Though some ‘purist’ fans of Bon Iver and their cult-classic first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, might struggle to take to their more eighties-inspired and synth-heavy second offering, the self-titled Bon Iver, it must surely be hard for them to deny their on-going originality and their impressive transformation.
Their set at Wembley Arena did include several offerings from their sublime debut album, including Re:Stacks, Skinny Love, The Wolves (Acts I and III) and title-track For Emma, Forever Ago, but the majority of the evening consisted of breathing an amazing life and energy into almost the entire content of their second album.
Having swiftly moved to get my hands on some tickets when they were released a few months back I had been looking forward enormously to Thursday night’s spectacle, even though I must confess that up until the other evening I still wasn’t totally sold on Bon Iver’s bold new sound.
However, within moments of the start of their set I was rendered speechless and left wondering why I had ever doubted their on-going genius.
The set began with rousing renditions of Perth and Minnesota thumping through Wembley Arena, which can often appear so cavernous, quickly setting aside any doubts regarding Bon Iver’s place in such a venue.
Certainly, their first album was more suited to live performances in much smaller and quainter surroundings, but the conviction and the somewhat unexpected ‘rocky’ edge to their current touring performance is undoubtedly fit for the larger arenas.
Having said that, the delicacy and harmonies still present in much of their newer material as well as that on their first album isn’t lost and bludgeoned away by the storm conjured up by their new edge as was demonstrated throughout the mid-stages of their performance.
Following on from their heart-thumping opening, Justin Vernon led the band delicately through the more peaceful middle-section of the show with his painfully beautiful, cracked-falsetto vocals on tracks like Holocene and the stunning version of first-album-favourite Re:Stacks for which he was joined on stage by support-act The Staves.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night in terms of highlights was the performance of understated first album track Creature Fear, which when performed live simply seemed to make more sense and provided arguably the greatest demonstration of a link between their albums.
This track as a live example of the band’s ever-growing appeal demonstrated Bon Iver’s lyrical complexity and the delicacy and fragility of Vernon’s vocal performance, whilst the chorus witnessed their transformation into arena-fillers as it burst into an uplifting cacophony of anthemic proportions.
Following on from Creature Fear was one of the second album’s greatest offerings, Calgary, which preceded the closing couple of tracks in their initial time on stage, Lisbon, OH and Beth/Rest, the latter of which harks back the glory-days of Genesis and Pink Floyd and the epic era of Prog-Rock at it’s finest.
The moodiness of their set-closing tracks was soon uplifted though upon the band’s return to the stage for their encore, as the crowd went raucous upon the strumming of the very first chord of signature track Skinny Love.
The first album nostalgia then continued throughout the encore with an awe-inspiring version of The Wolves, which proved as much an arena track as the heart-breaking ballad it was originally intended to be, and the more joyous For Emma, Forever Ago.
On the whole the performance was a triumph and so much so that any doubts regarding Bon Iver and front-man Justin Vernon’s change of tack are now long gone. In the place of such pessimism now sits an overwhelming sense of affirmation.
Affirmation, that is, of Bon Iver’s place as one of the most interesting, captivating and versatile bands in the modern music market.