakey Graves was the main attraction for me at least, and he did not disappoint. A true one man band, Shakey Graves plays the guitar while singing and playing a heel-operated kick drum. I don’t know how he does it, but it creates some pretty memorable tracks, like the one below, “Roll The Bones.”
Shovels and Rope wasn’t bad either. A duo that reminded me of the immensely successful Civil Wars, the blue grass team of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst played a brand of traditional country music that we haven’t heard in a very long time. Lacking all of the pop music ostentation that has poisoned country music radio, I can only hope that Shovels and Rope can gain enough of a following to have some meaningful impact.
Wednesday’s concert was just a trial run for the big show on Thursday night, featuring Sylvan Esso opening up for Volcano Choir. Let’s get Sylvan Esso out of the way. I can only describe them as muted dubstep with a female lead singer who sounded like she should be in a coffee shop. The music wasn’t bad, but their stage presence leaves something to be desired. Think tripped out hippies dancing on a stage and playing a mixing board like it’s a real instrument.
But really, we weren’t there for Sylvan Esso. We were there for Volcano Choir. If you haven’t heard of them, Volcano Choir is the latest project by Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon, in collaboration with the band Collections of Colonies of Bees. Volcano Choir released an experimental album—I’m pretty sure they recorded it without ever being in the room together—called Unmap. While nothing to write home about, Unmap apparently spurred enough creative energy to bring the band together to record a proper release—Repave.
So how was the concert? Honestly, I find it difficult to review. If one were able to separate Volcano Choir from its lineage, then the concert would be an unmitigated success. Repave is an excellent album—perhaps the best indie release of the year—and its signature single, “Byegone,” is as good as anything Bon Iver ever produced.
Ah, but there’s the rub. It is impossible to separate Volcano Choir from Bon Iver, front-manned as it is by Justin Vernon. That is not to say that Vernon doesn’t try. During the entirety of the concert, he never addressed the crowd, not once. To make matters even more awkward, his lead guitarist regularly did, presenting himself as the representative of Volcano Choir. But Justin Vernon, front-and-center behind what appeared to be a carpeted lectern, could not escape us. He could not simply slink into the background.
When Justin Vernon sings the song “Byegone” and, acting out every part of the lyric with his hands, points to himself during the line, “I’m a legend,” the crowd goes nuts. Because Justin Vernon, two-time Grammy winner that he is, is a legend. And even as we sang along to Volcano Choir songs, I have to think that everyone in the sold out audience—many of whom presumably would not have been present were there no Bon Iver—held out hope that at some point Justin Vernon would approach the mike and say, “Now let’s play some covers,” and let loose with a “Holocene” or a “Skinny Love” or a “Perth.”
But that didn’t happen. Instead, we tried to appreciate Volcano Choir for what it was. The crowd was deeply respectful. The words Bon Iver were never shouted. No one called out a request for Vernon’s old stuff, which he is apparently abandoning. They simply listened—for barely an hour since Volcano Choir has very little music beyond Repave—and then went on their way, all of us just a little bit disappointed.
And the whole thing made me wonder. What does the artist owe, if anything? How should Vernon balance his responsibilities with a new band with his responsibilities to his fans? Let me know what you think it the comments, but first enjoy this cut from Repave, “Byegone.”