If you could rate the success of a gig based alone upon the number of times shivers of goosebumped joy run down your arms, then Bon Iver wins. Many, many times over.
We’d never been in a prettier setting for a gig: St. Giles-in-the-Field, straddling Soho and Bloomsbury, is a gorgeous, intimate Palladian church whose stained glass centerpiece, dark wooden pews, and pretty glass windowpanes filtering through the waning sunlight matched the warmth of Bon Iver’s sound. With the pews filled, we sat ourselves on the floor in the aisle, just 5 plaid-shirted bodies away from the stage. A kind soul in a pew lent us a kneeling pillow, and the music took us from there.
Port O’Brien opened for Bon Iver, and they’re well worth a mention here: influenced by summers spent fishing in Alaska, this Californian 5-piece echoes the wonderful Crane Wife-era Decemberists. Their set culminated in the joyful, wailing track “I Woke Up Today,” its caterwauling refrain set off by a chorus of joyous stage stomping.
Bon Iver (an intentional misspelling of the French for ‘Good Winter’) took the stage next. After the double break-up of his relationship and his long-time band, Justin Vernon moved to his father’s cabin nestled into the snowy recesses of wintry Wisconsin to hibernate. Between chopping wood and other chores, Vernon wrote and recorded this outstanding debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. The album is truly the most beautiful sonic elegy we’ve ever heard, a testament to both the universal experience of loss and the staggeringly transformative muscle of music.
Vernon’s voice is a force to be reckoned with, high-pitched and penetrating, he hits the soaring notes with such purity and force it leaves you slack-jawed. Accompanied by baritone guitarist Mike Noyce, who played with feedback masterfully and brilliant drummer Sean Carey, the gig was partially such a pure joy to behold because the audience could sense how much they loved being up there, giving each other reassuring smiles and turning inwards towards each other at certain points to go batsh*t wild on their respective instruments. And it doesn’t hurt that Vernon is so teddy-bear adorable that you just want to run up to the stage and kiss him all over his sweet, bearded face. The guys in the audience did too, it was obvious from the way they were all as equally enraptured by his witty banter and looked at him throughout the show with as much adoration as we did.
On our favourite track, ‘The Wolves (Act I and II)’, Vernon invited us all to accompany him on the mournful refrain “What might have been lost…” Imagine a church packed to the rafters, bathed in stained blue light, echoing the pinnacle of the song, collectively shouting out the grief of all their broken hearts and past loves, and you would have had the goosebumps, too. Another standout was ‘Skinny Love’, whose devastating lyrics and catchy melody has been on repeat on our laptop for months: Come on skinny love what happened here/ Suckle on the hope in lite brassiere/Come on skinny love just last the year/Pour a little salt we were never here.
Nothing, however, compared to the last moment of the show, when the three of them unplugged their instruments and headed into the crowd, stood in the aisle right next to us, and sang ‘For Emma’, just three boys from Wisconsin and a guitar. The thrill of standing right next to those voices, watching Vernon grin into the crowd vigorously nodding their heads and grinning back under those delicate chandeliers, was an unforgettably haunting moment.
Bon Iver comes back to London in September for another gig. It goes without saying, but we’ll see you there.
Image courtesy of .sarahcass.’s flickrstream