Greg Wetherall witnessed the majesty of Justin Vernon and co on the final night of All Points East 2019.
Date published: 6th Jun 2019
Image: Bon Iver
Staring up at the impressive backdrop and expansive instrumentation that envelope Bon Iver, the collective title for Justin Vernon’s musical troupe, it is clear that the group are a long way from home. Actually, to put it better: they are some considerable distance from their modest, humble and almost fairy-tale beginnings.
Oft-recounted, to the point where it might even be etched into folklore, back in 2007, when Vernon was at his lowest emotional ebb following a break-up and living in the quarter-life crisis fear of his musical aspirations dissipating, he chucked his recording equipment into the boot of his car and decamped to his father’s log cabin in the woods of Wisconsin to survey his broken heart and see what he could muster.
A few months later he emerged with the bones of what would become a modern classic: the deliciously lo-fi and spectral majesty of For Emma, Forever Ago. Since then he has enjoyed the fruits of critical success and expanded his musical palette to a scope that makes his debut seem even longer than twelve years ago. Bon Iver now headlines All Points East with a clutch of new material that gives a clear signpost of where they head next: they are picking up stylistically from where 22, A Million left off.
As has long been the case, two drummers sit encamped at the back of the stage, sat there to conjure a formidable backbone when required. Perversely, however, the bulk of Vernon’s songs do not require John Bonham-esque might, but tasteful decoration. They open with a brace from 2011’s self-titled record. The woozy guitar arpeggios and military beats of 'Perth' giving way to a propulsive 'Minnesota, WI'.
Although the set ends up focusing predominately on the last two releases, space is found for the contribution to Zach Braff’s 'Wish I Was Here' in the form of 'Heavenly Father' and even a visitation upon the Blood Bank EP with both the title track and 'Woods' getting an airing. The latter of which finds Vernon tinker and layer his vocal in hypnotic fashion. In fact, the whole set oozes daring experimentation and provides an apt reminder that they have always had an admirable willingness to disassociate themselves from the rules of song convention but, alas, therein lies both the strength and weakness of their output.
As much as Bon Iver’s artistic evolution has taken them to into some hitherto untapped (or at least less-voyaged) aural areas, there is a strong argument to be made that this is music more comfortable in the shadows, busily working away in the fringes - beloved by a relative few, yet also inspiring and influencing the next crop coming through.
In the intellectual pursuit that is persistent experimentation, Bon Iver have sacrificed some of their directness. It makes for a patchy headline set. Holocene and, somewhat unsurprisingly, 'Skinny Love' command that biggest cheers here as they are the most conventional; unencumbered by technology, they sound simply beautiful and beautifully simple. They work a charm. Inconsistency aside, Bon Iver remain an act to watch in every possible way, especially if the atmospheric and quietly impressive new song 'Hey, Ma' is anything to go by.