(EDIT: The lovely folks over at Everguide, took a liking to my rambling sycophancy so they've published the review in full over at their website too.)How do you write about music so good that it's difficult to articulate just what makes it so stirring? How do you describe an artist at a sheer peak of his creative powers without losing the balance to a wash of hyperbole?
This is the problem when discussing Bon Iver, particularly in the live setting.
Well, the first step would be to establish the players, for Bon Iver is no longer solely Justin Vernon. Though the 'cabin-in-the-woods' mythos will forever be the origin of what would become For Emma, Forever Ago, the current iteration of Vernon's musical compositions have been characterised by collaboration. It's what characterised the eponymous sophomore Bon Iver, Bon Iver, easing and enunciating into a lush expansive palette that is as much credited to the brilliant players Vernon has enlisted. Certainly, Vernon remains the catalyst and visionary to the sonic soundscapes that Bon Iver paint, but it is as much about the party of talented, spirited individuals who have as much passion and attention as their band leader that deserve the credit. A fact made all the clearer in the live arena.
Though the 'original' quartet that remain; namely drummer Matthew McCaughan, Vernon's former student Mike Noyce and of course the precociously gifted Sean Carey; the live unit has since swelled to more than double its size. Their line-up - now including Rob Moose, Mike Lewis, C.J. Camerier, Reginald Pace and saxophonist virtuoso Colin Stetson - are a pool of talented multi-instrumentalists all, drawn from America's most sophisticated art rock ensembles. Their collective CVs read like the cream of the crop, including Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, The National, Andrew Bird, Rufus Wainwright and Antony & The Johnsons (to name a few...). It's a point worth labouring, as the sound they make as a unified group is essential, astonishing in both its most powerful and subtle moments.
Gracing a stage decked in drabs of mossy curtains, flooded by meek post-dawn light, they wordlessly ease into Perth, the only logical set opening for their al fresco experience. By the time it swells into its rousing mid-section, militant drums and strident horns battling for emotional clarity, it's clear that they're not merely recreating the lush complexities of the album, they're bringing them to rushing life.
Flume, seven songs in, is the first of the For Emma material to make an appearance, and its growth across the canvas of this new nine-strong ensemble is self-evident. It's vocal harmonies bright and full, it's darker corners flecked with horns and keys complementing the spooky guitar noises of record; the instrumental breakdown is almost purely orchestral - sounds as colour, arrangement as effect. In fact, this absorbing symphonic element defines many of their finest moments across the ninety minute set, the washes of dissonant noise and chaos that make the tenderness all the more poignant. The segue between Perth and a breathtaking rendition of Minnesota, WI for instance, or when Flume carouses back towards its cathartic round of "only love is all maroon." In particular, the extended coda of Creature Fear/Team, fleshed out by the dual pounding of drummers Carey and McCaughan before they intentionally lose the pulse against the rattling percussion and the squalling of horns.
Additionally, Calgary's steady crescendo from it's opening slabs of Korg M1 towards its full-band explosion; or the powerful vamp of Blood Bank ("I know it well") foreshadows that of the thunderous, set-closing The Wolves ("what might have been lost"), both of which, know full-well the power of simple, dramatic chordal shifts, delivered with full muscular force. It's perhaps in the quieter, reflective moments however that the collective's discipline really shines through. Hinnom, TX is a master-class in ambient mood-making, Vernon's deep baritone contrasting gorgeously with Noyce's falsetto, the two eventually dovetailing into an over-lapped call and response as shimmering keys and delicate keyboard squiggles are feathered with light percussion lingering at the edges of its fragile yet ember-worthy warm embrace. It then segues into an achingly rendered take on Wash, its central piano part dripping like ripples against Vernon's honeyed crooning. Holocene,"a song about holidays, drugs and geological eras" notes Vernon, is another triumph. The slow ebbs that rise towards the shattering refrain of "at once I knew/I was not magnificent" are pitch-perfect, not to mention the chorus of falsetto-lined voices, horns, guitars and sumptuous violin. These are compositions deserving of their rich arrangement, operated by musicians with focus and discipline, where even the smallest contributions add something vital and crucial to the overall mix. When a video screen reveals Reginald Pace squeezing the valves of his trumpet up to a microphone, purely for percussive effect, it's a picture that speaks a thousand words.
Eventually the spotlight is inevitably drawn to Justin Vernon, the man who spurned the whole affair into creation, for a solo rendition of Re: Stacks. If there was any doubt how one man's musical world could draw in so many equally skilled practitioners, it's an answer that needs no voice when you witness the man in flight. His playing is at once measured yet electric in its magnetic appeal, throwing his passion wholeheartedly into his recital. It's not a routine, you can see it from the beads of sweat, just as you hear and feel it in his astoundingly expressive voice. If he needs categorising, then you'd call him a soul singer. Though often caricatured for his sensitive falsetto, he's clearly worked hard on extending his range and flexing his phrasing with physical colouration as much as melodic variation. In short, it's awe-inspiring. His lyrics, a mix of alliterated abstractions and deliberately enigmatic poetry, aren't for everyone - but there's no faulting the emotional intent behind every word.
Alone, at the guitar, pouring whatever corporeal fabric that fuels him into every one of Re: Stack's seven minutes, it hits like a diamond bullet that this is what an artist looks like - playing to a record audience of 12,000 and having the ability to hush nearly every single body present into awed silence.
With such ridiculous numbers at hand, it would be tempting to reach for the old '12,000 fans can't be wrong' defence, except that any dissent among the audience are those that have been caught up in the popularity of the Bon Iver phenomenon, their appreciation muddied by his overwhelming 'it' status. Sure, there are those who don't 'get' it, the ones that chatter their way through Michicant, who dismiss Beth/Rest as 'cheesy' or, worse, misinterpret it as a facsimile of eighties music; but the larger majority instead appreciate the humble honesty of Vernon. From his casually wisened banter about using toothpaste tubes as a metaphor for life ("sometimes you're all crumpled up with shit leaking out the sides"), to the open revelation later in the show that there is a curfew. Instantly becoming the people's hero when he pronounces "fuck curfews," openly forgoing the theatrics of an encore and smashes his already smitten crowd with perhaps his most beloved number, to say Skinny Love is well-received would be a vast understatement.
Could this concert have been better? You could split preferential hairs - an obscure cover perhaps? A surprise duet with support act Sally Seltmann? Heck, not unless you had a magic lamp and had wished Vernon and co. arrive via jetpack, streaking across the backdrop of Melbourne's clouded full-moon, could it have been better. From a musical standpoint, it was practically flawless. Bon Iver are as magical in the flesh as they are captured in the studio. Easily the best concert that Sidney Myer Music Bowl has seen this year, and if you missed it? Well, you're either in for a special treat at Golden Plains or you're going to just have to put up with the misty-eyed recollections of those that were there.
The Wolves (Act I And II)