Posted by: hankwillenbrink | December 21, 2008

REVIEW: Bon Iver with The Tallest Man on Earth at Headliners, 12/17

Before I start this review, I have some venting to do.  Okay?  Here goes.  SHUT UP LOUISVILLE.  Seriously.  Shut up.  When you go to a show, shut your mouths.  No one wants to hear you talk the ENTIRE time.  We’ve paid money to hear music.  I hate to break it to you, but your yapping isn’t music, no matter how much you may enjoy the sound of it.  I might add, particularly when you’re going to see a show that has one guy and a guitar, there’s not a lot of sound coming off that stage, so you may want to, ya know, shut up and let the man or wo man play.  Use your judgment.  Cool?  Okay, let’s try it next time.

Bon Iver’s tried to play Louisville twice and been flummoxed by snow storms and tours with Wilco, so evidently the third time is a charm.  Picking up The Tallest Man on Earth to play with him was also exciting.  The Tallest Man on Earth, aka Kristian Matsson, (a band name I’m convinced is a joke that allows the diminuitive singer/songwriter to proclaim every night “Hello, I am the tallest man on earth”)  put out one of the better albums of 08 with his sparse, Dylan-esque, Shallow Grave LP.  Unfortunately, for Matsson, the crowd didn’t seem to be into listening to him.  His set was marked by attempts to get the crowd to engage, which was difficult considering the tremendous concert hub bub that I’ve already ranted about.  The set blustered through most of Matsson’s album and was punctuated with him pushing downstage, raising his guitar.  It was a gesture that seemed overwraught or out of place but can pretty much be written off as an attempt to push the music over the audience’s conversation.  It’s difficult to fault Matsson for this.  His songs thrive on silence and dissonance as much as they do on chords.  You’re meant to linger on The Tallest Man on Earth’s lyrics as they pass you by.  Circumstances did not allow this, and the harder Matsson pushed, the further away we became.  It was a distance that seemed to mark the night.  The difficult transition from album to live show would become the thing that I left this show wondering about.  And Matsson, being the unknown act, couldn’t push folks to get to know him, because for the most part they weren’t listening.  Still, you have to admire Matsson’s command and his half-howl half-crow vocals really shined.  I’d like to see a bit of a better mix between the guitar and the vocals, but Wednesday’s show attempted, at least, to put Matsson’s vocal ability on display.  I have a feeling that this may be one of these acts that concert-goers will be saying:  “I remember that guy when…” tho when friends ask them for more details about the show, they won’t be able to conjure up details and will say, instead, “he played at Headliners with Bon Iver.”  It’s a shame for an act that should get more of his due.

The Tallest Man on Earth Setlist:

I Won’t Be Found; Honey, Won’t You Let Me In; Shallow Grave; Pistol Dreams; Into the Stream; The Gardener; Where do My Bluebirds Fly; King of Spain; Smokes like Lightnin’ (Lightnin’ Hopkins Cover)

Towards the end of his set, Justin Vernon – aka Bon Iver – invited the audience to sing along on “Wolves Act I and Act II.”  “It goes like this,” he instructed, “you sing:  ‘What Might Have Been Lost.’  Once that’s over, you howl.”  For once, the audience was, mostly, more than ready to get in on the show.  But, the sing-along struck me as uncomfortable, awkward, and out of place.    And I have to say that  those string of adjectives I would apply to the entire show.  It wasn’t Bon Iver’s stage presence, but the way the music felt.  It’s odd, because Bon Iver’s album was my top one of the year.  What made the show feel that way?

I have this theory.  It’s probably wrong, but I think there’s some truth to it.    Here it is:  All artists are attempting to reach some form of transcendence.  I’m not talking about a transcendence of happiness or anything like that, but that one moment where everything seems to fall into place.  The moment where, through the work of art, real life seems realer than real or at least makes more sense than it does outside of the work of art.  I offer up Radiohead’s “Nude” as an example – listen to when Yorke’s voice soars at the end of the lyric “You’ll go to hell for what your dirty little mind has been thinking” and you’ll get the picture.  For Emma, Forever Ago was an album full of those moments:  the yell of “I told you to be patient / I told you to be kind” on “Skinny Love,” he desperate feeling on “Re: Stacks.”  Perhaps these moments shine because they were written in solitude, in Vernons now near-mythic hibernation period during which the album was concieved and recorded.  You can almost hear icicles growing in between words on that album.  It’s truly lovely.  Lovely in the way that Cat Power’s You Are Free or Elliott Smith’s Either/Or or Iron & Wine’s debut are; haunted, skillfully produced, lonely, but somewhere hopeful – somewhere you hear Vernon asking for the snow to melt.  And listening to it you know that it will.  Maybe this is what people mean when they talk about the human condition or something grandiose, but the beauty of the albums I just mentioned as well as the beauty of For Emma… is it’s ability to conjure up such images in its listeners life while remaining deeply personal to the artist.

