From the intimate confines of that revered 2008 Tripod show, to a pitch-perfect match with the Grand Canal Theatre last October, to selling out The O2 this November eve – Bon Iver’s graduation through the ranks of Irish venues has been synonymous with their rise to global fame. From creating a blogosphere buzz with the early songs born out of a cathartic period of isolation in a secluded cabin in the wilds of Wisconsin, to such pinnacles of modern-day fame as featuring on a Twilight soundtrack and having your services called upon by Kanye West – it’s been one crazy journey for Justin Vernon & Co. Their eponymous second album dazzled upon its release last summer, an ambitious musical departure which managed to diversify without abandoning the formative roots completely – except in the realm of the Grammy awards, where those roots were indeed ignored and Bon Iver amusingly beat Skrillex and Nicki Minaj to take the ‘Best New Artist’ accolade for 2011. Last year’s GCT show was nothing short of stunning – it’s a lot to live up to, but given that it’s the last show of the tour they just may be up to the challenge of beating their best.
‘Perth’, as set openers go, is magnificent. The simplistic yet spine-tingling riff which permeates the song, the consistent militant percussion, the ethereal harmonic vocals, all leading up to that epic horn-laden instrumental teamed with dramatic lighting synchronisation – what a spectacle. “It seems we like ending our tours in Dublin… This is a really big evening for us so we’re gonna enjoy the shit outta it!” says Vernon. Fine by us. The delicate melodic nature of ‘Towers’ and the finger-picked riffs of ‘Minnesota, WI’ also delight early on, and a mesmerising rendition of ‘Holocene’ proves the show-stealer mid-set – it’s all about that second album, much to the dismay of the “I prefer the early stuff” contingent – that is until an emphatic sprawling take on ‘Blood Bank’. Vernon subsequently sends the eight-strong band of musicians into the wings and invites tour support act The Staves to join him onstage – it’s ‘re: Stacks’, played on a lone acoustic guitar, with Vernon’s falsetto complimented to perfection by the Watford folk trio of sisters majestic harmonies – and it’s goosebump-inducing. “Finding people who can sing together like that happens about once every hundred years”, says Vernon of The Staves afterwards. Not a bad endorsement on the day of a debut album release, eh?
The band resurfaces for the brilliant ‘Michicant’, the subdued intricacies of their instrumentation particularly heightened in this instance, and executed to perfection. ‘Skinny Love’, in contrast, disappoints – where Vernon’s lone steel guitar would’ve sufficed, the band throw their bells and whistles at it, culminating in a full-complement final chorus to drown out the capacity crowd of willing backing singers. Yes, a band of this magnitude with a myriad of equipment at their disposal is mightily impressive – in particular the instrumental segways provided throughout by violinist Rob Moose and saxophonist Colin Stetson – but why oh why mess with THE classic? It’s the beginning of a latter-half slump in the set that even ‘Calgary’ can’t save – mainly because it’s followed up by a draining extended version of ’80s movie soundtrack reject ‘Beth/Rest’ to close the main set. A standing ovation later and the jazzy interpretation of Björk’s ‘Who Is It’ redeems things during the encore, before that exquisite debut album closer ‘For Emma’ concludes the show and the tour, as the crew visibly dance and sing along in the wings. The crowd make for the exits, but Justin Vernon has other ideas – “I know some of y’all are leaving but we’re not quite ready to go!”, he says, as encore #2 takes flight with ‘The Wolves Act I & II’. It’s all over for real this time, and as the audience pick their jaws up off the floor and put their coats back on to make their way into the night, they do so safe in the knowledge that they’ve just witnessed a truly special grand finale of this chapter of the Bon Iver story.
Photos by Debbie Hickey