A venue brimming with 12,000 people does not immediately appear to be the most suitable setting for a singer/songwriter who made his name with an album created in solitude, whilst holed up in a cabin in deepest Wisconsin.
But Justin Vernon, the “author” of folk/pop sensation Bon Iver (a variation on the French for bon hiver, or ‘good winter’) has travelled a long way since releasing 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, which won him Grammys, as well as widespread critical and public admiration.
His home (and clearly his heart) remains in America’s Copper State, but his sound has journeyed from the stripped-back, cathartic intimacy of the break-up inspired debut, and into a forest of instruments that has expanded his sonic reach for 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
This new set up, played live with a sprawling eight-piece band, allows Vernon’s mesmeric vocals and masterfully built-up tracks to fill every inch of the cavernous London arena with cacophonous rock, country and folk motifs, whilst retaining the mighty swells and haunting silences that became his signature.
A huge cheer greets “Holocene”, made grander than its recorded counterpart with the help of two drummers and a booming brass section, which is followed by the wintry chill of “Blood Bank”, the title track from 2009’s EP, introduced by an fitful bass saxophone solo.
“I just realised we haven’t said hello to you yet,” Vernon smiles, around a quarter of the way through. He thanks the crowd profusely (the first of many such speeches) for their support, with a grace and self-deprecation that is evident throughout the set. He enjoys mischievous jokes, including discussing the prospect of taking his trousers off on stage (they’re hot, and wet, apparently).
A rousing rendition of the initially gentle “Creature Fear”, which ends with a strobe-lit flourish, is yet another highlight. But the night’s crowning glory is easily “Re: Stacks”. Having awkwardly introduced the members of his support band, Watford-based acoustic folk trio The Staves, with a mini-monologue (“life is long and friendship is good…”) that he admits is partly an attempt to chat them up, the song – gently teased out and perfectly harmonised – offers pure beauty.
There are moments when Bon Iver’s live innovation stretches to places better left alone (the heavy auto-tune on “Beth/Rest” is a little more Cher “Believe” than the charming kitsch achieved on record). But when the band returns for an encore of “Skinny Love”, “Emma” and “The Wolves (Act I &II)”, the crowd is left in raptures.
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