Bon Iver @ The Sydney Opera House, 11th And 12th Of March

The Bon Iver of 2012 is an entirely different beast to the Bon Iver of 2009. For one thing, now everyone knows that it is a ‘they’, not a ‘him’. Also they have a Grammy. But really, the most remarkable thing about Bon Iver and Justin Vernon in particular is how they have grown so much as a band and as a person respectively but yet have maintained their identity; how they have kept the essence of what made their early music so very special and imprinted it into everything they do, whether that be their sophomore album or playing at the Sydney Opera House in front of thousands of people with a ten-piece band. Three night in a row.

If it were anybody else playing the gig, I would have been slightly worried about what the two nights where I was attending may hold. Bon Iver’s studio music thrives on sparseness and silence almost as much as it does sound, particularly their first album, and attempting to convey this through a live show that features two saxophonists and two drummers is an impossible task. Or, so you’d think. Instead, Bon Iver have moulded their gorgeous and impossibly powerful music into a live show that is equally unique and beautiful as their recorded music, but yet in an entirely different way. Gone- at least for the most part- is the silence and the sparseness, only to be replaced with impeccable, intricate, and triumphant arrangements blending ten men and many more instruments into one. The result is nothing short of spectacular.

Predictably, Perth opened proceedings on both nights, introducing the packed Opera House to just what the band was capable of. The stage setup was restrained and subtle but extremely effective, with strands of tapestry hanging down from above the stage, illuminated by a projector to be anything from leaves to falling snow. Geography and land is a constant in Bon Iver’s studio work, and it was nice to see it reflected in their live show as well. The first thing that hits you when you see Bon Iver live is of course Justin Vernon’s voice. And, in the Opera House, it was simply sublime, equal parts restraint and abandon; both soaring and impossibly intimate. His constant shifts from a lower voice to his iconic falsetto were show-stealing and goosebumps-inducing.

I was delighted when Flume made an appearance on Sunday night. For whatever reason the band rarely play it live nowadays, and sure enough it was the only time that the track was played in Sydney this tour. It quickly became one of my favourite songs of both gigs combined, as the rearranged live version stays true to the beauty of the original whilst still adding numerous layers of sound and texture upon the already nuanced songwriting. The moment when dissonance turns to order and the band stop improvising on their instruments deliberately out of time and key and return to the melody was one of the most breathtaking moments of live music that I have ever witnessed.

The power of Bon Iver’ live show was inescapable, but it was also the type of power that makes you need to sit down, not that makes you want to jump up. It’s power that washes over you, quite unlike virtually any other music I’ve ever heard live before. At the same time as you are being hit by a wall of sound formed by ten musicians, all you really want to do is just sit down, close your eyes, and mutter ‘wow’ under your breath to no-one in particular. I couldn’t imagine a better place to see Bon Iver than at the Opera House: it was a venue that matched the grandeur and majesty of his music and multiplied it, as if it was an echo chamber magnifying everything that is great about Bon Iver.

The re-imagination of Skinny Love for live shows has to be one of the more remarkable transformations of a studio song. I knew this back when I saw Bon Iver live what feels like an eternity ago in Melbourne, when he was accompanied by only four musicians and in a much, much smaller venue. Even then, Skinny Love was tossed around and turned on its head, creating a driving and relentless song guided by fierce drumming and building to a mesmerising climax that seemed to grow within your very being. At the Opera House this sensation was the same, only multiplied many times, featuring the dual-drumming of both percussionists and an unforgettable chorus of “My my my, my my my” as all the bandmembers yelled the words into their microphones, somehow both primal and perfectly in tune, creating a resounding noise as if everyone in the venue was speaking in unison. On Monday night we had to wait until the encore to hear Skinny Love, but it was most definitely worth the wait. 

