It's been nearly two years since Justin Vernon a.k.a. Bon Iver released his last album '22, A Million'. Due to a previously cancelled European tour at the beginning of last year he has yet to bring it to London (despite shows last September in Edinburgh and Blackpool).
Sure the critics lathered it with acclaim but some fans of his previous folky pastorals were left unsure. It was mightily inaccessible and reticent. The layered soundscapes were at times confusing; the melodies hidden beneath a kaleidoscopic dirge of sparse, fuzzy noises; the cryptic lyrics only seemingly decipherable by Vernon himself. But Vernon seemed to be wanting to capture something wholly unique - the true inner workings of his human mind.
And ultimately the human mind isn't focused on one thing at any one time - despite trying to fight it's way through all the distraction. And in that manner Vernon in '22, A Million' captured the idiosyncratic essence of the human mind more effectively than he had done in his previous two albums, possibly more than anyone had ever done before.
This is only going so far to the reverence with which Bon Iver is dealt. To say these were the hottest tickets in town, is some understatement. The four day residency at Hammersmith Apollo became six, became eight. Sure some people didn't get the last album, but those who did were going to make damn well sure they had a seat in the building. Vernon was opening up his little treasure chested world for one night only (well eight) and it was going to be great. But, was it?
Well for the most part it is, with some songs translating even better in a live setting than on record. The first half of the concert saw him go through the album track-by-track, easing us in with a lolling '22 (Over Soon)', before cracking out some blockbuster theatrics worthy of his old mate Kanye West for 10 d E A T h b R E a s T beaming turquoise lights emphasising every jagged word (Vernon and West collaborated with each other on the latter's 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). The schizophrenic sounds and beats of 33 GOD are more focused, making the song leaner and meaner, twisting and turning it into a spine tingling evangelism.
While stood behind his stacked synths throughout the show (even when he uses his guitar instead) Vernon is in the groove throughout. During one breakdown the stage lights beam onto the brass section while Vernon waits for his turn, swinging and grooving his hunched legs like he has a basketball ball between his legs.
The stage set up evokes wistful evenings spent in past good winters (get it, get it - it's his name) as clumps of white string fall from the ceiling and up from the floor (it's either snow or a badly thatched roof). Fake candles stand from the front of the stage making it look like a cheesy MTV unplugged session. Bon Iver just about gets away with it. After a 22 minute intermission (get it, get it - it's like the album) Vernon runs through the 'hits' with a particularly emotional and reverent 'Holocene' the obvious highlight, before sending the camera phone wielding crowd on it's way. T
he Apollo is where David Bowie retired his space alien alias Ziggy Stardust, but 40 years on it seems the venue isn't quite done with otherworldly performances.
- - -
Words: Ricky Jones
Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.