at o2 Academy, Leeds, 10/11/11
The compellingly lonesome nature of Bon Iver’s first album ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, exuded an understated emotional sincerity that mesmerised a generation. The self-titled second album’s enhanced production values failed to appeal to this reviewer, whose loyalty to the band stems solely from their devotion to the linearity of the ‘lost-love’ narrative upon which the first album is based. Thankfully, witnessing songs from both albums live proved to me that they still centre around the versatile tones of Justin Vernon and the emotional expressivity of ‘For Emma…’ They seamlessly meshed the two albums together; segueing songs into one another as a series of unravelling conceptions and demonstrating a cohesion previously imperceptible in the separate recordings.
As appealing as the storytelling and acoustic simplicity of ‘For Emma…’ is, the selection of live songs from ‘Bon Iver’ dissipated the band’s former secluded, log cabin-dwelling image and demonstrated their ability to transform an archive of simple arrangements into powerhouse classics, injecting their audience with a contagious energy. A highlight for me was the bands adaptation of ‘Creature Fear’, tranquil and understated on record, into a boisterous jam session. The song was infused with liveliness, despite being originally intended for a smaller ensemble. ‘Blood Bank’ was similarly altered, with all three percussionists forcefully pounding their drums. The lighting also powerfully contributed to the performance; throughout the gig, pillars of light at the back of the stage, varied in size and intensity, reflected the potency of increased moments of lyrical gravitas.
‘Skinny Love’ has become indispensable to the band’s live performances, but would have benefited from a simpler execution; the backing vocals and stamps of Vernon’s bandmates arguably detracted from the song’s intensely personal sentiment. I enjoyed the explosive performance of ‘Wolves’ a great deal more. The audience were encouraged to join in a raucous sing-a-long of the line ‘What might have been lost’, which combusted in a shouting match accompanied by heavy percussion.
Despite Leeds’ O2 Arena stage containing differing keyboards, guitars, trumpets, percussion instruments, a bass saxophone, two drum kits and nine people; there was an intimacy between the performers and the audience. After the transcendental ‘For Emma…’, Vernon’s focus now rests upon ideas of mobility and expansiveness – why else does every song either share a name with or come to represent a place? – and on accommodating the phenomenal talents of his band, whose technical abilities and vocal harmonies, almost imperceptible in recordings, were much appreciated by the live audience. All in all, this performance was a testament to Bon Iver’s musical growth.