Justin Vernon of Bon Iver recently played NPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration, treating audiences to solo, stripped-down performances of a few songs. The event, held December 2nd in Washington D.C., featured a star-studded lineup of artists, including Kronos Quartet, Robert Glasper, and Bilal. Vernon played two songs for the crowd.
The first song that Vernon launched into was his 2014 single “Heavenly Father,” which he’s been performing live over the past few years in a variety of renditions. This time it was just him and his synthesizer. Backed by jagged loops of sound that seem to swallow and collapse upon themselves, the artist sang with fire as he opened up the song’s themes with the opening lines of “Ever since I heard the howlin’ wind / I didn’t need to go where a bible went.”
The song goes on to document Vernon’s relationship with religion. Throughout the track he confesses to being helpless and full of fear, especially in the face of dissolution and death. Yet he seems to feel something of a higher power in his life, although the lyrics could also be read as being about his relationship with his own father. Still, his theological concerns get in the way, questioning the very nature of belief:
is all that he offers
a safety in the end”
The second song that Justin Vernon played was “A Song For You,” the classic track by Leon Russell. The track has been covered many times, and was famously sung by Donny Hathaway, the 70s soul singer with the golden voice. If you haven’t checked out Hathaway’s version, do that after you watch Bon Iver’s version. It will add depth to this incredible track, one that glows in its powerful chord structure and lyrics.
Vernon hasn’t shied away from covers as of late, choosing to expose the particulars of his influences to audiences who might not know where his inspiration comes from. Fans have latched on to many of these modern renditions, which find new life in Bon Iver’s hands. The video of the Vernon playing “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” the heartbreaking song originally recorded by Bonnie Raitt, has been incredibly popular on YouTube. “A Song for You” continues the artist’s exploration of the past.
Vernon does sound gruffer than usual on the track, but it only adds to the character of his performance. His sparse guitar accompaniment and vocal delivery give the impression of a man playing guitar alone in his room at midnight. When he sings “I love you in a place where there’s no space or time / I love you for my life, you’re a friend of mine,” you can feel the song’s emotion move through Vernon.
Fitting, considering the artist announced to the crowd that “we are the song” before playing “A Song for You. Covers are a way of letting the power of music move through us, enriching not only the fans but the players themselves with the connecting and healing energy of a classic song.