Review: Bon Iver + The Staves – MEN Arena, Manchester

The Manchester Evening News Arena – predominantly home to chart-toppers, bands trying to cash in on a comeback, sticky floors and screaming teenagers – I was particularly dubious about seeing an all-time favourite band that started solo in a log-cabin in the woods, venture into the corporate arenas on their latest tour. Though I fully recognise their growth in talent and, unlike others, welcome their  choice to expand their sound and band members, Bon Iver are still a tough one to place on a stage often linked to the likes of The X Factor Tour, Justin Beiber and Rod Stewart.

Nonetheless, having seen Justin Vernon and co. blow the crowds away as they headlined Latitude Festival earlier this year, I knew that they have the ability to make anything work, even on a huge stage. Moreover, doubts were cast aside when The Staves (a sibling three-piece that we have been raving about for over a year and are quite frankly exceptional), took to the grand old stage of the MEN and delivered their angelic harmonies to an awe-struck crowd. If this stunning group, with their modest set and tracks that require hushed full-attention, could bring the Manchester crowds to a respectful stillness, then I knew Bon Iver wouldn’t have a problem.

Now, this is where I could quite easily go off on a tangent and write 500 words about the moronic couple behind us, that decided to chat about their weekend plans for well over three quarters of the headline set, as if they were sat on their couch in dressing gowns and watching ‘Geordie – oh dear God is this what we’ve come to – Shore’, instead of in front of a remarkably talented band delivering stunning live music….but I won’t.

Instead, I shall do as I did on the night and pretend they weren’t there, leaving me to praise the beauty of yet another gorgeous Bon Iver set. Fronted by Vernon, as hairy as expected and donning a fantastic bandanna round his forehead, the 9-piece took to the stage to rapturous applause and threw themselves into Bon Iver-opener, Perth. Their regular choice to use two drum-kits, brass and strings is always welcomed and, accompanied by a stunning light show, it was an ideal and anthemic way to start the set.

The band predominantly chose to play tracks from their second, self-titled album, perhaps to the annoyance of some long-time Bon Iver fans, but this only made each step into the back-catalogue even sweeter. A personal favourite was their performance of Brackett, WI, taken from the 2009 compilation album Dark Was The Night, which I was more than thrilled to hear being played in between support and headline sets. Flume, taken from For Emma, Forever Ago, was another beautiful highlight, as were performances of two tracks taken from the Blood Bank EP, including the title-track and the wonderfully layered Woods. Yet it was their utterly-mesmerising  performance of Holocene that once again knocked my socks clean off. Vernon’s heartfelt declaration, ‘At once I knew, I was not magnificent’ echoed across the arena – I don’t know what he is referring to in the lyrics, but I do know that he was more than magnificent that evening.

Clearly enjoying himself and in a chirpy mood, there were a number of on-stage/in-crowd laughs, as Vernon exchanged in-band jokes and even delivered a ‘new song’ entitled Zombies – essentially a thirty second mash-up of noise before the full band scream ‘Zombies!’…fun times all round!

The main set came to a close with the expected Beth/Rest, a track quite clearly written for these large arena shows and in my opinion, always a joy to hear live (though this clearly isn’t a thought shared by everybody!). The band then returned for a sensational encore, playing obvious crowd-favourite Skinny Love, which fortunately shut the couple behind us up for 5 glorious minutes, before Vernon thanked the crowd once again and declared ‘we want to leave you as happy as we can’, followed by a heavenly performance of For Emma. 

Bon Iver have stated on numerous occasions recently, that they will now be taking a long break, and perhaps never returning as the same collective. Of course this would be a great shame and would cause a great deal of upset amongst their huge fanbase. But in all honestly, it seems whatever these guys do, particularly Vernon and long-time band members Sean Carey and Mike Noyce, they always create something amazing. And it would not surprise me at all if their next adventure was even greater than the rest.