Despite its remote setting in Upstate New York, the village of Cooperstown has long held a unique significance within American culture and history. Well known as the legendary birthplace of baseball, fabled author James Fenimore Cooper also set many of his greatest works in the village and its surrounding forests. On September 17, nearly two centuries after Cooper wrote his masterpiece The Last of the Mohicans, thousands gathered in the sloped clearing behind Cooperstown’s Brewery Ommegang to see another artist with deep connections to the wilderness, Justin Vernon and his band Bon Iver.
After parking their cars in an empty field, the crowd of roughly 2,600 college students and savvy older upstaters passed through the gates to find an intimate, festival-style atmosphere, including an outdoor stage flanked by the brewery’s towering fermentation silos. Vendors outlined the audience area selling burgers, wraps, merch, and a selection of Ommegang’s delicious Belgian-style craft beers—including the strong but delicious Farmhouse Ale and their Rare VOS Amber ale—all brewed only yards from the venue area.
Vermont songstress Anaïs Mitchell took the stage first, borrowing saxophonist Colin Stetson from the headlining band for her set. Mitchell explained and performed a few songs from her 2010 “folk opera” Hadestown, which featured Vernon as the legendary Greek poet Orpheus on several songs. The enthusiastic opener dictated the mellow mood for the evening, drawing in the crowd and building excitement for the evening’s featured act still to come.
Wafts of smoke warmed the crisp darkness as acoustic guitar instrumentals and a pair of tracks by NYC pop act Francis and The Lights bridged the gap between acts. The house system faded out halfway through their latest album’s title track “It’ll Be Better,” prompting roars of applause as Bon Iver took the stage, every member bundled up against the chilly night.
Clutching his gold Les Paul, Vernon launched into the riff from “Perth,” the opening track from last summer’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The nine-piece band really threw all their weight behind the louder sections of the song, following through on Vernon’s description of the song as “Civil War-sounding heavy metal” with blasts of of loud sound and flashing light. The opening suite continued in the same order as the album with “Minnesota, WI,” delighting the crowd with dozens of small blue lamps around the stage that flickered along to the polyrhythmic percussion. Continuing in album order, the next song “Holocene” proved as tearfully beautiful as the recording, a feat requiring perfect vocal harmonies from virtually every band member.
The show’s first surge of energy and emotion came next as the band eased into a standout performance of “Creature Fear.” Temporarily abandoning his trademark falsetto, Vernon spoke-sang the first verse in his natural register, emphasizing the terrible pain in the song’s lyrics. After returning to his iconic squeal for the next few verses, the song soon took an unexpected, violent turn—erupting into a chaotic outburst of abstract noise and lights as fiery projections covered the shrouds of burlap above the stage. Eventually the unhinged rhythms started to drift together as each musician slowly adopted an organized chord progression, falling into a few measures of assembled aggression before the song reached an abrupt, jarring halt.
The tone shifted significantly for the next song, as Vernon picked up an acoustic guitar to play “Beach Baby,” a track from the band’s 2009 Blood Bank EP that he jokingly called a “snuggly divorce song.” Antony and the Johnsons multi-instrumentalist Rob Moose stepped up with a neo-classical looped violin solo at the end of the song, hypnotizing the crowd below projections of a pixelated sunrise. Hunched over an electric piano, Vernon segued seamlessly from Moose’s solo into the repeated two-note intro of “Hinnom, TX,” harmonizing with guitarist Michael Noyce before segueing again into “Wash.,” again following the order of the album.
Sensing the crowd’s demographic, Vernon paused before the next song to ask the audience “who’s in college?,” drawing cheers and more raised hands than most professors see in an entire semester. Explaining that the song focused on his own college experience, the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire alum dedicated “Towers” to any new college freshmen in the all-ages audience. The energy rush continued next with “Blood Bank, which ended with a passionate, wailing guitar solo from Vernon, reaching another energy peak.
The quiet but melodic “Michicant” came after a solo rendition of “Re: Stacks,” with couples cuddling up on the hill during a dreamy vamp that prominently featured Colin Stetson’s gargantuan bass saxophone. After an unsurprising “Calgary” drummer Sean Carey swiveled to face an obscured grand piano, pounding out the heavy intro to “Beth/Rest.” His drumming partner Matt McCaughan emphasized the song’s ‘80s soft-rock feel with his sharp Phil Collins snare sound, each strike triggering a splash of pink light that lingered over the band before softly fading. Vernon switched microphones for most of the song, feeding his wails through a hyper-melodic auto-tuned effect. The sappy throwback ballad closed out the main set, leaving the crowd with their hearts pounding and emotions raging.
The band returned for their encore after an adjustment to the towering frontman’s mic stand, drawing huge bursts of applause when the crowd saw Vernon carrying his rusted 1930’s resonator onto the stage for “Skinny Love.” Fans gushed over the opening riff and sang along loudly during the chorus of the song, which Vernon began as a solo performance. The band slowly joined in, first on group backing vocals, then with the percussionists cracking their sticks together. The whole group (audience included) sang the second chorus acapella, with the whole band kicking in for the the ending as Vernon pleaded “who will love you? Who will try?”
The encore continued with “For Emma,” another crowd favorite that heavily featured Reggie Pace on trombone and C.J. Camerieri on trumpet, the pair soloing wildly as a roadie brought out a lit cigarette for Vernon and placed it in his lips. Some fans ran for the exits during the song’s final notes, but after a short period of darkness the band returned to the stage for a second encore. Jamming his smoldering cigarette butt into the strings of his guitar headstock, Vernon lead the band through a moody version of The Wolves (Act I and II), fittingly concluding the concert with one of his most naturally-connected songs, as if sending a farewell out into the surrounding forests.
With the Bon Iver myth fundamentally linked to the rugged, untouched outdoors, the mountainside forest clearing behind Brewery Ommegang proved the ideal spot to experience Vernon’s songs brought to life. Unlike the urban super-settlement of New York, where the band went next for their 4-night tour-closing run at Radio City Music Hall, Cooperstown’s quiet desolation re-created the unique environment that created the entire concept of Bon Iver, turning Justin Vernon into a sensitive superpower on the success of only two albums. Retreating down unlit country roads after the show (or, for campers, stumbling drunkenly back to their tents), the Ommegang crowd were united by the rare and powerful experience of seeing Bon Iver in its natural habitat.