And, of course, the issue with playing a live version of an album like that is taking the album out of the hibernation and solitude, out into the world.  Bon Iver has come up with a series of ways to flush out the sound.  “Skinny Love” featured three drummers.  That wasn’t the only tune that attempted to fill out the recording with downbeats.  “Blood Bank,” the title track of Iver’s forthcoming EP, was a distortion driven, full out rock song.  Something that you wouldn’t get from the recording.  Other than the desire to have a bit more of a rocking song to add to the set, it baffled me why Vernon and co. would choose to rock something that isn’t rock.  The live version took the warmth, the depth, from the recording in search of some sort of testosterone-driven piece.  I’d apply that critique pretty much across the board to Bon Iver’s show.  You can’t really say that the additional instrumentation made the tunes feel fuller, they sound great on the album.  And I’m not advocating for a pure one-to-one correlation between a recording and a live show, rather that the live show should at least carry the essence of the album into a live context.  There’s little of that sense in Vernon’s show.  Instead, what comes across is either that Vernon is tired of playing these songs the same way (which is probably the case since the album was self-released in 07 and got a release on Jagjaguawar this year), or that Bon Iver’s sound is taking a turn for the rockier.  Either way it makes the concert seem inauthentic.

Combine that with the fact that Bon Iver relied on covers instead of originals.  Sure the Outfield cover is insteresting as is the Talk Talk cover, but honestly, there’s a reason we all turned out to see the show.  And it wasn’t for clever covers.  As a friend of mine quipped after the show regarding the Wolves sing along, what might have been lost…is this show.  Or, what was lost is Bon Iver somewhere in this show.

Bon Iver Setlist:

Skinny Love, Lump Sum, Blood Bank, Beach Baby, For Emma Forever Ago, Your Love (Outfield Cover), Flume, I Believe in You (Talk Talk Cover), Wolves Act I and II, Creature Fear

PS – I was speaking to a concert promoter friend who altered me to a startling fact.  We’re staring to get a reputation, Louisville.  We don’t presell shows very well and given the amount of gabbing during this show, I’m sure that our talkitiveness is starting to give us not so great of a name as well.  I’ve heard people complain, from time to time, about Louisville not getting the same shows that appear in Newport or even Lexington.  It’s time that we stopped pointing the finger at our geographic location and started to look at how we behave during concerts.  A bit of respect is due, and perhaps for a New Year’s resolution, we started to look at our own conduct and change that reputation back.

More Photos After the Break…


  1. Strange, I saw Bon Iver about 6 months ago in Columbus. Crowd participation usually makes my skin crawl (in a bad way). However, and I’m not really sure why, “Wolves” w/ audience participation was easily the highlight of the show. It felt much less awkward than these sorts of things usually do and for some reason it seems that nearly everybody in the crowd dropped their inhibitions and joined in. It was a nice, and very memorable, moment. Also, if you look on youtube for videos of it, you’ll find that it has gone over very well in numerous other locales as well.

  2. The rudeness of Louisville crowds has been a complaint of mine for so long that I’ve stopped airing it. I used to attribute it to the ‘jukebox effect’ – the louder the ‘jukebox,’ the louder the crowd talked. Then I attributed it to the same thing that causes people to yak throughout movies – they’re so used to watching TV and talking that doing it in movies was just normal behavior. Now, however, I think it’s because Louisvillians are so used to having live music available because everybody and his/her brother plays and who needs to be quiet when the locals are playing? Also, going to a show is all about ‘me,’ not about anybody else, including whoever is on the stage.
    So, finally, it’s provincial, thoughtless discourtesy.

  3. I have to say a loud “AMEN!” I returned to Louisville three years ago and have been to a lot of concerts. From the start I was amazed and angered by the incredible rudeness of audiences, particularly at Headliners (the 930, by the way, usually has the best audiences, the most respectful of quieter acts). I won’t go to see singer-songwriter, acoustic-type acts at Headliners anymore. Even quiet-loud-quiet groups like Mono lose their effectiveness when assholes take the quiet moments as a time to catch up the details of their vacuous lives.

