April 12, 2013


Bon Iver's Justin Vernon Debuts New Band, The Shouting Matches

Shirlaine Forrest
Shirlaine Forrest

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.