Bon Iver have been through a few fundamental shifts in the last year or so. A time when the casual music fan hadn’t heard of Justin Vernon’s falsetto-heavy Wisconsin beard-folk, or the mysterious, rough-cut album under his misleading moniker is still a very clear, recent memory. Now Vernon, or rather, Bon Iver, has been through an explosion of popularity, becoming one of the most famed alternative folk bands in the world. There’s no denying it; they’re incredibly accessible.
However, as much you may want to complain about their ‘hipster’ value, or the thousands of young Tumblr users with the first line of ‘Skinny Love’ adorning their blog, they’re accessible without being awful – in fact, they’re far from it; they’re pretty fantastic, and objectively very impressive. Just look at the fact that Vernon’s second album is wildly more aggressive and experimental than his soft, DIY debut, and yet, unlike Dylan going electric, it only spurred the world on in adoring his music. The short length of time it’s taken for Bon Iver to go from being a mysterious, understated, almost-secret to practically hitting household name-status, winning Grammys and headlining Wembley Arena, (something not many bands on only their their second album can claim) is actually quite bizarre.
Tonight a buzz of anticipation and excitement fills Wembley as thousands of people of many ages and branches of fashion ready themselves for what they’re clearly expecting to be a monumental performance. There’s no need to beat about the bush; they aren’t to be disappointed. Bon Iver open, cold, to the enormous darkened arena with a visceral rendition of ‘Perth’, performed with so much raw conviction that the famously heavy track is more thunderous here, coupled with violently flashing lights, than it is on the album. It’s remarkable; somehow, all the hundreds of little intricacies in the songs tonight come through perfectly, despite the vastness of the arena.
The nine-piece band – that’s right, nine now – are housed in a thicket of tall lights, and covered from above in tattered drapes, creating a vigil-like atmosphere that counteracts the cavernous space they have to fill. Surprisingly though, it doesn’t even seem to be a challenge for this band. Vernon is at the head of a group that feels like it’s on the verge of ‘legendary’ prowess; a band as note-perfect as the session musicians that back global superstar names like Stevie Wonder; and yet, he’s not a solo act backed by a perfect studio group; he’s a guy in a brilliant band that, despite the wide spread scepticism, own this arena tonight.
Vernon has retained his mysterious, reclusive genius persona throughout all his incredible success; so much so that few people can really tell you what sort of person or performer he is. The whole atmosphere feels a little uptight, in fact, until finally, four songs in, he greets us, proving to actually be pretty funny. Suddenly there’s warmth, there’s something personable, and every now and then one realises how totally unusual it is to see a space like this filled with sounds of such incredible delicacy. In neither a positive nor a negative way, it isn’t the same as it was a few years ago, by any means; songs have been adapted for the big stage and the big band, with strings and huge drum beats laced into the fragile layers of tracks like ‘Michicant’, or the huge rendition of ‘Creature Fear’, which is split between a soft waltz and breakdowns so gargantuan it’s almost unrecognisable from its understated original recording. However, a gorgeously true-to-the-record performance of ‘Re: Stacks’, which Vernon performs backed only by vocal trio The Staves, is real one-off treat to be party to, and a delightful contrast to the almost straight-up arena rock guitar solos that keep jumping up here and there.
As we get to the end of the night, the band crank out a big, bold ‘Beth / Rest’ – a track that split fans right down the middle at its release. Say what you want about the vocoder-heavy, electric 80s guitar sound, and the drums practically drenched in reverb it’s coupled with; it simply couldn’t be more fitting tonight. However, the true champion of the set is ‘The Wolves (Act I and II)’, for which Vernon encourages the massive audience to howl along with him in “what might have been lost”, and the performance – right down to the dazzling lights turning a deep blue to match the famous line mentioning Sinatra’s eyes – is a true shivers-down-your-spine moment.
It is certainly somewhat bizarre, to say “we’re watching Bon Iver in Wembley Arena”. Everybody here tonight feels a sense of ‘well, this is a little unexpected’, and Vernon is no exception; “It basically makes no sense for us to be here”, he confesses towards the end. However, once you accept the fact that yeah, this is a bit weird, you’re left with only the music, and that, you just can’t fault; they’re making inventive, modern movements in folk, and making them accessible in a manner that doesn’t compromise that. Justin Vernon is not simply a singer-songwriter, Bon Iver are not simply a band and tonight is not simply a night to be shrugged off lightly.