Black Mountain, Bon Iver At Rock & Roll Hotel

Sharing little more than a record label and an appreciation for the distant history of pop and rock music, Black Mountain and Bon Iver shared the stage at Rock & Roll Hotel Tuesday. On the strength of their recent releases -- the two best albums of the year so far -- each act drew their own crowd, packing the room tighter than I've ever seen it.

Justin Vernon's debut record as Bon Iver is a lonesome bedroom folk recording, and he could probably pull off a tour alone, but he chose to hit the road with a band. Still, the music was simple and sparse, Vernon's strumming and rustic falsetto remained center stage, and the songs lived up to their recorded beauty. Bon Iver did take advantage of the full band to add occasional embellishments, like the loud swells of distortion that punctuated opener "Flume" and the impassioned relationship song "Skinny Love." For the most part, though, "Flume" remained spacious and sad, and "Skinny Love" sounded even more subdued than on record. "Creature Fear" already incorporates a big, loud and lush chorus, but live it was bigger and louder. The song that most benefited from the full band treatment was the closer, "For Emma." On the album, "For Emma, Forever Ago," trumpet and trombone fill out Bon Iver's sound on this track, but with a band, it played as a slow, steady rocker rather than a big folk-pop song. Since Bon Iver basically played the album, it was odd that they stopped at eight songs, leaving album closer "Re: Stacks" out of the show. It's a great song and features some of Vernon's best vocals, so it deserved to close the set as much as it deserved to close the record.

The fact that the set was largely a quiet affair did make the pairing with Black Mountain somewhat regrettable. That band's fans didn't seem to give Bon Iver much of a chance, chatting through the set and making it hard to follow in the back half of the room. Vernon's attempt to start a sing along at the close of "The Wolves" failed, though the band stormed off to a clamorous finish. But although the show fell on the day of the release of "For Emma, Forever Ago" on Jagjaguwar, the album created a buzz in the latter half of 2007 when Vernon self-released it, and plenty of people came just for Bon Iver, which made the overwhelming crowd bearable. The room was packed tight back to the doors, but you knew that many of the people in the front of the room wouldn't be sticking around for Black Mountain and that many who would stick around to give Black Mountain a chance would flee early in their set. The type of folk-pop Bon Iver plays attracts fans that find the louder, heavier sounds of bands like Black Mountain too much to take.

As expected, there was more elbow room when Black Mountain took the stage, though the room still felt sold out. A few more Bon Iver fans no doubt were frightened by the blues metal riffing of opener "Stormy High" and its intro of quivering "ahhhs" from Amber Webber -- think of a mellow, soft-around-the-edges Grace Slick. Then again, the folkieness of Webber's voice may have caught the ear of a few of those Bon Iver fans. But as the song churned to a close, a stream of people exited the room and gave the rest of us even more space to enjoy the show. For the first 20 minutes or so, a steady trickle of Bon Iver fans fled, ultimately easing the elbowing but -- given the venue's narrow layout -- causing a lot of pushing for the duration of the exodus.

Eschewing the '80s, '90s and '00s, Black Mountain sounds like it came from the '70s, particularly because of their adventurous prog rock organ and guitar solos, but the music really is born of the late-'60s, the marriage of the Velvet Underground's pop styling and drone and the riffing of blues rockers and early heavy metal bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer. It's stoner rock, but it's higher and more honest than the excesses of band's like Wolfmother and Queens of the Stone Age. And the quintet's penchant for stretching out to jam lends much room for those proggy journeys, which first showed up on "Queens Will Play," the first vocal lead for Webber's downbeat howl, and continued with the spacey synth on the ominous and airy "Wucan." "Tyrants," though, was the first long journey of the night. It teased with a hard rocking intro but abruptly dropped into plodding psychedelic folk territory. But those were just the first of many movements spread over about 10 minutes. The song frequently crescendo'd into metal riffs, then retreated back to wintry folk.

Black Mountain isn't tied down to the epics and rockers, though. "Stay Free" was a pretty, albeit sappy, folk ballad, which, had they stayed, Bon Iver fans would have appreciated, particularly for band leader Stephen McBean's tender falsetto, a break from his usual hazy moan. And "No Satisfaction" offered a simple, freewheeling slice of '60s-esque pop rock with a honky-tonk vibe. Driven by a steady beat, it never ventured off to prog, metal or folk. But for the encore, Black Mountain chose to close with another epic, "No Hits" -- the band's argument against modern music. While keeping the inexplicable dance beat, the band built upon the song, stretching it out toward 10 minutes and adding heavier riffs and more prog-rock experiments, creating a version that sound like it belongs on the band's recently released second LP, "In the Future," rather than their self-titled debut, and it never relinquished it's hypnotic, druggy grip.

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