Review: Bon Iver – Manchester Apollo

Bon Iver have been a busy bunch recently, touring the States in support of their recently released, self-titled album. After giving the UK a taster of what was to come via a Jools Holland set on Tuesday, Justin Vernon and co. trundled into Manchester to kickstart their UK tour.

Support came from Kathleen Edwards on this frightfully cold evening, but her charming vocals and fragile harmonies warmed the cockles of each and every punter. A passionate and very friendly artist from Ottawa, Edwards played a number of gorgeous tracks from her upcoming album Voyageur, which was co-produced by Bon Iver’s very own Justin Vernon.

As the lights dimmed and excited breath’s became somewhat heavier, Bon Iver wandered onto the stage. On a personal level, I believed it was important to approach this Autumn show in the same way I had approached the second album. Vernon had changed, he was always going to, having spent the past year with the likes of Anais Mitchell, James Blake, GAYNGS and Kanye West. And the album Bon Iver had come alive through a grander sound, which could only mean that the stage would be far busier than the last time he had visited our fair isles. My predictions were correct, but this only allowed me to settle even more as a nine-piece band, including Vernon, smashed into second-album-openers Perth and Minnesota, WI. From this moment on, it became clear that this was more than just a gig…it was a show, a spectacle, something to marvel at.

I have always declared that any band with two drumkits on stage is going to be sensational, and once again I was pleased to see this proved right. The two drummers led the sound on several occassions, rolling in to create huge, epic moments, whilst practically harmonising at other times. The rest of the setup included four brass players, one of which impressively played trumpet at the same time as the keys, as well as numerous guitarists, strings and a magnificent percussionist.

As well as the expected electric thunders of second-album tracks Hinnom, TX and the utterly gorgeous Towers, it was deeply satisfying to see tracks from the first album delivered in the best way possible as well, given the situation and surroundings. Stripped back to sound close enough to their original recording, but with added, relevant bonuses. Flume and Creature Fear were knockouts, but were both trumped hands down by Vernon’s solo performance of Re: Stacks; the entire crowd falling to a deafly silence, before errupting with deserved applause as the final notes were strummed. One let down in regards to a ‘big band performance’ however was perhaps For Emma, Forever Ago. It seemed to get lost and drown amongst the sea of musicians on stage. Nonetheless, I will always compare this track to the utterly angelic La Blogotheque recording, which, in my opinion, is one of the finest video clips to ever grace our ears and the world wide web!

Blood Bank was a particularly brilliant moment. Having just heard Holocene in all it’s beauty, Mike Lewis took hold of his sax (Justin Vernon later stating, ‘It’s a Bass Saxophone, not a Baritone… If you call it a Baritone I’ll have to break your face!’) and played the most epic of solos, creating a wave of enormous, layered noise, before flowing into a thumping, roof-shaking rendition of Blood Bank. 

There were some moments of awkwardness nevertheless…Vernon, with his ill-matched, science-professor style and self-proclaimed lack of in-between-song conversation was humorous and forgiving. However, the embarrassingly noticeable drop in crowd support, when playing second-album weakeners Wash. and the opinion-splitting Beth/Rest, was somewhat uncomfortable.

Nonetheless, the whole damn fine show was worth it for the encore alone. Coming out to a standing ovation, Vernon took to a stool at the front of the stage, surrounded by his fellow, harmonising bandmates. The crowd’s expectations were met as he struck the first chords of Skinny Love, cameras and phone calls to loved ones commencing right on cue. And then, with the simple instruction to ‘go wild’ during the final moments of their closing track, Bon Iver headed into Wolves (Act I and II) with the most overwhelming power and beauty that the roof could easily have caved in at any moment. Jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, however you want to describe it, that was one of the finest finales ever witnessed.

As suggested, this wasn’t the most ground-breaking of shows, but it proved that Bon Iver were ready and willing to adapt to greater and grander surroundings. Earlier on in the show, Vernon had declared ‘This is pretty exciting!’ and my goodness was he right. From sublime show-stoppers such as Calgary, to admirable and confident instrumentals such as Team, Bon Iver managed to offer a set that carefully blended their two differing albums with ease. The creativity of the large band and the stunning solo moments of Vernon combined to make a very, very fine performance. Only Justin Vernon knows what he’ll do next, but be assure that it will go down a storm.

Dom Kay