There’s an easy explanation as to why the Opera House makes for such a special venue, and that’s simply because it’s the Opera House. It lends a sense of occasion and grandeur like no other venue in Sydney can, particularly on a night like this – with its sails swirling with colour for the start of Vivid Festival.
Inside, within the cavernous surrounds of the Concert Hall, thousands of strings hang from the ceiling above the stage illuminated by blue light. Everything feels slightly cold. Even before Bon Iver walk on in the darkness, the atmosphere created is enthralling, as if Justin Vernon has attempted to recreate his log cabin from Wisconsin inside the hall.
You half expected to breathe out cold mist.
Billed as CERCLE, with the musicians standing in a circle on stage with Justin Vernon in the centre, this performance was intended to be a “stripped back” retrospective of his three releases. Even if the “stripped back” part was a little misleading – with a full band (including three backing vocalists and at one point two drummers) these songs had the fullness of the recorded versions and then some, but the intimacy that was attempted with the staging was obviously intentional, and it worked.
From the opening song, where Vernon stood alone beneath a single white spotlight and recreated the dense vocal manipulations of Woods, it was absorbing.
The band appeared for a propulsive Lump Sum, before dropping back again for a scratchy acoustic version of Towers, with Vernon dropping his voice down a key to mine his gravelly lower register. It’s a move that Vernon employed on a lot of tracks, and it was fairly hit and miss; his falsetto is a crucial part of Bon Iver, and at times it is dearly missed. More importantly, his lower vocals are more powerful, but less controlled – and with Calgary he clearly struggles to hit the right notes.
More impressive was the Bonnie Raitt cover I Can’t Make You Love Me – slowly unfurling as Vernon sat alone at a grand piano, and the wistful Holocene – with the opening guitar riff replaced with tinkling keys.
The best moments were the biggest: the swelling Roslyn WA and Flume. Of course, it’s hard to top Skinny Love, where Vernon tore heartbreaking notes from his throat as he sang a verse acapella – in the vast hall, it raised goosebumps.
A standing ovation and a Heavenly Father later, the band gathered around a single microphone to close with the warm harmonies of For Emma.
Vivid 2016 has definitely started on a high note.