Bon Iver: a gig that looked and sounded like the future (and a bit like Dire Straits)
I doubt that Wembley has experienced such a concentration of beards and beanie hats since a local wood carving workshop saw the whittling of a series of totem poles for a civic art project back in 2018. But ever since Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon disappeared to a remote hunting cabin in Wisconsin to write his folk-infused debut album For Emma, Forever Ago in 2007, the band have become a byword for clever and intricate craftsmanship, albeit of the sonic variety. Before the show, I feared that the lumberjack-shirted masses would be let down by the unforgiving concrete cavern that is Wembley Arena; that dodgy sound would turn Bon Iver’s complicated arrangements into indistinguishable soup. How wrong I was.
For a start, the musicianship from the six multi-instrumentalists on stage at this much-delayed show was nothing short of remarkable. Anchored by Vernon, they each stood in their own pod – an enclosure of tangled neon – surrounded by an array of kit. With each song, they switched from keyboards to drums or from guitar to saxophone as they painstakingly constructed the songs.
Then, there was the sound. It was without question the highest-resolution reproduction I’ve ever heard at a concert. The sound enveloped you as each element ebbed and flowed, enabling you to pick out individual motifs and nuances. It was quite revolutionary. Apparently Bon Iver are using a new hyperreal sound technology called L-ISA. Well, Lisa should come to every gig. As we all get poorer over the coming year, fans will rightly expect more from the experience of going to a concert. This sounded like the future.
And then there were the lights. Sounds boring, doesn’t it? But the band played beneath a canopy of twenty-five square lights that descended, tilted and rippled like a morphing cathedral ceiling over their heads. At one point, light was bounced off the top of these squares and angled off in other directions. Further layers of lights above and below the canopy created a visually stunning spectacle. The lights were the very definition of above and beyond.
The music itself was challenging, haunting, weird and utterly beautiful. Bon Iver have moved beyond mountain-man folk and play discombobulating arrangements taking in electronic beats, heavily distorted vocals, washes of noise and layers of backing vocals. The songs have often-unwritable names based on strange typefaces and glyphs. On Tuesday night, for example, we heard 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄⚄,715 - CR∑∑KS and 22 (OVER S∞∞N). Try writing those in a notepad in a dark room. But throughout, Vernon’s falsetto was lush and the music simply swept you up.
And beneath the weirdness, Bon Iver’s music was actually more traditional than you initially thought. The song U (Man Like) – from his 2019 album i,i – was co-written by Bruce Hornsby, and throughout you could hear the distinctive Hornsby-esque piano that you and I best know through his 1986 mega-hit The Way It Is. When Vernon started singing the distorted vocals on Hey Ma, it brought to mind someone else. A track on the new Taylor Swift album called Midnight Rain features similarly distorted vocals. Swift and Vernon collaborated two years ago on her stripped-back Folklore album, so the connection is there. But the similarity demonstrates the non-existent gap between so-called alternative music and the mainstream these days.
But, watching live, there was one band in particular that this layered music reminded me of. It’ll sound strange, but the band is Dire Straits. They understood song dynamics and clarity of performance better than most, they deployed spine-tingling sax solos, and – hell – their touring percussionist even performed from a cage-cum-musical-toy box. Granted, this was Dire Straits chopped up, fed through a hipster computer, micro-dosed with acid and remixed by William Burroughs. But the DNA remains the same.
Songs like Holocene and RABi left the crowd in raptures. It was certainly a very special concert indeed. On the way out, people talked about the gig as healing and religious. They were lumberjacks. And they were more than OK.
UK tour ends tonight at Wembley; boniver.org