Bon Iver

support The Staves
author DR date 09/11/12 venue MEN Arena, Manchester, UK

If he wasn't before, after the release of his self-titled album Bon Iver had definitely become a mainstream 'pop' artist. Not only did the record receive widespread critical acclaim, but it also sold well worldwide and garnered BRIT Award nominations and two Grammy Award wins; hell, 'Bonnie Bear' was even the subject of a Saturday Night Live bit involving Justin Timberlake. This success has meant Bon Iver have seemingly been on a constant tour since then, which is no doubt part of the reason why Justin Vernon has stated that Bon Iver needs to 'wind down' soon. Considering this, and that his two LPs are two of my favourite records, there was no chance I was going to miss getting tickets for their arena tour, which since went on to sell out.

The Staves

If you've caught Bon Iver on their recent North American or European tours, or pay attention to the popular UK music scene, then you'll be aware of their chosen support act The Staves. The recent mainstream success of folk acts such as Bon Iver, and to an even greater extent Mumford and Sons, has paved the way for others. So, it was only a matter of time before an all-girl band like The Staves were signed to a major label (their debut album has just been released through Atlantic Records). After tonight's performance, it becomes clear that The Staves are heading right to the top of the charts.

Not that this isn't justified though, because The Staves certainly have a lot going for them. Comprised of little more than two guitars and three gorgeous voices, their stripped-down acoustic folk music relies heavily on the blood harmonies of the three sisters singing in unison, and together their vocals manage to fill the entire arena. Their music is well-received by the crowd, which boosts their confidence as they progress through their setlist and interact more with the crowd. Towards the end of their setlist the songs do begin to sound similar, not that this is demonstrative of anything other than consistently solid song-writing, and at this point in their career it is hard to be too critical of that. Ultimately, while I doubt anybody could assume their performance 'headline worthy', they at least warmed up the crowd and left tonight with plenty more fans. It definitely seems only a matter of when, not if, they will be announcing their own headline tour.

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Bon Iver

Simply put: the show tonight is a spectacle, and in the best possible way. With almost a dozen band members, two big screens either side of the stage showing footage throughout and stage sets reminiscent of a frosty Wisconsin landscape, there is plenty to feast your eyes on. There's plenty to feast your ears on, too, because with so many members, and with so many of them playing multiple instruments, it's one of the most layered live performances you're ever likely to see. They all sing, which makes for glorious vocal harmonies, many get their chance at 'soloing' with their instruments to segue between songs, and the two drummers are so in tandem that they are either clones or one is simply a mirror image of the other.

Expectantly, the songs from "Bon Iver, Bon Iver" generally sound as brilliant live as they do on record. "Perth" is heavy to the point it feels like it could bring down the enter arena, and the synchronization of the two drummers during is mind-blowing, while the likes of "Hinnom, TX" and "Minnesota, WI" gain fresh life in the live format. Unfortunately "Holocene" wasn't as special as I'd hoped, but apart from that the offerings are mostly flawless.

The real interest, however, lies with the older songs and how they translate from being formerly so stripped back to now having so many musicians contributing. Although there aren't as many from the older records as, in my opinion, there should have been, the selected songs do rank among the highlights of the night. A seven minute version of "Creature Fear" is easily the best song, including a crescendo so relentlessly loud it could easily belong to Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Sigur Ros' live show. "Blood Bank" is also extended to good effect, now more up-tempo and rocking than before, and even coming with an impressive guitar solo. For the encore, "Skinny Love" is every bit as personal as you'd expect during the verses yet so massive with everybody singing in the chorus, and "For Emma" is a good choice for the closer as it ends the show with an infectious, uptempo and positive number.

Perhaps most of all, the show tonight is a dazzling display of technical ability. Similar to what they say about jazz, at times tonight it feels like the musicians get even more joy from playing than we listeners get. Although sometimes this leads to indulgence with some unnecessary solos between songs, when it does work the rewards are brilliant. Tonight the only arguable tiny fault is the set list. For instance, the inclusion of a song like "Brackett, WI" is questionable, especially as some of Bon Iver's best songs, "Blindsided" and "re: Stacks", are excluded. Maybe this is being greedy though, because tonight proved that Bon Iver is worth the hype. For all of the visual treats offered, it's still the music that's the most rewarding.

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Setlist:

  • Perth
  • Minnesota, WI
  • Brackett, MI
  • Towers
  • Creature Fear
  • Hinnom, TX
  • Wash.
  • Woods
  • Blood Bank
  • Flume
  • Holocene
  • Calgary
  • Lisbon, OH
  • Beth/Rest

--Encore--

  • Skinny Love
  • For Emma

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