Holocene on the other hand was left mostly unchanged from the studio version, meaning that Justin Vernon’s immaculate vocals took center stage for the very restrained song that doesn’t grow to a climax but rather ebbs and flows like a river. “But I could see for miles, miles, miles”. Blood Bank quickly became one of the most memorable moments of both nights, as an epic and anatomy-defying saxophone solo led into the track which obviously served as a way for the band to release some energy and really get the crowd going. It was probably the most energetic and loudest song of the night, but Justin Vernon still just stood at his microphone in the center of the stage, calm as anything, as everyone around him seemed to get progressively more intense. He was the eye of the storm.

Re: Stacks saw the rest of the band leave Justin Vernon on stage to perform the song, and he did so with flawless honesty to the studio track. It was easily the most intimate, sincere, and heart-wrenching song of both nights, and that really is saying something. Justin Vernon has stated that the song means more to him than any other he’s written, and that much is fairly obvious when he plays it live, illuminated only by a single spotlight above his head as the rest of the venue is plunged into near-darkness.

The band joined Justin back on stage for a string of newer songs that climaxed with Calgary. I thought that Beth/Rest, actually one of my favourite songs on Bon Iver’s second album, was a tiny bit disappointing live, but then that may just be because I feel morally opposed to auto-tuning Justin Vernon’s voice. It still provided a nice way to break up the set and definitely contrasted strongly with the rest of the band’s music, just as it does in studio form. Sunday night’s show saw The Wolves (Act I And II) close the main set, but Justin’s attempts to get the crowd to sing along that had worked so well for his last tour fell completely flat at the Opera House. It may have just been because of the sheer size and daunting nature of the venue, but really I just can’t escape the fact that this wasn’t the type of gig where you even want to sing along. Why would I want to hear my own voice when I can hear those emanating with such majesty from the stage? Even without the crowd singing along- or perhaps especially without the crowd singing along- the song was absolutely incredible.

The standing ovation came immediately as the band departed the stage after their main set on Sunday night, and although it was slightly delayed on Monday night it was no less exuberant. Both performances deserved no less. Justin Vernon once said to a small Melbourne crowd that “I hate encores. Everyone knows exactly what’s going on, but everyone just plays along anyway”. He must have either changed his mind of decided to tolerate them however, because the band returned both nights after what was a very short break. Sunday night saw them play a three song encore set beginning with the powerful Creature Fear and Team, whilst Monday night’s gig was closed with the aforementioned Skinny Love and The Wolves (Act I And II).

I far preferred the choice of song to finish Sunday night: For Emma. The live version of this track has to be heard to be believed. The brass section takes over the track, creating for a truly euphoric atmosphere that is impossible not to get caught up. It’s the type of song that just fills your heart, the type of music that you want to hold onto and never let get go of. Two and a half thousand faces were positively beaming at the stage for the duration of the song. Both nights, of course, finished with another standing ovation, with no hesitation whatsoever. Justin Vernon and his band bowed out of the Opera House to the sound of rapturous applause from those whose their music means so very much to. 

These had been two nights to cherish. Two nights to hold onto memories of for a long time to come, just as I did and do with Bon Iver’s first ever Melbourne show. Music like this is just so rare; so endangered. It’s no wonder that I have descended to cliches in an attempt to describe it, because it is music that defies explanation: music that truly is just as complex, nuanced, and beautiful as life itself. For three glorious nights, the Opera House and all of those within were filled with this beauty. And it’s the kind of beauty that never really leaves you.

One Response to “Bon Iver @ The Sydney Opera House, 11th And 12th Of March”

  1. Completely agree about “Skinny Love” – it was amazing! They adapted it so well to the larger band.

    Can’t help but think “The Wolves” would’ve sounded better if people actually had sung along though, I felt a bit disappointed. It built up to such huge heights that I felt the sound of a thousand people in unison with Vernon would’ve been spectacular, even in the Opera House which normally fosters a very reserved audience. It was such a cathartic and emotional set on behalf of the band, and for the number of people who I later heard talking about bursting into tears multiple times through the set, I thought there’d be so many more people willing to join in – especially when asked!

    (It was a beautiful concert, and I’ll admit I teared up during “Wash.” and felt emotional during a few others, but it felt like some people overplayed it?)

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