It has been a good long while since I first saw Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver play, then as a three piece with Mike Noyce and Sean Carey, in the more intimate surroundings of the Trinity Centre in Bristol back in September 2008.
Back then I worried about how they would be able to perform the fragile beauty of For Emma, Forever Ago and now with the eponymous album I wondered again. But as in 2008 I shouldn’t have worried, last night they delivered what was clearly one of the best gigs I have ever been too.
Canadian Kathleen Edwards has been on tour with Bon Iver for a while, and along with hertwo band mates delivered a great set of her alt folk songs (the chap on the big whammy bar guitar was greeeeaat!). The songs were wrapped up with a few sassy quips and stories (including female waxing and the challenges of being on the road for a month, and getting too close to female polar bears in Manitoba), she seemed at ease and relaxed and the songs had a real resonance and depth, Ms Edwards voice rich and distinctive. The closing Neil Young track, From Hank to Hendrix, was a tour de force, a long-time favourite song delivered with sensitivity and style.
The packed Colston Hall crowd seemed fit to burst waiting for Bon Iver to appear, and when the nine piece band sauntered on stage they went off like a bottle of pop. Two drums kits, a percussionist, sax and horn players, bassist/keyboards, guitars violinists – it was more like a small orchestra than a band. Such a large ensemble might threaten to be unwieldy and a blunt instrument to deliver such nuanced music, but they played as tight as a proverbial drum, and after such a long time playing together, each knew exactly when to sit back and when to come forward. It’s invidious to single out individuals but the saxophonist was quite remarkable, including his circular breathing solo linking the magnificent Holocene and brilliant Blood Bank.
Playing for more than an hour and a half, they went through the majority of both albums plus the Blood Bank EP. All blended seamlessly together, the newer material feeling just as established as the older songs. Mr Vernon took to the stage on his own for an intimate versoin of Re:Stacks for which the entire audience remained reverentially silent in good Bristol fashion. The main part of the set ending with a stripped back version of Skinny Love, everyone on hand-clapping and vocal duties. Back for two encores, For Emma and Wolves, concluding with the now traditional sing-a-long and shouting session and then it was over; the end date on this European tour, back across the pond.
After the Trinity show I pondered on never seeing them in such a small venue again. I do hope that next time they come (perhaps not after another three year gap) they don’t end up on the even larger venue circuit.
I seem to run out of superlatives when thinking about this show. It’s music that I alreadyhold dear at any rate but, if anything, this live experience made it even better; an almost perfect show with musicians absolutely in tune with each other. It really is quite rare that you are held rapt for an entire show, totally absorbed by what is taking place in front of you. A quite exceptional evening.