Clacking billiard balls. Glowing neon beer signs. BBQ and flowing tequila and whiskey. Mounted moose and elk heads. Country-sexy waitresses. Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon debuted his new blues-rock band, the Shouting Matches, Thursday night in Pioneertown, CA, a dusty outpost founded in the 1940s as a set for Western movies that's 45 minutes outside of Indio and near Joshua Tree National Park. The gig was like a scene from Roadhouse, minus the bar fights and Patrick Swayze cameos.
Announced last minute, the show was a sort-of secret warm up for the band's Coachella appearance, and only 50-60 people showed up at the half-full bar, called Pappy & Harriets, many of whom were patrons at the nearby motel and stumbled in by chance. They were rewarded with a rowdy blues-rock romp.
Vernon semi-retired as Bon Iver, perhaps to trade self-seriousness for good ol' fashion fun, and he's having plenty of it. "This is really fun for us," Vernon admitted. Later, between songs, he added with wink and a country-accent in his voice, "Hi, we're Dusty Boots, and we'll be here all night long."
Performing on a 6-inch-high platform, the band—a guitar-drums-church organ trio, also featuring Vernon's hometown pals Phil Cook and Brian Moen—played an hour-long set of yeehaw blues-rock tracks from their debut album, Grownass Man (see... fun!). It's the sh-t-kickin', whiskey-loose licks of Stevie Ray Vaughan meets the American songwriting of Tom Petty with a touch of Bon Iver's ethereal tenderness and touching melody.
"New Theme" was a hip-twisting barroom hop; "Seven Sisters" an upbeat ditty with group vocal and a hard backbeat; "Milkman" a twangy, rough-around-the-edges jam with a classic 12-bar-blues style. And on "Three Dollar Bill" Vernon swapped guitar for bass, playing an over-driven riff while Cook wailed on the harmonica.
Vernon would talk-howl about devil women and whiskey, hard times and good, then let loose a growl that was meant for the blues. Sure, his pain is communicated in the atmospheric folk of Bon Iver, but it's ideal in time-worn mold of the blues. The genre earned its name, after all.
And Vernon was dedicated to the pure fun onstage: "Who's checking Instagram?" Vernon prodded. "Oh... you're busted!" He wanted the crowd to relish in the moment like he was. He addressed them again: "Put your phone on Airplane Mode," he said. "Because we're flying!!!" They were.