Bon Iver / Eventim Apollo, London | 27th of February

Bon Iver / Eventim Apollo, London | 27th of February

“Philosophise… figure…what I have and have not held.”

These lyrics capture a sort of inevitable element of humanism. They also function fairly well as an example of what Bon Iver’s music stirs in me, what it can or does provoke in fortunate others. Arriving with hi-hat, the words summon punchy rim clicks and bassdrum that rises from stage-rear out into the atrium of the famed Apollo theatre. Despite his often oblique lyricism, Justin Vernon’s voice is an emblem of shared experience. This track 8 (circle) arrives over half way through the two hour set, five nights into their eight night capital residency. Trumpets and saxes drone quietly behind the entire tune, organ like in their emotional rooting. I stand in awe at just how music can mark a whole host of times I have had, as well as those I feel like I have had but I have not entirely held (uncertainty is of major thematic importance for the band), and the times that have been had and held or not had but still very much held in some abstracted sense. My awe is in the fact that all these temporal pathways – in the past couple of years at least – have been scored in a big way by the music of this man and his band. Enough.

Upon leaving and massaging my lower back into life, I slowly made my way across the road to Hammersmith station. My most pertinent thought, recurrently: I am without words. I feel similar still. Not ideal when you want to remember and discuss. Alas. I’d like here to try, in some way, to immortalise with my own unworthy words the experience of seeing Bon Iver live. It may well turn out more an ode than a review.

They walked on to the stage (simplistically designed, adorned with hanging beige tassels and fake candles) shortly after a violin backed American rumination had sounded over the large speakers. A weary, baritone voice it was, evoking – in a sort of public statement – a fractured scene of American glory, ethical downfall, ambiguous governance, resurgent hope. As the band set themselves I cheered so loud I felt a little squiggly vein on my right temple lurch excitedly in and out and in. Justin and Sean Carey, with those marvelous nuanced supporting vocals of his. The saxophonist/bassist with slicked back hair who, this Tuesday evening, sported dark glasses – his name is Michael Lewis. And the drummer Matthew and guitarist Andrew and…and…it’s not just Vernon, so you well know, but it’s Vernon’s stage hereafter.

The first three tracks performed were the first three tracks of 22, A Million. Sampled stutters lead us to It might be over soon a real concern at the show’s commencement and, in 22 (OVER S∞∞N), a track that lucidly marks the record’s production period as one of profound anxiety for Vernon.

10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ and 715 – CR∑∑KS display abundant vocal manipulation, a trait symptomatic of the band’s withdrawal from stripped back break-up/break-down lamentations (the story of For Emma, Forever Ago is almost musical lore) and the layered folk of their sophomore stories. Anyway, from this experimentation wanders the third record, a mosaic-like display of musical intent which somehow proves typically introspective and provocative. It comes across powerfully live. The deep bass of deathbreast shook the room to life, and like a fine conductor, a patron of variation. Vernon stood alone, spitting the lyrics of CREEKS into the ‘Messina’ vocoder, harkening back to a moment of desperation and resilience. It was tangible.

They performed Minnesota, WI (from their remarkable eponymous release) but stripped it back, moved high tempo, with plenty of rim-click and significantly less trumpet than the recorded version. It was almost unrecognisable at first, and a great take on keeping music new. Vernon welcomed us. Laconic and humble, he lets music do the talking, as should be the case, and the show went on. Also in the first half of the set (ah, duality oh so prevalent, the damn album name, I (?) , age 22, there to see them, a 22 minute set-break, have, have not held etc. etc.) –

29 #Strafford APTS, a song of nostalgia (‘and yea you’re on your own’), opened with stunning licks of Vernon’s guitar and more clicks on the drum-side. ‘Sure as any living dream, it’s not all then what it seems’ (hasten I highlight any more damn duality) is another pretty apt description of living as a human being on this frenetic and baffling planet is it not? The chorus, atmospheric and divine, sees Vernon (whose vocal work has not lost any of its greatness) rise through the scales afore a swaying crowd. ‘Fold the map, amend the gap’ – between his experience and mine – in this and so many other songs it’s been managed, achieved! The workings of the band are a dream for students and thinkers and hopeful worriers. ‘You’re fabric now’.

Blood Bank. From their 2009 EP of the same name. Companionship in little vials. Some shared sense of what it means to be. (That’s ironic, I was at the gig alone).

666 ʇ, (which, over the driving threenote synth, he introduced as ‘turn that cross upside down’) – a swirling rock song with great guitarwork to open and a maestro drum performance, primarily from Matthew McCaughan. Carey’s turn is worth note, too. By this point, Vernon’s falsetto is coming into its absolute own, almost transcending the vast space and planting itself in a collective consciousness. The chorus is interspersed with electronic swipes. The lighting played along.

