Volcano Choir, Justin Vernon want you to Repave at The Fillmore


Photos by Chaya Frash // Written by Mike Frash //

Volcano Choir with The Cloak Ox //
The Fillmore — San Francisco
January 21, 2014 //

So poetic the prose of preacher Justin Vernon, in fact he performs behind a podium that doubles as a pulpit and modulation center with Volcano Choir. The Bon Iver creator and frontman may still be known for his cabin in the woods triumph turned ten-piece alt-rock behemoth, but not for much longer.

Casting away Bon Iver to the land of hiatus opened the door for Vernon to join forces with a Wisconsin outfit he has always admired, Collections of Colonies of Bees. Based on the group’s second LP Repave, released last year, and their live performance at The Fillmore in San Francisco January 21, the idea of Volcano Choir becoming a permanent band rather than a semi-regular collaboration makes too much sense.

Repave’s core philosophy revolves around rebirth, finding the right path, rediscovering oneself. Vernon explains, “…the changes that we go through personally, metaphorically, and sort of knowing that you have to change if you’re having a tough time in your life or if you’re just hitting walls constantly, or if you keep having bold spiritual questions you can’t answer, it’s usually because there’s not a path for you…”

So it’s not about changing so much, or dealing with the consequence of change. Rather, Repave and subsequently the ethos of this tour attempts to grapple with the process of realization and acceptance prior to change — some might call this self control, others might say it’s embracing personal evolution.

The message is effectively delivered through a vehicle of duality — Volcano Choir specialize in exploring the full range of sound, from minimalist textures to extended crescendos, often with intentionally jarring transitions. The flip side of this mechanism is Vernon’s dedication to avoiding didactic straightforwardness, concentrating on keeping this introspective course correction message mostly subtle.


The show at the Fillmore contained many memorable moments, the first coming with the song “Alaskans”. Nary a peep emerged from the immersed crowd, even as the Charles Bukowski sample from his poem “The Shower” was laced in. The all around reverence must have been unique, as the reaction from Vernon, Daniel Spack and Chris Rosenau exuded glances and smirks that said “Wow, that’s a first.”

Reminiscent of the Bon Iver show at the Greek Theater in 2011, rapturous silence during hushed vocal textures added immense value to each moment. But now with Volcano Choir, Vernon’s vocals are so over-processed and auto-tuned, to the point that his voice acts as a digitized instrument along with the other six performers.

“Still”, confused by many as Bon Iver’s “Woods” (or possibly even Kanye West’s “Lost In The World”), showcased how the group can tamper with sound to the point of creating something completely different and original, all through floaty restraint. This aural rebirth also shined in “Dancepack”, where the line “There’s still a hole in your heart” was repeated for many measures, yet it never sounded quite the same.

The concept of exploring new sound spaces emerged explicitly for the second encore, something that seemed like a rare treat to finish the evening. Likely improvised, the spacey instrumental unfolded as a slow churning jam that imprinted extra heady spiritual undertones onto the performance.

It was these minimalist songs, complimented by reverent crowd silence and attention, that were the highlights of the performance.

But in the prior encore, a Vernon-less instrumental jam offered a monstrous wall of sound slap to the face that contrasted so many of the show’s subtleties. A newer song “Valleyonaire” brought an upbeat, more traditional song structure to the table, helping to balance the set early on.

Also the bombastic singles “Comrade” & “Bygone” offered measured, mostly faithful versions from last year’s album — and speeding up the “legend” part in “Bygone” helped to avoid a narcissistic singalong.

The attempt at discovering new sound spaces is an absolute success for Volcano Choir, making Bon Iver seem almost boring in retrospect. It’s understandable why Vernon said this might be his new band — Bon Iver almost seems superfluous now.

As much as the layered instrumentals from former members from Collections of Colonies of Bees thrives on non-standard form, Vernon’s lyric emphasis focuses on keywords and phrases one wouldn’t quite expect from their live performance.

Vernon’s vocal emphasis plays into the Repave mantra — “Build up that benevolence,” “Behave, behave, behave, behave, behave” and “When all of us are sober” were all phrashes treated with extra clarity of voice to help ingrain fragments of thought into the listener’s brain.

Vernon is willfully taking on the role of guiding preacher. He’s got the pulpit, he actually scorned some in the crowd for being on “more than normal drugs”, and he wants his lost souls to find the right path.

At the end of the set, while the instrumentals for “Almanac” were finishing, Vernon stepped down from the pulpit, bent down on one knee and seemingly prayed, perhaps for his flock of followers.

Volcano Choir’s full sound exploration through an atypical form, including hyper-modulated vocals and pin-pointed phrase emphasis, creates a live music ambiance that ultimately acts as a mirror. The subtle, yet striking delivery allows the message to sink in deeply, maybe affecting some to consider change.



  1. I was reformed! Great review. I was right there w ya!

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