Bon Iver Play Surreal Sunrise Cemetery Gig

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Bon Iver / Photo by Andrew Herrold
WRITTEN BY
Kevin Bronson

What if they held a sunrise concert and everybody showed up except the sun?

"Metaphorically and un-metaphorically," frontman Justin Vernon of Bon Iver told a crowd of more than 2,500 beneath a damp, ashen Los Angeles sky, "this is one of the foggiest mornings I've ever experienced."

That the setting was the lawn of the 110-year-old Hollywood Forever Cemetery - final resting place of the likes of Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille and Johnny Ramone - only added to the haze.

Even at only 70 minutes long, Bon Iver's set proved at once serene and surreal, a true only-in-L.A. experience. Oh, you're doing an overnighter in graveyard? Yeah. And they're screening Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket on the exterior wall of a mausoleum at 2 A.M.? Uh-huh. And there'll be a blessing-of-the-crowd ceremony by Buddhist monks at 5:30? Yep. And then a band will play? Of course, silly.

Many fans showed up right after the cemetery gates opened a midnight - it was not unusual for early-morning arrivals to dodge the occasional fishnet-sporting hooker working that stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard. Fans brought blankets and booze and provisions and an abiding love for the music Vernon hatched in his rural Wisconsin cabin.

The huddled masses breathed a collective sigh when Vernon and his bandmates hit the stage at 6 A.M. and eased into "Lump Sum," from their acclaimed 2008 release For Emma, Forever Ago. His tenor took on a ghostly-like yearning under the gradually lightening charcoal sky, and by midway through the second song, "Creature Fear," the canopy of gloom mattered not a whit. As Vernon swigged a Pacifico, biorhythms were adjusted.

"This has got to be one of the weirdest things any of us have ever done - ever," Vernon said. But the program - coming just more than 24 hours after Bon Iver had played a sold-out gig at the 2,200-capacity Wiltern Theatre - was anything but improvisational. It included two DJ sets curated by Bon Iver, the Anderson screening, a viewing of the documentary Planet Earth (Jungles) and, of course, the Buddhist monks' nearly-tardy benediction. ("Time in Thailand is different than it is here," a promoter said while briefly fretting that the monks didn't understand the schedule.)

And there were strange moments: The lines for the portable toilets occasionally spilled over onto the headstones. "Please stay off the graves," reminded a stentorian-voiced security guy whose day job, naturally, is voice-over artist.

By the time Vernon was joined by current tourmates - and former bandmates-in Megafaun for the Appalachia-leaning "Worried Mind," sing-alongs were in order. "What might have been lost" - the mandatory sing-along chorus of closer "Wolves (Act I and II) - rose like a church hymn over the gathering, and even if the only testimony on this Sunday morning was to the enduring power of music, it was enough.

And by 7:30, on the drive back home, the sun had burned off all but the coastal fog, ushering in another L.A. day.

Set List:
Lump Sum
Creature Fear
Brackett, WI
Flume
Skinny Love
Babys
Blood Bank
Beach Baby
Worried Mind [with Megafaun]
For Emma
Re: Stacks
The Wolves (Act I and II)

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