tue 25/06/2019

Bon Iver, Wembley Arena | reviews, news & interviews

Bon Iver, Wembley Arena

Bon Iver, Wembley Arena

Justin Vernon’s touring band brings an arena-filling sound to his intimate songs

Justin Vernon: surviving the journey from log cabin to arena

Bon Iver’s eponymous second album is nearly a year-and-a-half old now, so its bigger, richer sound – compared to the homemade sparseness of the debut – is well established. Nevertheless, it was hard not to wonder how any band assembled by Justin Vernon would function in the hangar-like Wembley Arena. Would success claim another victim?

Vernon’s approach is courage in numbers, and those initial qualms fall away when he leads eight musicians on stage and launches into "Perth", the opening track of Bon Iver. The sound builds to fill the space, the plaintive howl of Vernon’s falsetto soars above, and suddenly it doesn’t feel so inappropriate to be sharing this with 10,000 other people. It makes sense. 

Vernon's obvious delight in the English language is a precious rarity

This touring incarnation of Bon Iver has plenty of growl. Guitar, bass and two drum kits form the bedrock, over which a ragtag band of multi-instrumentalists swap between brass, percussion, violin, keyboards, even bass saxophone. The result is loosely layered, with plenty of ecstatic noodling passed through multiple effects filling out the texture – gleeful noisemaking is definitely carried over from the album to the stage.

Sometimes this expansive sound recalled Arcade Fire, another indie band made good. And there are times – an incongruous rocky guitar solo springs to mind – when For Emma, Forever Ago feels like a long time ago indeed. But there are also moments when the intense, almost uncomfortable intimacy of that first album is effectively conjured up. For "Stacks", the band withdraws and Vernon is joined by the evening’s support act, The Staves, a female folk/rock trio from Watford, who provide ethereal backing vocals with Vernon’s guitar the only accompaniment.

Vernon’s turn of phrase and obvious delight in the English language – "Jagged vacance, thick with ice" … "Nose up in the globes, you never know if you are passing out" – are precious rarities among those who have sold hundreds of thousands of records. Yet a combination of reverb and his singing style render most lyrics completely unintelligible. Not a problem if you know the words by heart, of course, and a healthy proportion of the audience are genuine fans: not just people who came because Birdy isn’t touring at the moment. Mobile phones aloft, they cheer with recognition within three fingerpicked notes of "Holocene", probably the stand-out song from the second album. "Skinny Love", the first encore, does not survive the rapturous reception, however – when lines like "And I told you to be patient" become a chanted refrain, they tend to lose their poignancy.

But all things considered, Justin Vernon has made the journey from log cabin to arena with impressive equanimity. He remains bearded, wispy-haired and self-effacing, and yet there he is entertaining the myriads; and there his songs are, mostly intact, earnest, evocative and powerful. 

There are moments when the intense, almost uncomfortable intimacy of the first album is effectively conjured up

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters