Bon Iver review – a thrilling, magical communal experience

First Direct Arena, Leeds
Justin Vernon’s sublime falsetto and robust versions of songs from i,i are met with shrieks of delight in an unusually intimate arena gig

Justin Vernon has come a long way since he decamped to a Wisconsin log cabin to make his stunningly introspective alt-folk debut as Bon Iver, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Since then, there have been Grammy wins, chart-topping albums and collaborations with Taylor Swift, James Blake and Kanye West, and his music has shifted into hip-hop production and electronic orchestration. 2019’s i,i featured a seven-piece band and no less than 39 additional musicians and a choir. Crucially, Bon Iver songs are still strong enough to be performed with just voice and guitar. But the 41-year-old has eschewed the well-worn singer-songwriter archetype in favour of intriguing new shapes. There’s plenty of that at tonight’s gig at Leeds’ First Direct Arena, with an array of sounds ranging from percussion that sounds like an exhaling pressure cooker to robotic vocal effects. This never detracts from the gentle beauty of the songs, and for an arena gig – this one long delayed by Covid – it feels unusually intimate.

Simply but wonderfully staged … Bon Iver at Leeds First Direct Arena.
Simply but wonderfully staged … Bon Iver at Leeds First Direct Arena. Photograph: Claire Powell

It is simply but wonderfully staged. The six musicians are encased in luminous geometric patterns, which change colour to suit the songs. At one point, another set of glowing geometric shapes descend to frame the crowd in a beautiful autumnal glow, which almost makes the audience part of the performance. They watch with a churchgoer-like reverence, which increasingly gives way to ecstatic cheering and whooping. Where most arena acts pack their sets with hits, Vernon performs no less than nine tracks from i,i, one of his most challenging records. The songs are more robust live – with long-term keyboard-percussionist Sean Carey and drumming colossus Matt McCaughan beating up a storm – but somehow more delicate. Vernon’s sublime falsetto and harmonies with Carey or guitarist Jenn Wasner provide human vulnerability amid the otherworldly electric storm. Occasionally, there are old favourites. Re: Stacks, performed acoustically, and the mesmeric likes of Holocene and Flume are met with shrieks of delight.

Vernon has struggled with success and loss of anonymity, but he explains that lockdown allowed him to reflect and here he seems to appreciate such a loyal and enthusiastic audience. He expresses gratitude throughout, virtually shadow boxes with excitement during a thrilling Hey, Ma and even pulls off a Yorkshire accent. “I love you too … luv!” he grins. “It’s great that here you say ‘luv’ to everybody.”

Gradually, the gig becomes a magical communal experience, passing the 100-minute mark by the time the band dip into electronic contemporary jazz. Conversely, first encore Blood Bank rocks like, of all things, Neil Young and Crazy Horse. “Spread the love,” Vernon beams as they exit, and you wonder where on earth his restless muse will take him next.

  • Bon Iver tour the UK until 26 October.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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