Words: Emily Moore / Photographs: Rich Thane
It’s been quite a year for live music, 2008; an emotional roller-coaster of euphoria and heady nostalgia and all sorts of superlatives you might reach for to try to describe a clenched throat that doesn’t know if it’s holding back ecstatic cheers or warm tears.
There was the 12 Bar last month, a fragile Edwyn Collins leaning into the protective, wiry shoulder of Roddy Frame, straining resistant limbs and lips into familiar old shapes for a tiny crowd of shiny-eyed Dundonians. There was the Roundhouse a few weeks before that, Kevin Shields’ mouth yawning wide and silent into the din, my skin rippling as though the waves that buffeted the front row were real and not mere sound. And there was the holy still air of St Giles church, in the balmy early days of June, when Justin Vernon raised a guitar to the heavens and 300 faithful erupted into triumphant thanksgiving. It’s pure luck to be granted one such fleeting, epiphanical moment a year, never mind two from one quiet Wisconsinite. Iconic performances seem to have littered the summer months like chewing-gum wrappers, and now another has just fallen at our feet and blown past, reminding me of Winnaretta Singer’s line about the rare and particular breed of music that reminds us that we have “a reason for living on this rock: to live in the beautiful kingdom of sounds.”
The night belongs to Bon Iver, but it begins with Bowerbirds, old friends of Justin who seem to suffer slightly from always being the bridesmaid and never the bride. Their album Hymns for a Dark Horse is inarguably one of the year’s best – sparse but pure of tone, dissonant and often downright sinister, but satisfyingly full of glowing harmonies. Phil and Beth are both graced with idiosyncratic voices you’d not imagine would mesh easily with any other, never mind each other, but through some weird alchemy they are a graceful and captivating pairing. Still, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them fulfil their considerable potential live. Cranked up to fill a 2,000-capacity hall, their sound is inevitably heavy-handed and a bit crude, and a noisy crowd obscures the sound for all but those in the front. The miniscule variations in pace and tone that, on the album, reward infinite listens – Mark’s calmly confident presence on drums as opposed to Beth’s looser, more instinctive hand; Phil delicately sliding words on and off the beat – are near-inaudible. Phil moves the set along pacily, managing a difficult situation as best he can. “Matchstick Maker” is introduced as “the quiet one”; as he turns to Beth to start the song he seems to shake his head with a frustrated laugh. It’s gorgeous and understated to my ears, just about filtering through the chatter, but then I am barely two metres from the speakers. Mark joins the harmonising on new song “Teeth”, a three-part vocal wonder of Beach Boys magnitude that fills the hall more robustly and bodes very, very well for the future.
When Bon Iver come on stage, the crowd goes eerily silent. It’s a moment, and a date, heavy with import; it feels as though the weight of history is on them. They slide into “Flume”, all clarion electric guitar and full-throated vocals. It’s a big sound, a confident, almost stadium sound, all the quiet soul-searching and introversion of the past few years blossoming into a glorious hope and confidence in the future that they can perhaps only now begin to express. Justin crackles with energy, thrashing around in a long, noisy finale to “Creature Fear”. He bounces between one of the ten or so guitars piled behind him and a keyboard in front, building up a massive wall of reverberating sound that echoes through “Lump Sum” and “Creature Fear”. New song “Blood Bank” crashes in like Neil Young at his most pounding and epic, all four-to-the-floor drums and Hammond-effect keyboard rising into high, throbbing dissonance. The crowd quiets for Mikey Noyce, the baby-faced, angel-voiced guitarist, to sing “Simple Man” (“We’re gonna do some covers for you now,” Justin announces half-jokingly, “cos we don’t have all that many songs, you know?”). By the time they kick into closer “Skinny Love” – as raw and assertive tonight as the album version is quietly brooding – there are three drummers on stage, all burning with fierce energy. The screams and applause, 2,000 pairs of arms raised high, maintain a hysterical pitch as the band retreat and re-emerge for an encore. With the first bars of “For Emma”, there are cheers and suddenly hundreds are clapping along in time – faintly embarrassing but for the genuine adoration behind it. Band and audience rollick through the song with joyful abandon. Then there’s a hush as Bowerbirds emerge. They gather round an old-school chrome mic. Justin is holding an acoustic guitar.
Bon Iver have covered Sarah Siskind’s “Lovin’s For Fools” many times by now – always in closing, always near-a capella, mostly with Bowerbirds but also, once, with Siskind. Youtube clips like this one have been flying around with abandon. The song distills much of what is so special about this band: the way they reach for strength through vulnerability; the way they reveal the agony and ecstacy at the core of humanity. There is nothing more that a mere description of the timbre of a voice or the pluck of a string can convey.
Simple Man (Graham Nash)
I Believe in You (Talk Talk)
The Wolves (Act I and II)
Lovin’s For Fools (Sarah Siskind)
mp3:> Bon Iver: ‘Flume’ [Daytrotter Session]
mp3:> Bon Iver: ‘Lump Sum’ [Daytrotter Session]
mp3:> Bon Iver: ‘Re Stacks’ [Daytrotter Session]
mp3:> Bon Iver: ‘Creature Fear’ [Daytrotter Session]
mp3:> Bon Iver & Sarah Siskind: ‘Lovins For Fools’ [Live in Nashville]