The stage was full of musical instruments on Bon Iver’s first night at the Sydney Opera House this March, ready for a much more ferocious and experimental performance of their quiet-sounding last two albums. In a live setting they really captured the dynamics of their songs, blending carefully constructed interludes with aggressive improvisation. Bon Iver slowed down the music, deliberating over the poetic lyrics and communicating with each other, and not the audience, as to what was to come next. In fact, frontman Justin Vernon probably only spoke a few times throughout the whole show, but the five-minute standing ovation pleading encore at the end showed that no fan in the Concert Hall was particularly disappointed.
The show mainly focused on Justin Vernon, he even performed a delicate solo “re: Stacks” on acoustic guitar. However, for the majority of the concert it was bright lights, two booming drum sets and that famous falsetto. Vernon’s voice had less conviction than on the album tracks; maybe he had other things to focus on (like leading a nine-man band on the stage of an international icon.) There was much-loved single “Skinny Love” building up into an angsty chorus full of regret, all band members joining in – as well as “Holocene”, performed quite closely to its original form on the record, with the opening strums captivating the silent audience. Ragged material was draping from the roof of the stage, seeming just for aesthetics, but throughout the concert there were abstract projections on it, engulfing the musicians and reflecting back into the audience. It certainly wasn’t your usual Sunday night at the Opera House.
The brass section sounded the best live, especially the trumpets in “Hinnom, TX” and Colin Stetson’s impressive sax solo intro the bold yet vulnerable “Blood Bank” which was my favourite performance of the night. Despite Vernon mumbling into the mic to his devoted audience, he managed to get the hall singing along for the final “The Wolves (Act I and II)” with the swelling chorus line ‘what might have been lost’ echoing in the House. The songs appear delicate, hypnotic and seamless on the album but on this night they were much more forceful and overpowering. A live Bon Iver displayed its musical talent but challenged its fans to listen to a more raw, extreme performance.