State hasn’t personally felt such a warm surge of anticipation for an evening since Santa was last expected at our house, oh, about 25 years ago. For Emma, Forever Ago started with a few whispers, a bit of Myspace listening then finally a download, and over the last three months it has elevated itself to constant rotation and, if we’re to be frank, overwhelming love. With just 11 perfectly formed, heart-stirring tracks to pick from (plus the subtle and shimmering bonus track/b-side -Wisconsin’) we figured we were in for a nice quiet evening of soul-baring songs from this perfect collection, but what we didn’t know was that Mr. Justin Vernon and his band have stripped all his songs back, and rebuilt them around a band of quiet, often bearded, men who are extremely proficient in the art of musical impact without resorting to just speeding things up. Or in lay-man’s terms, they fucking blew us away like nothing we’ve seen before.
With word of mouth being the best marketing Bon Iver have, the State team for the evening swelled from two to six (including a pregnant friend, overdue by a week) and the venue was changed a month ago to Vega’s beautiful big hall which was packed to the teak rafters before the band’s arrival. No less than TWO drum kits were laid out before us as well as with myriad guitars and electricals. It was clear that we we in for something much more than a retread of the the quiet, acoustic album – a symptom Jose Gonzales is guilty of. Looking like a man you’re sure you met before, Vernon leads his band out and seems genuinely delighted with the roar they receive. As with the album, we’re straight into -Flume’. Almost straight away we see the drums taking up from the album’s strumming beat and it’s like suddenly seeing a Michaelangelo’s David for real instead of in photographs. The band add layers and depth around this beautifully opener. The harmonies are gorgeous too with sometimes all four voices utilised – and everyone in the band is well able to sing these falsettos.
-Skinny Love’, also comes to life in 3D just one minute in, when the drums kick in. Vernon is a coiled spring sitting at his mic but as the song closes he has to stand up and face both drummers who are at this point thrashing the self-same beat, as he loses himself in the final chords. -Crushing Fear’ too packs a punch from the opening line – not that you’d guess that from the album version. Between songs Vernon chats – humble but not overly shy – and it makes for a very intimate atmosphere.
A MASSIVE treat then arrives in the shape of two new songs, -Blood Bank’ and -Babies’. If this indicates the next album’s direction we have a big treat yet to come from this band. the former is ‘a song about when you fall in love with somebody but then you find yourself in a car in a snowdrift wondering if you’re gonna make it.’ Characterised by pounding, purposeful drums, it’s a step into a more full-band sound and it soars and dips in all the right places – still open enough to let the songwriting take centre-stage. -Babies’ thankfully wasn’t the song that the with-child mate of State decided to pop, but it does bring in a more lullaby element in, the bed of the song is a sort of children’s chime and it again inhales and exhales with Vernan’s vocals.
-For Emma’ is a harmony-fest, soothing and heart-breaking at the same time. Another treat in store is Talk Talk’s -I Believe In You’ sung by drummer Sean. Ooh – this is a real joy. The audience at this stage are so enraptured that you could hear a pin drop when the band part, leaving Vernon alone to play -Re:Stacks’ and then depart himself. Some of the loudest calls for an encore you’ll ever hear follow and then a shivering, almighty six minutes to end the show. There’s a lengthy introduction to -The Wolves’ and we are told that we are required to sing ‘What might have been lost’ at a specific moment building to a shouting. Then the quiet start to the album’s most immense track begins, and we edge along with it in deathly silence until it’s our moment, right after we hear ”¦Sinatra blue’. The Danes are all nicely quiet as instructed at the start. The drums pop in and slowly build with the song, as the crowd start raising the volume, encouraged by Vernon. As the drums become like fireworks, the crowd step up to the bar – louder and louder. Vernon’s yelling it out and we’re screaming and then the payoff – the song breaks for a second then the place decends into just primal screaming with everyone pouring out any emotion and energy they had left. And done. We made it. Through and out the other side of probably the greatest concert we have ever had the privilege to see.
Photo credit Jakob Bekker Hansen