March 25, 2011
Cedar Cultural Center
In the occasionally hyper-competitive climate of the indie rock world, claiming that you were the first of your friends to discover a band, or that you saw them way back when at some small, impossibly intimate venue, has become a playful game amongst musicheads, where being in the right place at the right time seems to trump everything else as far as proving one's true fandom. Friday night at the sold-out Cedar Cultural Center, all of that debatable nonsense was thrown out the window, as everyone in attendance were seeing Volcano Choir perform live for the first time (unless you happened to travel all the way to Japan in November), as the band made their North (and South) American live debut right here in Minneapolis. [jump]
It was a rare late show for the Cedar (the Residents played a set there earlier in the evening, so the headliners didn't get on until nearly midnight), and the buzz was quite palpable as soon as you stepped inside the crowded room. I'm sure I wasn't alone in not having any idea what to expect from the performance, other than that it was bound to be a really special night, for it's a rare thing indeed to see a band's first ever U.S. performance. The seven-piece ensemble, comprised of Justin Vernon and Collections of Colonies of Bees, took their time getting their various instruments tweaked and their levels precise before they started, and that meticulous effort clearly paid off, because their 55-minute set was one of the best sounding shows I've ever heard at the Cedar, with the music sounding immaculate no matter where you stood in the intimate confines of the club.
Volcano Choir took the stage to a warm, extended ovation from the swelling crowd, causing guitarist Chris Rosenau to joke, "We should play Minneapolis more often." They led off with the pensive, somber strains of "Husks And Shells," which allowed for each band member to stretch out their sound a bit while they settled in to both their surroundings and being on the same stage together. But it didn't take them long to hit their stride, as "Seeplymouth" and "Island, IS" both soared, with Vernon's restrained, mostly auto-tuned vocals blending perfectly with the untamed, jazz-like sonic textures that drummer Jon Mueller and the rest of the band were creating. It was a truly mesmerizing start to the show, with fans and the band alike seemingly lost in the swaths of dynamic sound.
The set hit a bit of a lull at that point, as "Dote" ultimately proved to be quite a lovely rendition, but it took quite a while to eventually come into focus. And the band slowed things down even more with the tranquil rhythms of "And Gather," which was a bit wayward and loose. But things picked back up immediately with the inclusion of a stellar new tune, "Blue Ni Ni," a tense, guitar-driven track which found Vernon's manipulated vocals singing the praises of cigarettes and the Midwest. It was one of the night's clear standouts, and it's good to know that the band is working on new material which hopefully will lead to a second album (and the potential for more live performances).
Vernon didn't speak much during the set, but thanked the audience towards the end, saying, "I know it's kind of a late show, and most of you are drunk, but thanks for not being total assholes." The crowd was a bit boisterous at times (depending on where you stood), but for the most part everyone was all quietly under the collective spell of Volcano Choir, who easily charmed and captivated the crowd with their hypnotically inventive sounds. The main set closed with a glorious rendition of "Youlogy," which started out hushed and muted, but eventually built to a soaring, emotional crescendo led by Vernon's mournful vocals.
The band took a brief break, before reassembling for the encore, with Vernon joking hilariously with the crowd: "I'm not going to lie to you, this song starts out kind of the same as the last one...when we were in Japan, someone in the audience called us out on it, yelling out "Same" while we were playing it. You know, just being truthful, but not being a dick about it." The band then launched into a glorious, stirring version of "Still" that ended the night triumphantly (though I'm sure I wasn't the only one secretly hoping for the breakdown to kick in and Kanye to make a surprise appearance). It was a spectacular way to finish the set. Rosenau joked as the band filed offstage that, "We'd play longer, but we only have one record out." And hopefully someday these talented bunch of musicians get around to making album number two, if only for the fact that all of us selfishly want to see Volcano Choir perform live again. One time was just not enough.
Critic's Bias: I was a big fan of Unmap when it came out, but Volcano Choir's delicate songs were given much more depth and texture in a live setting.
The Crowd: A massive crowd for a Cedar show, with a mix between those that were just curious to see Justin Vernon, those that were there because it was a hot ticket, and those that were genuinely interested in hearing Volcano Choir play live.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Is Bon Iver the one wearing the hat?"
Random Notebook Dump: Recording with Kanye and GAYNGS clearly has had a pronounced effect on Justin Vernon, because he used a considerable amount of auto-tuning on his vocals throughout the show. For the most part it worked well in this setting, I just hope Vernon gets that habit out of his system before he finishes the follow-up to For Emma.
Husks And Shells
Blue Ni Ni