As Bon Iver took to the stage, they were welcomed with rapturous applause – and deservedly so. For Emma, Forever Ago won across an initial horde of devoted fans, and their latest album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, was received incredibly well – so much so that it won the band a Grammy. Bon Iver have gone from strength to strength, and the excitement in the air was palpable.
The band took no time in launching into the appropriate opener of “Perth”. The first notes rang sharply throughout the hall, and to be honest – it felt a bit strange. After being so accustomed to the softer nuances of these tracks on record, to hear them explode forth and completely fill the Opera House was something else entirely.
But – apart from the rare moment where it seemed slightly too loud – it worked. Really well.
The nine musicians on stage changed instruments on a regular basis, but none of them ever faltered or missed a step. Saxophones, violins, horns and even a trombone were all present, all contributing to the musical landscape that formed over the night. I was sceptical about needing two drum kits at first, but even they proved their worth, providing a powerful intensity when needed (not to mention those jaw-dropping off-beats!). Having so many people on stage could have gone badly for Bon Iver, but the expansive majesty that came with it paid off.
However one of the most impressive instruments was one of the most natural. Justin Vernon’s voice is a thing to behold. What really stands out is the emotive force behind it, that can shift everything in a single moment. Lines like “Oh and we done it, because it’s right,” from the achingly beautiful “Wash.” took on an entirely new life, being forced out of Vernon’s mouth in the most uncontrollably cathartic way possible. His falsetto was pristine and rang out, and to say we were in awe would’ve been an understatement.
Midway through the set, a seat was brought out for Vernon, and a crew member adjusted his mic. “These guys put my underwear on in the morning too,” he joked, before beginning what was arguably one of the most anticipated songs of the night – “Skinny Love”.
I was concerned that the frail, tender nature of the song might be crushed under the weight of nine musicians. But hearing the band bellow “my, my, my” in unison with Vernon was one of the most warming and memorable moments of the night. It almost felt as if they took on our role as the audience – for if this were a festival set, there’s no doubt that each and every one of us would have been singing along. But “Skinny Love” wasn’t the only song to have noticeable differences.
A mighty saxophone solo from Colin Stetson segued into the beginning of “Blood Bank”, which took on a much more direct and assertive approach. The slow-burning, delicate love song from the EP of the same name was transformed into a stronger and much more driven piece.
Credit must be given to the band for managing to adapt so many songs, some ever so slightly, to a new environment. However that’s not to say that they’ve lost their initial charm. Those of you that fell in love with the alluring subtleties of For Emma, Forever Ago will still find that connection live, just in slightly different places. Dynamically the band know exactly when to draw back, and when to burst forth, and it’s this that allows everything to fall into place.
After performing works from across their three main releases (“Wash.” and a solo version of “re: Stacks” being definite highlights), Vernon asked the crowd to join him during the final song of the night – and while it seemed odd to have to request participation in a moment like this, it felt necessary at a venue like the Opera House. The audience seemed to have far too much reverence – for fellow concert-goers, for the venue, and for Bon Iver – to spontaneously sing at the top of their lungs (although it didn’t stop some from holding up their phones for long periods). Maybe that’s why their efforts sounded so reluctant. Nevertheless, “The Wolves (Act I and II)” sounded magnificent, with the crowd repeating “What might’ve been lost” over a monumental finish.
Everyone was quick to stand as all nine musicians lined the stage, and applause filled the hall. Collectively, the crowd’s response seemed not only thankful for the amazing set we’d just witnessed, but also demanding of more. My generation has grown up to expect encores – not to be pleasantly surprised by them – and there was no way Bon Iver were getting away without one.
After some time, the band returned and the applause instantly subsided as people sat down again in anticipation. They then launched into “Creature Fear”, which built up to an immense wall of dissonant sound. Much like “The Wolves (Act I and II)”, the huge release of energy felt like an apt place to end the set – but we were in for one last song. Thanking the crowd once more, the band began to close the night with the slow dusty brass of “For Emma” – again, earning a standing ovation.
It’s more important than ever that I now refer to Bon Iver collectively as a band. No longer is it just Vernon at the helm of this ship. The addition of other musicians added another element to their second album, it certainly adds a welcome element to their live show – and I’d like to think that it’s a form of the band that will stick around, because it sounded nothing short of astounding.
To witness such intrinsically beautiful music performed in the Opera House was a privilege. And while Bon Iver may not believe that they’re magnificent – everyone at the Opera House on Sunday most certainly does.