Bon Iver
Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, 2019 | Credit: Gus Stewart/Redferns

Bon Iver Review – Magic Tricks and Stunned Silence in Sydney

Bon Iver performed at Sydney’s Aware Super Theatre on Friday, 17th February. David James Young reviews.

“Thank you for your patience.” We’re a few songs into Bon Iver’s first Australian show in nearly seven years and band leader Justin Vernon quietly addresses the elephant in the room as he changes guitars. He and his ensemble have arrived on stage nearly half an hour after their scheduled start time on account of mounting technical difficulties – or, to quote Vernon, “the backup of the backup of the backup went down.” It’s a minor inconvenience on our end, and as the show goes on to prove, this is an experience worth waiting for.

Bon Iver – ‘Holocene’

The members of the Bon Iver live band are spaced out across six workstations, all standing on their own risers and surrounded by an endless supply of keyboards and synthesisers. Everyone contributes vocals, everyone plays a minimum of two instruments and everyone knows the ornate arrangements like the backs of their hands.

Even when the songs descend into glitch-out electronica, replete with stuttering samples and smash-cut noise, there’s a method to the madness. It’s almost like watching a magic trick and wondering how they do it, but also hoping you never find out because it would ruin the surprise.

When your eyes aren’t transfixed on one of the band members – such as Sean Carey, who transitions from piano to drums, or bass player Mike Lewis, who occasionally lets loose on the saxophone – the light show is equally captivating. Syncopated strobe flashes align with the double-drum hits in ‘Perth’ and glistening flares accentuate every last crescendo in ‘Holocene’.

Vernon – who founded Bon Iver in 2006 – is a reserved and soft-spoken figure, and the humans on stage display little extroversion, save for a few waves, smiles and thank-yous. But with the choreographed visuals complementing the setlist, no one is left wanting.

Credit: Jordan Munns

The truest moments of intimacy between Vernon and the nine-thousand people in attendance come when it’s just us and him. This happens twice: during the vocoder-driven ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’ and the sparse, acoustic ‘re: Stacks’. In the former, Vernon toys with the original composition, squiggling and distorting his voice almost beyond recognition. But even through the gargled android howls, a human heartbeat can be felt in the final refrain of “Turn around, now / You’re my A-team.”

‘re: Stacks’ is one of the songs that’s survived since what Vernon refers to as “the Spiegeltent days” – alluding to his debut tour here as part of Sydney Festival 2009 – and remains one of his greatest musical achievements. The combination of plucked nylon-string guitar and Vernon’s lonesome and yearning falsetto is enough to create a stunned silence, and more than enough to dampen a few eyes. Few artists can build up as easily as they can pare back, but Bon Iver make it seem easy.

Further Reading

Gordi Releases Augie March Cover, Announced As Bon Iver Tour Support

MONA FOMA 2023: Bon Iver, Angel Olsen, Pavement + More

The National Recruit Bon Iver For New Single, ‘Weird Goodbyes’

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