Bon Iver – O2 Academy, Birmingham – 11/09/11
Too many artists these days fall victim to it… playing material live exactly as they are heard on their records. This safe approach usually doesn’t result in an all-out disaster, but it fails to make for a memorable gig. After attending Bon Iver’s set this past Wednesday, I was delighted to find out he falls well outside this plight.
After a strong support slot from Kathleen Edwards, Justin Vernon and his nine-man band took to the stage of the O2 Academy Birmingham. The venue isn’t a fantastic one; it’s plastered in neon advertisements and half of the viewing space is obstructed by pillars. It just lacks any signs of sentiment. When they started to play, however, the room was immediately filled with magic. Vernon opened with “Perth”, the first song on his most recent album, and applied a mellow instrumental break to move seamlessly into “Minnesota, WI”. After a lively rendition of “Towers” (again, from the most recent album), they played “Creature Fear”, which is a peaceful song from the 2008 breakthrough debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. Despite the version on the album being calm and placid, Justin Vernon made use of the talented band to inject vibrant life and energy into it. It was extremely interesting to hear a song that so many people know and love completely reworked.
Singing “Hinnom, TX”, Vernon demonstrated his unique ability to sing in both pitch-perfect falsetto and hauntingly deep tones. He has one of the most versatile voices on the planet, and it’s often wrongly overlooked as “just another high-pitched male.” Hearing him words “I was not magnificent” during “Holocene” was an emotional moment, and it was clear that everyone in the room wanted to assure him just how magnificent he is. This poignant number was followed by the contrasting “Blood Bank” from the 2009 EP of the same name. This was another song that was reworked for performance, with all three percussionists pounding their drums to the beat from the moment of conception. The room was flooded in crimson from the powerful lights, and this just added to the intensity of the song. “Blood Bank” was a real highlight of the night. The other major highlight was, surprisingly, a three or four-minute instrumental jam. All members of Bon Iver and its touring band were playing their instruments with prevalent vigor, creating a complex soundscape not dissimilar Explosions In The Sky’s darker material. This, combined with the violently flashing lights, was an absolutely phenomenal addition to the set.
Following several songs from the new, self-titled album and “Re: Stacks” from the first, Vernon invited his support act onto the stage to play one of her songs that “only a real super-fan would know”. This was a lovely moment; he was genuinely appreciative of Kathleen Edwards’ presence on their tour. The band then proceeded to add magnificence to their set with one of the best tracks on the Bon Iver album, “Berth/Rest”. As soon as the beautiful synth was set into motion, the whole audience prepared themselves for the wonderful song they were about to witness. Hearing this emotional ballad played live was truly fantastic, and once again new life was breathed into it by the talented band. They ended the set with the much-anticipated “Skinny Love”, perhaps Bon Iver’s most popular track and one that has become a live staple. This song seems to have gained the band a lot of popularity over the last year or so, and it was clear that many audience members were waiting to hear it. The majority of people were singing along at the top of their lungs. Much of the time this ruins a song at a gig, but the communal joy of hearing the masterpiece live was lovely.
Persistent applause and cheers from the audience prompted Bon Iver to return to the stage for an extremely appreciated encore. Before they started playing, Justin Vernon invited the crowd to sing along to the second half of the song, getting louder and louder until you “freak out and lose all your shit”. After practicing a few bars, they jumped into “The Wolves”. What started as a quiet song soon turned into a brilliant cacophony of 3000 voices singing “what might have been lost” over and over with pure exhilaration. The show then ended on a high note with an upbeat, full version of “For Emma”.
Justin Vernon has journeyed a long way since founding the now famous Bon Iver. With his live performances he is clearly benefiting from having a large group of musicians at his side. Every live success made use of each of the nine musicians onstage. Nothing was too dense, and nothing was too thin. Bon Iver have proved themselves to be more than just an excellent studio band. They’re even better live.
Bon Iver – Bonnie Hathaway