Live Review: Bon Iver @ Riverstage

3 March 2023 | 1:09 pm | Liv Dunford

Even after all this time, his humility shines through everything he does.

Pic by Bianca Holderness

Pic by Bianca Holderness

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In the wake of a torrential afternoon downpour, one might assume punters would shudder at the thought of braving the vast, unenclosed grassy venue of Riverstage. But this is Brisbane, and this is Bon Iver, so naturally, anyone presuming that a few piddly water droplets would deter this crowd, would be extremely incorrect. 

A haphazard sea of ponchos and blankets adorned the hill in front of the stage as Aussie folktronica artist Sophie Payten, better known as Gordi, approached the mic. Those too lazy to bring any form of protection from the damp ground sacrificed their jackets and cardigans in the name of comfort (I’ll be the first to admit this was me), as a soft lavender mist enveloped Gordi while she sung the opening lyrics of her newest single Broke Scene. 

Lulled into a sonic trance by the lush electronics and reverb that blended with her voice, those gathered were met with her delightful, slightly awkward charm that sent everyone into a fit of giggles as she explained that while performing at Primavera Sound in Barcelona, the audience said her moniker meant “fat baby” in Spanish. “Not the smoothest first impression,” she recalled.

By the time Bon Iver – the brainchild of singer/songwriter and producer Justin Vernon – took to the stage at eight o’clock, the swollen clouds were long-forgotten in the night as the band of six multi-instrumentalists commenced their set with 22 (OVER S∞∞N), the opening track of their 2016 electronic album 22, A Million. 

Ending on a series of quiet melodies from the sax (played by Michael Lewis), the song bled into another number from the album – 666 ʇ as the oscillating stage lights turned into glow worms, glinting behind the band while they harmonised. “Thank you so much, it’s so good to see you.” Vernon briefly adjusted his red bandana before grooving along to the plush opening riff of indie-folk favourite Towers. The crowd, either completely inspired or completely entranced, swayed along in time with his movements.  

The first song of the night played from the 2019 mega collaboration i,i – which featured close to 50 musicians – was the piano-led U (Man Like). Pewter shafts of light filtered over the band as drummer Sean Carey played a tasteful series of notes on the harmonica.  

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By the time the soft, pulsing electronics of Heavenly Father sounded through the amps, those light shafts had morphed into hypnotising windmills, and then again into crimson streaks as the four horizontal lines of LED lights strung between the spotlights blazed in time with the gradual introduction of drums. 

10 d E A T h b R E a s T  ⚄ was a complete, intentional overstimulation (though a rather welcome one) of the senses. High-pitched static wormed its way into our ears, which, when paired with a bellowing deep bass that you could physically feel pulsing throughout your chest, sounded like a distorted army of marching metal. It was as if large shards of broken machinery could be heard collapsing in outer space. Violet jets of light flickered with every vibration of bass, intense and arcane. 

Continuing through the tracks of 22, A Million, the next number 715-CRΣΣKS

delivered a slight reprieve in the light department, with Vernon standing under two hazy spotlights. Interestingly, this created the opportunity for us to truly focus on the heavy voice distortion for the first time. Everyone stood silent, mesmerised, as somehow both pain and peace were encapsulated in a robotic voice that seemed to be calling out for help from oblivion. 

Vernon swung the familiar, trusty acoustic over his shoulder as the band geared up for Faith. “Thank y’all so very much, it’s been a while. It’s so good to be back, thank you for having us.” He sounded so genuinely grateful to the point that his humility came across as surprise – surprise that people had gathered to watch him play, despite being a Grammy-winner with a successful career spanning over 15 years. Even after all this time, his humility shines through everything he does, from the incessant “thank you, thank you” down to the understated plain black loose t-shirt and pants (that could’ve been trackies, which would’ve been even better and very on brand).

As Vernon slipped back into his ‘iconic sound’ during Marion – soft acoustics and a gentle voice that sat comfortably within a high range – translucent plumes of light reminiscent of a sluggish, silver waterfall streamed over the platform. Carey, with a few velvety cymbal rolls, formed the sound of waves crashing against a distant and peaceful shore. And all we could do was lie in the sand and listen.

The easily recognisable piano chords of Wash, courtesy of Jenn Wasner, played through the speakers as the band was met with a chorus of “YES!” from the audience. Part of the art of constructing a believable atmosphere in which people can lose themselves for a few hours, is being able to reflect the musical melody both visually and auditorily. As clear cyan poles of light glinted like icicles alongside the sound of the soft piano, I realised this song was a perfect example. If you were to close your eyes, the piano sounded like the gradual clinking of icicles against each other as if moved by a light wind. 

Angelic synths? Drum rolls similar to how one might imagine a wild horse gallops in a green valley? You guessed it, beloved Perth was up next. The LEDs transformed into a soft olive streak as drummer Matthew McCaughan sent everyone into a frenzy with an emotional and anthemic solo. 

As the band headed backstage for a well-deserved rest, Vernon alone remained, discarding the previous stage theatrics for Re: Stacks. Only him, a single spotlight and an acoustic was needed as he strummed those simple and mellifluous yet heart-wrenching chords of the final track on his 2008 breakout album For Emma, Forever Ago. I looked around, and nearly everyone’s eyes had turned to glass, glistening with unshed tears. Sometimes all you need is an acoustic, a story, and a voice. And in Vernon’s case, the unique and uncanny ability to harness raw emotion and present it in a way that punctures deep into the soul. 

The shift into popular record Skinny Love reminded us that we were supposed to actually sing along at these things instead of standing like some sort of dazed vegetable having an existential crisis. Groups of friends linked arms and danced together as everyone sang along, not missing a single lyric.

In what arguably was the most picturesque moment of the night, a sapphire haze settled over the stage while a low-flying A380 made its way through the clouds as the chords of Holocene were projected into the darkness. Either a stroke of genius from the lighting tech, or a complete mishap that ended up working perfectly anyway, the lights blasted us with such a blinding intensity that we almost had to shut our eyes. It certainly gave new meaning to the lyric “I could see for miles, miles, miles.” Vernon smiled at us. “Looking out tonight I can see so many…all beautiful faces.” Yes, I’d wager he could’ve seen for miles and miles and then some. He laughed as all our faces scrunched up against the full force of what might as well have been a lighthouse beam. 

Back for the encore after a continuous applause that lasted through the entire hiatus, Vernon traipsed out shaking his head in disbelief: “You guys are too good.” Scarlet slices of light were splayed across the stage, rather apt for the song Blood Bank. In true finale style, the last chorus saw the entire band engage in an absolute supernova of a jam session that sent Vernon onto his knees. 

“Our time here is limited. That’s why we like to leave you on this note right here,” is how Vernon introduced the last number of the night, RABi. Guitarist Andrew Fitzpatrick treated everyone to a final collation of tasty, languid riffs while Vernon ripped away his bandana as the song came to a close. 

“Spread love wherever you go now,” his voice was as serene as a woodland oasis, as if he hadn’t just spent the last two hours sending thousands of people through an emotional lucid dream. “See you next time. I love you.” 

“I LOVE YOU TOO, JUSTIN!” A deep voice yelled back at him, and we all laughed. 

As we made our way toward the gates like shell-shocked zombies, it was clear from the look on everyone’s face that although we perhaps didn’t have the liquid courage to yell alongside that one punter, everyone shared his sentiments.  

We all loved Justin Vernon too.