    I remember seeing Jason Noble of Shipping News and Rachel’s call down a group of noisy girls during a National concert. Local musicians should get active in educating and correcting their audiences. And the rest of us should mount some kind of campaign. As is said so well here, we’re getting a reputation and it’s not pretty.

    Of course, jerks never see themselves very clearly, and correcting them often just makes them worse.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, really, and I doubt the serious music fans who come to backseat are part of the problem. If you are one of those who ruin it for the rest of us and you don’t care, well, I just hate you and wish you ill.

  4. PS We also have to hold promoters, managers, and, especially, those idiot bartenders who take 3-pointer bottle shots into the bins no matter what the music is doing. How about no tips to guilty bartenders?

  5. I couldn’t make it to this show, but could it have been worse than the Ra Ra Riot/So Many Dynamos crowd? They just didn’t do anything at all! I saw about 2 other people that were actually enjoying themselves.
    Just had to throw that out there. I apologized to So Many Dynamos afterward for the terrible crowd. They were really really good and a fun band, too bad nobody else thought so.

  6. Very much in agreement here. Maybe the show shouldn’t have been all ages? Reason being, much like the second comment above, that people now are so used to a constant influx of media that they just don’t distinguish between real, tangible music and whats on your Ipod or the millions of other ways to access music now. I’m only 27, but I def. see a difference with the younger crowd who doesn’t know a world without all this stuff. When I was 18, a show was great because you didn’t get to watch the artist sing the song 1000 times on YouTube, so the performance was novel. Its not just Lville, its a ton of cities I’ve seen shows in recently.

    All in all, I did enjoy the show!

  7. First off, the show wasn’t all ages because I wasn’t let in. I’m 17, and I gotta take offense to the whole “it’s the young kids” argument. I see just as many obnoxiously chatty yuppies in their 20s and 30s guzzling away on their alcoholic drink of choice during a show as I do annoying kids my age. We appreciate good music moments like you old folk of the “days without YouTube” do.

    That being said, I agree. I’ve been to many shows this year, and people need to shut the hell up. Probably the one that stands out the most was Raining Jane/Rachael Yamagata/Sara Bareilles at Bellarmine. I basically went for Rachael, while I do love the other acts. People talked nonstop through her set, though. It was incredibly frustrating.

  8. I agree, and a special shut the hell up to all the kids reuniting over winter break. I know it’s been tough, being separated from your drama club BFFs for a whole semester, and wow, you can drink in public now, but SHHHH.

    I just think quiet shows are best experienced in smaller venues. There’s something about the cavernous Headliners room that makes the yapping seem so normal to so many people.

  9. The reason we’re not getting the shows that Indy and Cincy are is that we’re a small market. Lexington will get a few other artists that we don’t because of the college market being a bit more robust there than in Louisville. Seeing that Indy and Cincy are within a manageable drive from Louisville, promoters in those markets will actually advertise shows in LEO/Velocity if budgets permit. You’ll notice that this only goes into effect outside of the AAA genre… we have a powerful AAA station in the form of WFPK, they have the power to activate an audience here in Louisville… probably the only entity that can make an impact on tours that stop through Louisville. We also have one hell of a promoter in the form of Production Simple. PS understands what the market dictates and focuses on the AAA format because it’s the only format moving tickets in Louisville. We actually see promoters in other markets buying shows in their home market for top dollar in order to guarantee that they can present the show in Louisville… they do this because they know the act will do well here simply because of the power of WFPK. I could go on… the fact that we have few venues suitable for shows, shrinking retail sales, the increasingly large drain of youth (20-35 yr) from the city… on and on.

    Essentially there are many, many factors to why we’re not getting the amount of shows folks think we should. I say all that to also point out that…

    We have had some f-ing great shows in Louisville… the only problem is that no one pays attention to them. I’ve seen The National, Okkervil River, and Holy Fuck at Uncle Pleasant’s (prior to them being indie rock household names) with less than 20 people in the room. I’ve seen bands like LoveLikeFire come through town and have miserable turn outs… hell, Grandpa Jookabox, PWRFL Power, and Chemic played at Skull Alley (which is a horrid room for sound!) in September and I was the only one in attendance other than the promoter and the bands.

    So… there’s a little education for everyone. The technical side… and the side that you can actually do something about. Go out and take a chance on seeing some shows. You’ll be surprised at the amount of talent coming through here that you’re totally dismissing. We have some great blogs like Backseat Sandbar telling us what’s coming up… so go.

    Oh… and I’d love to hear less talking as well. I came close to screaming “Shut Up!” several times during Tallest Man’s set. It’s completely unbelievably rude.

