I had a musician friend visiting me all weekend, and while researching music shows, I stumbled across a unique concert: Bon Iver was going to play a sunrise show at the Hollywood Cemetery Sunday morning at around 5:50am. The doors would open at midnight on Saturday, and various events were scheduled through the night.
As with any hot show, tickets were underpriced at $25 each and sold out quickly. I paid a pretty sum more than that for a pair of tickets from a scalper on Craiglist. We met up at a Chevron gas station near The Getty and exchanged cash for tickets like a drug deal.
I don't remember how I first heard of Bon Iver, probably through an MP3 blog, but his first single "Skinny Love" haunted me. Every story about the album's creation focused on the back story: Justin Vernon retreated alone to a remote hunting cabin in Wisconsin for several months to record most of the tracks. I've never heard what drove him to the woods and what feelings he wanted to put into song, but one listen of the album reveals multitudes.
Soon after the album's release, I saw Bon Iver perform live at a tiny bar in LA called The Echo. The bar held maybe a hundred people at most, all crowded around the stage. I could barely see through the crowd to Vernon, who was seated on stage. That my few glimpses seemed to reveal a bearded mountain man reinforced the back story of the album's genesis. Unlike the hipsters crowding the bar, all of whom had paid exorbitant prices to dress like homeless people, Vernon looked like the real thing.
Any other day, I'd arrive at a show like this Hollywood Cemetery gig filled with excitement. But this day, I walked several blocks to the entrance in a stupor. Saturday morning I ran 19 miles, my longest run yet in training for this year's NY Marathon. The run broke me, not physically but mentally. It's not that I can't do the distance, but it's the frustration of not being able to run much faster despite all the miles logged. On a bike, the more I ride, the faster I go. On foot, the more I run, the longer I can suffer at the same pace, until felled by injury, of which there have been many.
After one of my numerous surgeries for my leg, I don't recall which one (maybe to have part of my meniscus removed), a physician said to me, "Some people just aren't built to run." He said "some people" but it was clear he was being more specific than that. I plodded along for 19 miles Saturday morning, but even when I willed myself to accelerate, when I tried to increase my stride or cadence or some variation thereof, nothing happened.
After a late dinner and show at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, we didn't get changed and out to the Cemetery until after two in the morning. The drive over through a rare and dense Los Angeles fog seemed like a journey through an impending apocalyptic wasteland. On the I-10 headed East, I saw a car on the other side of the highway stalled on the median, it's hood popped open, the engine spewing out flames several feet high. Near the cemetery, angry drivers leaned on their horns and gunned their engines to pass each other, apparently in a hurry to run the next red light. We passed a Korean club in K-town where young males milled about outside looking like they were organizing for trouble. The world felt aggressive, angry.
My legs protested even just an 8 block walk to the entrance of the cemetery. The patch of lawn where the concert was taking place was already full of blankets and people when we arrived in the absolute dark. Bottle Rocket screened on the white wall of a building. I love that movie. The quiet conversations of groups of people throughout the grounds mixed with the occasional draft of pot from the guy laid out next to us who puffed on his pipe without shame. Through the fog I could see the shadowy outlines of a few palm trees leaning over in the sky.
As soon as I laid out my sleeping bag and pillow on a blanket, they were covered with a cool dew. I tried to sleep, but I couldn't find a comfortable position no matter which way I rolled. After Bottle Rocket, the first set of music picked by Bon Iver played at a moderate volume (The LA Times has all the setlists from the night). Then, at some point, a screening of highlights from Planet Earth started playing. I don't know when that began as I was fading in and out of consciousness. I'd sit up from time to time and see colorful birds performing elaborate mating dances, frogs hurtling through the air in slow motion, their arms and legs splayed out in all directions for balance, and then I'd pass out again.
After that screening, a shorter second list of songs selected by Bon Iver played over the speakers. The second to last song was Sade's "By Your Side". My sister used that song for her first dance at her wedding. That was a long time ago. The song made me feel old and sentimental.
After the last song of the list, there was a period of silence where all I could hear were the conversations nearby me. A group of people spoke with excitement about evading security guards around the cemetery, near misses punctuated by ducking behind tombstones and crypts while flashlight beams swept overhead.
And then the chanting began, Buddhist monks chanting in that hypnotic, repetitious pattern. This was the designated alarm clock for the day. I wondered how Bon Iver was able to enlist Buddhist monks. Did they listen to his music, too? Are monks allowed to have iPods? It was dark and I did not see where they were, though I saw a group of lanterns hanging in the distance.
And then lights came on towards the far corner of the lawn, revealing a stage set up for the show, and then the members of Bon Iver walked on stage to the cheers of those who'd stayed up all night and those still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.
The first time I saw Bon Iver back at The Echo, Vernon said little. But at the Hollywood Forever show, he spoke early and often, exhibiting a humble humor that went down easy for a crowd half awake. Hearing Vernon's normal speaking voice, one would never imagine the falsetto he uses throughout For Emma, Forever Ago.
If Arcade Fire sounds anthemic, then Bon Iver sounds sacred. As the sky turned from black to slate to sickly orange to pale morning blue, Bon Iver filled the damp morning air with gorgeous versions of every song they knew while the crowd sat on their blankets in a hushed reverence. Vernon seemed just as amazed as any of us that this was happening.
"This is the weirdest thing we've done. Ever." At one point Vernon tried to tune a guitar. "It's covered with dew."
It's as close as I may ever come to feeling the presence of something holy on a Sunday morning. At one point, someone let out a crazy yell of joy.
Vernon paused. "Was that a dead person?"
A few songs from the end, Vernon said, "I know it's standard for bands to pretend to walk off the stage and then come back and play more songs, but we're a young band, we don't have that many songs. So if it's okay with you, we're just going to stay on stage and play every song we know."
He apologized once more before the last song. "This is the last song. It's the only song left that we know how to play. I'm feeling inadequate." Then they launched into "Wolves". During the second half, at Vernon's request, we joined in to sing, again and again, "What might have been lost."
When the final note cut out, we all stood and applauded. Bon Iver had won our hearts. Then we shuffled out of the cemetery carrying our sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows. The morning sun, diffused through a thick cloud cover, dropped a soft white light from overhead.
Over the past year, I've soured on a lot of the shortcomings of the concert-going experience, but a night like this redeems my hope for what a live music performance can be. With every event of the night curated by Bon Iver, from the location to the movies to the music, this was more of an experience than a performance. Simply gorgeous, one of the most memorable shows of my life.