After cancelling their entire London residency last year, Bon Iver returns to the capital for an 8-night run at the Hammersmith Apollo.
The stage is adorned with draping white material, while the vast, complex setup includes ‘areas’ for each musician. Each multi-instrumentalist is surrounded with their instruments- be it Justin Vernon in the middle with synths, guitars and a piano encasing him, or one of the bands two drummers towering above the rest, wrapped up in a drum kit, with synths and microphones decorating him.
As the sample-ridden ‘22 (Over Soon)’ echoes out over the Hammersmith Apollo, the London crowd who have been waiting an entire year for this, drown out the delicate opening notes with screams of adoration. ‘It might be over soon’, quips the disembodied voice falling from Vernon’s sampler- let’s hope not. As the brutal, electrifying bass notes of the bizarrely titled ’10 Deathbreast’ are heard, the incredible sound quality of this venue can be truly felt. The floor shakes even in the circle, so those down on the floor below the band must have been shaking along with it. For the third song in a row, we hear Vernon’s robotic, vocoded voice, only this time it is completely unaccompanied. ‘715 Creeks’ is arguably the most beautiful track of the set, with the harmony and phrasing being improvised, creating an almost entirely different end result to that of the album version.
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By this point, it seems that we are being treated to an entire run-through of Bon Iver’s newest album: ’22, A Million’. My genius theory was confirmed as the band ran through ’33 God’, the albums arguably most popular track (and most well received so far) ’29 Strafford APTS’ and ‘666’. Around this point, Vernon stopped to acknowledge the crowd, explaining the presence of a charity supporting trans people, which, heart-warmingly, got the loudest cheer so far. It’s always refreshing to see artists using their platform to do something good. ’21 Moon Water’ was performed with real feeling, and the tight interaction between the band during some of the weird and complex uses of avant-garde sound, electronic manipulation and just general weirdness is impressive to see. As the album comes to a close, Vernon explains the reason for the lack of support band tonight was their decision to play two sets (with a clever 22-minute interval), and so, after finishing the saxophone accompanied ‘45’ and mellow ‘00000 Million’, Bon Iver leave.
After I waited 20 minutes to pay £3 for some water, the second set begins. This set abandons the odd titles and avant-garde experimentation of the ‘22, A Million’ set, but still brings an interesting twist to each song played. ‘Woods’ kicks it off, followed by ‘Perth’- my personal favourite. The persistent marching snare drum contrasting the gentle guitar riff is pulled off to perfection, and the light show’s interaction with the rhythmic bass drum oriented section is phenomenal. Vernon’s voice is on top form, as it has been throughout the entire show, and the sound quality remains exquisite. As the show continues, we are treated to interesting renditions of ‘Holocene’ and ‘Towers’ that are at points almost unrecognisable and never played in full. Their form takes on a much more modern and experimental flavour (without reaching the fully-fledged madness of the bands newest album) with parts being added for other instruments including the trombone quintet who have quietly stood behind Vernon throughout the show.
The main show draws to a close with ‘Flume’ and ‘Creature Fear’, taken from their debut album ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, which very recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with a special show in Milwaukee. Both songs are rearranged to fit the huge 10-man band on stage, and are met with appreciative applause, especially as Vernon takes time to introduce each member of the band individually and quite sincerely thank the audience for their support. The inevitable stage exit isn’t surprising and the applause rings on until the band remerge to conclude the shows. Obviously, by this point we are expecting bigger hits such as ‘Skinny Love’ and ‘re:stacks’, but they never come, which is disappointing. Instead we get ‘Heavenly Father’, which layers vocal samples in an incredibly satisfying way, ‘Michicant’, and ‘For Emma’, the title track from their first album. While not the best way to wrap the show up, the audience is still appreciative.
As they came out for the encore, Vernon explained to the audience that they have the easiest job in the world- ‘to come on a stage and just be adored’. And with this audience at least, he’s certainly right.
Bon Iver continue their Hammersmith Apollo residency and UK tour for the next few weeks.