Justin Vernon, the founder of Bon Iver and subject of the one most prolific stories of music history, has written some of the most poignant songs to hit the market in recent years. Bon Iver seem to have a personal place in the heart of their listeners and there has probably been a moment where an extreme emotion has either been settled or riled by the backdrop of a Bon Iver track. The prospect of seeing them live daunted me. What if… I don’t like it? What if… Justin Vernon is an arrogant sod, and he’s not the portrayer of my inner thought and soul?
As they continue their huge tour, which seems to have started in June 2011, they come to the harsh reality that they’ve turned up in Manchester. Surprisingly the gig was not sold out, as an unimpressed tout advised me “Tickets are worf nothin’, only six thousan’ sol, must be shit’. His words hurt… this was my Bon Iver! Maybe the arena wasn’t going to be the best venue for this style of folk/indie.
As I entered a half filled Manchester arena ‘The Staves’, three tight jeaned, vintage shirted sisters tip toed on stage. This was the second time the trio have supported Bon Iver and it seems the high profile slot hasn’t gone unnoticed as they’d appeared on Jools Holland last week… I was keen to hear what they had to offer.
‘The Staves’ took position in a crescent around a set of microphones, tuned their single guitar and unleashed the sweetest of harmonies. They weaved in and out of synchronised notes with smooth ease, allowing room for coherent melodic phrases that filled the arena with a calm air of pleasant reflection. They’d set the tone that this gig was going to be a private musical experience for everyone and now was time to engage. They ended their set with one sister laying out our short term future… “Bon Iver will be the best band you’ll ever see”. She wasn’t far wrong.
A couple of songs that caught my ear were ‘Mexico’ with its simple bass-like guitar and soft vocals, as well as ‘Wisely and Slow’ which is an acapella song that really showcases the band’s vocal strength meshing in and out of harmony, forte and piano.
As the modest set of ‘The Staves’ was cleared, a secret wardrobe of equipment suddenly appeared on stage: countless guitars, several brass instruments, pianos and drums – drums everywhere… maybe the arena was the only practical venue, this looked massive!
Just as I’d imagined, bang on time (9pm), the lights went down and Justin Vernon and his band sauntered on stage. The band were as expected, scruffy and bearded. There was an obvious atmosphere in the air as the knowledgeable audience waited in baited breathe to see which song they were going to start with…
… ah!! ‘Perth’!
Perth set and confirmed expectations. The soft introductory guitar, Vernon’s unearthly vocals and the big sound of the full band at the crashing bridge. The sound, the lights and mood, it all came together and everyone in the local vicinity had a tear in their eye, almost reveling in their achievement of witnessing this. As in the self titled album, the band swiftly followed with Minnesota, which let Vernon’s lower range reverberate around the open space, verbally hugging and reassuring everyone ‘it’s alright, you’re with Uncle Vern, and if you want to cry, you can cry’. I did cry, just a bit.
As the gig progressed, it was clear the band were an ‘all in one’ super group. Each member contributed vocals and flipped between multiple instruments. The wonderful thing about seeing Bon Iver live was each instrument resonated their full effect in your ears and you could understand the big noise that’s often convoluted on your car stereo.
The set was mainly based on their most recent album (see below) and there were some personal moments of audio orgasm: ’Wash’ and ‘Woods’ completely floored the audience with Vernon’s voice mixed in the chimes of the music and the synthesised, harmonised voices of his band members; ‘Flumes’ and ‘Skinny Love’ provided us with an emotional sing along… the “My My My” of ‘Skinny Love’ drawing everyone into the moment and being a part of Bon Iver.
Two surprising additions were ‘Blood Bank’, which they roughed up with heavy guitars and brass, it sounded big and bold and uncharacteristically in your face, and ‘Bracketts, WI’ a track from the charity album ‘Dark Was the Night’.
Throughout the gig Vernon humbly thanked the audience and provided moments of comedy, confirming his appreciation for the support and the fact he wasn’t an arrogant sod, which made me happy.
After chatting to other gig go-ers in the nearby pub, it was agreed we had just had a life experience, perhaps not worthy of a Facebook timeline addition, but nonetheless, a must-see for anyone who is into this band.
Set List: Perth, Minnesota WI, Bracketts WI, Towers, Creature Fear, Wash, Woods, Holocene, Blood Bank, Flume, Calgary, Beth/Rest. Encore: Skinny Love, For Emma