Friday, 11 November 2011

Bon Iver @ Leeds O2 Academy

Even in the most civilised crowds lurk utter wankbaskets. After arriving early enough to ensure a prime position in front of the stage we were amazed that nobody made any real attempt to usurp us. We remained resolutely still with nobody jostling shoving or attempting to push past us. Yet we were still deeply annoyed. This was attributable entirely to the thoroughly irritating twerp directly in front of us. She spent approximately one hour attempting to lure her reluctant sister to join her in the throng of eager Bon Iver fans. Bobbing up and down like a hyperactive meerkat, bashing messages into her iPhone, waving manically and making call after call she tried unsuccessfully to encourage her sibling to join her. It was apparent to everyone that said sister wanted no part in this. Apparent to everyone else around her, that is. In the end, nobody came to join her. A sizeable portion of the crowd laughed inwardly. I laughed outwardly.

Mercifully, once the band took to the stage, the solitary sister kept her eyes forward and her mouth shut. She didn’t really have a choice – the sheer power and majesty of the early numbers were enough to keep anyone’s eyes glued to the stage.
Bon Iver have certainly swelled in size over the last few years. Practically a solo endeavour in the early stages, Justin Vernon is now accompanied on stage by a nine-piece band of assorted guitars and percussion, brass and clarinets. It’s still not enough – one band member simultaneously played trumpet and keyboards. And they make one hell of a noise. Opener Perth was a soaring, majestic performance accompanied by a military tattoo rattled out on twin drum-kits: a magnificent way to open the set.

And things didn’t let up from there. Blasting through songs from their eponymous latest album, Bon Iver’s rousing versions of songs which are altogether more fragile and slight on the album, was truly brilliant. A mariachi-style horn section on Towers added flare and rhythm. The year’s best single, Holocene, was both haunting and moving simultaneously.

To round off the opening salvo, non-album track Blood Bank was given an airing. Beefed up with pounding drums, the stage awash with red light, it was a memorable performance of one of their lesser known songs. Sadly, it also heralded a slight slip in the standards previously set.

Older material from debut album For Emma, Forever Ago doesn’t quite suit the sheer size of the new band. Previously gentle, fragile songs have been beefed up a little too much – or in the case of Stacks – stripped back a little too far. That said, Vernon had the crowd eating from the palm of his hand as he performed the song solo – but for his voice and guitar you might have heard a pin drop.

And what a voice it is – from a deep growl to a high pitched yelp, Vernon’s vocal range is amazing. Yet he looks nothing like a rock star. After entering the stage dressed like a particularly tweedy geography teacher he became gradually gawkier-looking as his thinning hair moved further and further from his scalp. Coupled with his Deco Cuffe style facial mannerisms he’s an entirely unlikely frontman.

Even some amusing between-songs banter couldn’t rescue the set from sagging slightly in the centre. Beth_Rest, undoubtedly the band’s worst song, was a baffling part of the set – interminably dull and utterly dreadful. Sadly, the slightly underwhelming mid-section was accompanied by the arrival of a drug addled moron eager to shove her hair and elbows in the faces of anyone in the vicinity. She also attempted to crawl between people’s legs. Thankfully she eventually crawled back into her K-hole and vanished from view.

A rousing finish ensured that the audience left smiling: Vernon encouraged some cathartic screaming on Wolves and then gave the crowd exactly what they’d been waiting for with sing-alongs Skinny Love and For Emma. Perhaps with another album of material under their belt, Bon Iver will be able to shift the fat around their middle: Skinny Love, indeed.

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