21st January 2009
Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was Doubtful Sounds’ number one album of 2008 so you can imagine the feeling of anticipation heading into this gig. Justin Vernon and band were in town as part of the Sydney Festival and as well as three nights at the Famous Spiegeltent they also appeared for two nights at the City Recital Hall that normally hosts classical and choral performances.
With all shows well and truly sold out it was a hipster audience of beards, frocks and flannel that filled the seats of the impressive venue. On time and with little fanfare as the lights went down, the band strode onstage to a warm welcome from the audience. The first impression was Vernon’s loss of weight and longer hair. No surprise after a year of solid performances and promotion that saw the band rise from zero to Letterman in such a short time.
It is always interesting to see how bands fill a live set on the back of their debut album. Some play a short set while others fill it out with covers, try out new songs or extend other songs. Bon Iver did all this and they did it almost perfectly.
They began with the first track on the album, ‘Flume’ and it was an immediate goosebump moment as the the audience was silent and the sustained notes of the guitarist rang out with clarity and intent through the hall. They proceeded to play all tracks from the album plus a Talk Talk cover sung by the drummer and new songs from the Blood Bank EP that was released worldwide this week. It is impossible to pick out highlights but ‘Creature Fear/Team’ stood out as the song grew from its sparse beginning to a swelling wave of noise driven by the rhythm section and the soaring, pleading chorus.
As part of the introduction to Wolves (Act I and II) Vernon requested the audience sing along to the refrain “What might have been wrong” which repeats through Act II. Tentative at first, the crowd warmed to the task and the song was a stellar moment as the band drove the song into a rushing, clattering cacophony as we opened our throats and sang along. It was a truly encompassing moment between band and audience.
As great as the rest of the band are it was a touching moment when Vernon sang ‘re:stacks’ solo with just his voice cutting a lone figure on stage. The whole hall was silently captivated by the softly strummed chords and gentle falsetto as he coaxed the song from the author to the audience. The applause exploded with passion and true gratitude rather polite appreciation as the last notes rang out.
Given the nature and rawness of his songs one might presume that Vernon is a shy and humble creature. The latter is for sure but it was a pleasant surprise to hear him speak often between songs, seemingly relaxed and at ease at the front of the band. He spoke of the crazy year they have had and the toll it has taken, regardless of the happiness that success brings. He seemed genuinely taken with Australia, perhaps the distance between here and the USA and Europe was a chance for them to exhale at the end of their endless touring and wind down to the break they all need.
The end of the main set finished with a standing ovation and Bon Iver all seemed to scurry for the wings, a little unsure how to react in the face of the rapturous response. Returning, they ended the show with ‘Blood Bank’, such was their confidence in ending with a new song. It is one of Vernon’s most upbeat and musically positive songs and it rose and surged to its conclusion with a strength that hints at where the band may be heading. As the crowd once again rose to their feet in applause the band this time paused and soaked it up, Vernon in particular looked slightly overwhelmed and genuinely moved. It was a performance that will rank up there with the most memorable and those who witnessed Bon Iver at this stage of their career will surely be talking about it for years to come.