Bon Iver, the indie folk band and cultural darling led by Wisconsin native Justin Vernon, is a perfect example of change. Good artists are consistent, but great artists grow. On Saturday night at the Bowl, we were blessed with a career spanning, genre defying setlist full of powerful beauty.
Sidney Myer was full of eager fans by the time I arrived, patiently waiting to experience the serenade of love and pain that is Bon Iver. Many fans packed the grass area, with picnic rugs, chairs and plenty of cuddles. The energy was warm and compassionate, a harmony with the music to come.
Joining Bon Iver was the Sydney singer-songwriter and lush electronica artist Sophie Payten, performing under the name Gordi. A perfect match to the headliners energy, Gordi mixed elements of folk guitar balladry with spacey loops of modular synthesis and delicate self-harmony. Beautiful tracks that highlighted the set included Extraordinary Life and Way I Go. It is truly rare to experience a keenly picked match such as these two artists.
Taking the stage to a packed crowd, the main act begun. Bon Iver opened with Lump Sum, the second track from their 2008 debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. The early fusion of a low pulsing kick under the layered delicate vocals and strained acoustic guitar represents all that was and will be of the project, with the focus on memory, love, pain, beauty and peace. This defining album, which was written and recorded in isolation, puts the key themes on display.
Other highlights of the set included the lovely crowd pleaser of Hey Ma, U (Man Like), Towers and 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄, some of the more modern classics of the discography. The true wonders were the classic tracks, Re: Stacks and Skinny Love. Re: Stacks was a song that reminded me of lost love long ago, and the pain of forgiveness, which took all so long to earn. Skinny Love, being Bon Iver’s best known song, deserved to be played, but was expected to be breezed over as the hit that must be played so the artist can focus on the deep cuts. Instead, this rendition of the classic track was so deeply, deeply affecting, that I could feel the pure passion of the full bowl with every breath. The outro and coda of “My, my my” was a fantastic sing-along moment for a crowd of romantics.
The band of course was all multi-instrumentalists. Seven members, featuring switches between acoustic and electric guitars, bass and keys, along with saxophone, and two drummers filled in the sound of future folk that Bon Iver so well defined within the early 2010s. The powerful backing of the drums added a weight to the softer songs that somehow didn’t overpower the minimalism but instead reinforced the simplicity where needed. Moments in my favourite track Holocene were true masters of sound mixing, with one drummer playing soft off beat rimshots while the other balances sixteenth-note shakers and kick patterns. True musicianship at work.
Ending the set after Holocene, the band returned for a tight four-song encore of a few deep cuts and a new single recorded during the pandemic, PDLIF, to link the timeline of the set from then to now. Truly a gently masterful performance, I cannot recommend catching Bon Iver live enough. The records do not do this band justice.