  10. Louisville (700k) is less than half the size of Cincinnati (2,133k) or Indy (1,774k). That’s why we get passed over on tours. Not because anyone is rude that bought a ticket. There just aren’t as many people to buy them.

    And I think the main problem here is Headliners. The sound was too soft. People talk the whole time at any GA show, they’re just usually drowned out by the speakers. If that show was at City Block, there’s no way you would have had a problem hearing the crowd. I got annoyed at the start of The Tallest Man on Earth’s set, so we moved right up front, and people were still talking, but it wasn’t annoying, since they didn’t sound louder than the stage.

  11. As far as crowds being rude in general, I don’t neccessarily think its the case. Its always loud in Headliners. It is an oversized bar. Its not an appropriate venue for soft acoustic music. It just doesn’t work.

    There is so much great music coming through this city. You just have to look for it. Jeffrey mentioned Grampall Jookabox. He was here 6 months before the skull alley show and was great. Most Wednesday nights you can see a good band for free at the Pink Door.

    I, for one, would much rather go spend $5 on a show and have the chance of being pleasantly surprised, than spend $50 to hear the same thing you can hear on WFPK all day.

    Daytrotter is a pretty good source for whats good and fresh out there right now. Look at the bands that have played there. Apollo Sunshine, Bryan Scary and the Shredding Tears, The Delicious, Gentleman Auction House, Bonnie Prince Billy, The Magic Numbers, Tigercity. Thats just a short list of people who I have seen for less than $5.

  12. Yeah, the smaller places are the best spots to see music, really. The Pour Haus, the Hideaway Saloon, the Pink Door, the Nachbar…there are many intimately-sized venues where you can hear great music on any given night from local and touring acts. The best part is, the people that frequent these establishments are people who are actually there for the music. For what it’s worth, though, I’ve seen plenty of shows at Headliners as well, and I don’t think I’ve ever noticed talking. Usually the music is too loud to hear anything but music.

    You know, the main problem I have with the Louisville music scene really has to do with the media. I’m talking more mainstream media, so this isn’t directed at people like those who run this blog. Blogs like this actually help. Anyway, the problem is that too much emphasis gets placed on a select few bands, some of which, in my opinion, are extremely over-rated (cough…wax fang…cough). There are a ton of really good bands in this city. The music scene here should be booming. Instead, we have this vicious cycle where attention is being payed just to these few bands, so those end up being the bands that anyone ever cares about. Because of that, those end up being the bands you keep hearing about, completing the cycle. The music scene is somewhat like that anywhere you go, but I’ve noticed it particularly in Louisville. The music scene would be better off if the spotlight got shared a little bit. Anyway, that’s my rant.

  13. If you don’t like Louisville, you can just get out.

  14. Your Mom Talks at Headliners.

    All very good points.

    I knew from the get go that Bon Iver at Headliners was not going to work out.

    I’ve seen the Black Keys at Headliners and never had a problem.

    I saw Ryan Adams so many years back at The Brown when he was having equipment problems which resulted in him dropping his band and playing solo-AND EVERYONE LISTENED!

    Shutting the hell up is something I’ve seen Louisville do-just not at headliners. Not sure why that is.

    I could not imagine what the show would have sounded like if Bon Iver had stayed verbatim to the album.

    People should get together and start a Shut the “L” up campaign. You know, kinda like UofL’s L yes.
    How bout them apples. You little hipsters.

    Maybe Healiners should pay Jeff Tweedy to give a speech:

  15. Love the Tweedy clip! I’ve always wanted a band to do that.

    How about a T that says, “I came to hear the band, not YOU!”

  16. You hit the nail on the head with Louisville audiences…well known for talking through a show. Sad but true.

    And as others have said, people just don’t seem to be willing to go out to see original live music as much as they should…cover bands draw good crowds, original bands just struggle. Part of that is the plethora of options any given night but go see and find your Louisville bands, hell MMJ had to become popular overseas before Lou would give them two shits. As for the press that some bands get, well maybe but maybe bands like Wax Fang are good and deserve press…sure there are others but the hipsters find themselves drawn to the “cool” bands for the scene, not the music, maybe that’s why they talk?

  17. Yo –

    The crowd sucked. But come on, people… Headliners is a bar, first and foremost. Just appreciate the fact that all of those people paid $15 each to support a great artist.

    Read another review of this show at

  18. remember when… fugazi played here and chewed out a certain someone for being a dick, slint stopped mid song because people wouldn’t shut up, iron & wine almost left the stage, dude bra was yelling at the jose show like it was a football game?

    they are never coming back.

    its not the numbers, its the noise.

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