For Emma. The soulful, slow 2/4 simple drum beat and ambient piano. A song for the subject of the first release. Go find another lover. I wonder how it is for Vernon now, performing these songs, arching his back to the vibe – the music is just so ingrained in popular culture, so oft emulated, and so rarely to quite the same level of beauty. Produced what must feel like forever ago. Still poignant. The two minute post-message instrumental was not as such live. He stood, wavering ‘ooh’s’ to the memorable tune. And faded out.

Perth, with its fine rolling snare and rife reverberations. Like a fantastical military march. Kind of.

Towers. An ominous jingle of guitars, orchestrated to weave in amongst each other and complement the bass and little sax backing. All the while Justin stands there, choosing the moments in which he wishes to open his eyes or cradle the mic.

Both are – scrap that, the entire show is – performed with care and emotion fitting of that particular body of work, and fitting of each work as distinct from its neighbour, and not so, in fact, befitting of the word ‘performance’ – there is minimal artificiality to the music’s feel, even as they lean increasingly on technologies. I had hoped Hinnom, TX would make an appearance from that second record. It didn’t. Some mighty fine kind of psych-melancholia, that track.

Heavenly Father, a choir-like tapestry of introspection and idolisation (which is, coincidentally, what this here text is becoming). If you have a moment, watch their acapella rendition from Sydney Opera House. Absurd talent. And so commenced the 22 minute interval.

That’s a ridiculous enough hour of music, spanning the years and the peregrinations of its primary producer. Tracks marked with odd arrows once they re-emerged:

(And this was a four song run of significant proportions)

Skinny Love, perhaps the best known. Crowd involvement reflected this. Just a dim orange light over Vernon and the raw power of his singing, a sermon to the hurt.

His speaking voice, rested at the lowest reaches of a remarkable range, is gruff and full of genuine wisdom, and after this hit he tells us ‘I’ve been ruminating on death a lot in recent times, and I feel like, um, if we were all to die tonight, for whatever reason, it would be a tight way to go out’. Cheers erupt, oddly enough, but he’s got a point. As he does so again when supposing in custom philosophical fashion that ‘we’re all just dirt in the ground’, before slowly growing louder with the riff of that one track you want to listen to when you’re in amongst nature, that one track which somehow dwells on an entire epoch and a single human mind all at once.

Holocene. It was, in fact, magnificent. And I knew it at once.

8 (circle) We know how that went, and it’s probably fairly apparent that the profundity of the event on a personal level hit peak levels during this stretch. Vernon talks of the Vernon the world glimpsed over in yesteryears, a dissonance from that (the atmospheric brass at the start of the track) and a fine rebirth (crisp rimclicks, relative clarity of voice) I’m standing in the street now, and I carry his guitar. The trombones roll off on their own wonderful show and the bass kicks back in to more fractured, layered voices. A song torn by thought – my favourite, I think, from 22. (Again – check out an intriguing alternative version here)

33 “GOD” is a gem with a wonderful piano intro, cut across by samples (Nutini’s ‘we find God and religion’ from ‘Iron Sky’ appears later) and a quick-paced odd-hum, leading to suggestion that ‘these will just be places to me now’, as though memory and time can evade the space they constantly occur in.

And here’s the wonderful thing – for all their soulful musicality, existentialism, poetry – they’re not averse to just rocking for a fair while, and the final few minutes of 33 “GOD” see crazed lights and wild thrusts of guitar and nodding heads in place of cryptic melodies. A similar scene can be detected in the final gnarly passages of:

Creature Fear. And the rock seems so mad there because the song starts out so mellow, a slowswing affair that escalates and escalates.

Calgary. Brilliant. Arms motioning from the pulpit.

Beth/Rest sees persistent piano chords crash out onto the walls and back in to the swells of people amidst them. The distortion on the voice is taut with a cruel yearning that resists the test of that time that evades space. [No-one is likely to still be reading this now but alas, it serves as a published, surrogate memory of a mere portion of how I felt at this gig]. Vernon thanks the crowd, and assures us it’s not some mere fatuous thanks but a sincere one, one that serves the pride he has in being able to call this a job. They stand and wave and leave the stage; we all whoop for long enough for them to return.

Wolves (Acts I and II), to mark the final time we’ll all be here. Together. The faultless highnotes an obstinate refrain, the refusal to lament what might have been lost filling the increasingly thankful humans feeling, if at all like me, increasingly hopeful on account of music like this existing, aaaand we all chant alongside the stagemaster and burble terms of adoration as the doors open and the floor clears.

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