After a cancelled 2021 tour and 11 years since their last Melbourne appearance, it's safe to say that anticipation for the American genre-bending folk troupe Bon Iver was palpable.
With four studio albums under their belt, a discography that traverses all aspects (and explorations) of the folk genre, Bon Iver left no thirst un-quenched as they stormed Melbourne on their second night of their all-encompassing, powerhouse of an appearance. With a two hour set list that trekked right through the Bon Iver discography; ticking off the For Emma, Forever Ago essentials with 'Skinny Love', the self titled opus of 'Holocene' and covering a hefty amount of 22, A Million and I,I - Bon Iver curated an evening that not only satiated every diehard fan craved, but created a show that will be talked about for years.
Melbourne local (and fellow Jagjaguwar records artist) Sophie Payten AKA Gordi, opened to the near full amphitheatre. With an anthemic folktronic arsenal, Gordi doesn’t shy away from wearing her heart on her sleeve and causing an emotional stir. Wielding autotune and vocal distortion as if she’s going into battle, Gordi transforms delicate folk tunes into a synth-heavy catharsis. She brought a set list comprising mostly fresh releases, including week old release 'Broke Scene', and singles from her latest album Our Two Skins, though a certain highlight of the set was undoubtedly a special rendition of 'I’m Done' with an onstage appearance of collaborator S.Carey (of Bon Iver).
Gordi has perfected a float like a butterfly, sting like a bee songwriting style that truly shines on stage. With emotive ballards that could break hearts on an acoustic guitar, charged with the experimental distortion and awe-inspiring atmospheric synth work, Payten commands the mainstage attention she deserves - Gordi is at the top of her game.
A quick change over, and the unclothing of the sympathy of instruments that engrossed the stage, Bon Iver walked out to a deafening roar from the packed amphitheatre. The rain had well and truly settled in, but was no match for the energy radiating from the crowd - nothing could rain on this parade. Opening with their sophomore record intro, 'Perth' set a silence across the crowd. It set the pre-cursor to the energy of the genre-bending set, two hours of an otherworldly, captivating display of surreal sonic swells and tender acoustic moments, taking us on a comprehensive Bon Iver journey.
Six stations engulfed the stage as Justin Vernon, Sean Carey, Matthew McCaughan, Michael Lewis, Andrew Fitzpatrick and Jenn Wasner weaved a tapestry of aural magic, shrouded in one of the best lighting shows this writer’s seen at the Bowl. The septet lead us down the yellow brick road of their discography, covering all set-list musts including 'Holocene', '715 - CR∑∑KS', 'Hey, Ma' and of course the OG hit 'Skinny Love' ( with a special shoutout to the unreleased harmonic masterpiece, 'Heavenly Father').
Set to the backdrop of a light show that elevated each musical element, Bon Iver really came punching through. '666 ʇ' was the peak of this, with light walls, piercing spikes and electric washes covered the stage and audience, that danced along with some tight choreography. However, though these powerful moments shone with brightest lights, by contrast, the quieter moments really brought Justin Vernon eloquent lyricism and floating falsetto to the spotlight.
Strip the lights, the distortions and all the glitz and glamour, we’re left with Vernon and his keys. An acoustic '00000 Million' cut through the ‘hear a pen drop’ crowd, that really shows off his mastery of tension. The delicate penmanship this man is capable of really does shine brightest in the softest moments. I refuse to confirm or deny if tears fell from my eyes, please talk to my lawyers.
It’s the feeling you have when staring at a sunset, or at the star-lit sky. It’s the feeling you have in the waiting room of a hospital, it’s the feeling you have with a cup of tea on the front porch. Bon Iver has found a way to create a soundtrack to melancholy. Whether it’s references to geological epochs ('Holocene') or religion ('33 "GOD"') or a near-apocalyptic commentary on climate change ('Jelmore') Bon Iver has an undercurrent of grandeur that permeates each track.
There’s something larger than life about each morceau they create and this feeling is palpable in concert. The light show, the wall of sound, the multitude of layers that echo through the amphitheatre, Bon Iver create a sensory overload that engulfs you, leaving you feeling disoriented. Though this is in no way a nauseating disorientation, it’s a comforting bewilderment. You find yourself lost in this music, in this moment, and you feel that connection with them, with us and all those around.
With their second Melbourne show seeing the end of their Australian tour (with the exclusion of their WOMAdelaide appearance), it’s hard to say when we’ll see them again, but after an experience like this, they have certainly satiated our hunger for the foreseeable future. A powerful exploration of the light and dark of songwriting, coupled with an incredible live expression, Bon Iver have certainly cemented themselves as one of contemporary’s greatest acts.If you are able to experience Bon Iver live, and I do emphasise that it is an experience, you will not regret it.