Live review: Bon Iver at Hammersmith Apollo

by Emily Friend

OKAY so let’s just get this straight: there is more than just one man in Bon Iver. Everyone seems fixated on Justin Vernon, frontman and “face” of the band, but seeing them live was a real eye-opener. There were nine of them. NINE. From percussionists to a bloke with a huge saxophone, Bon Iver is clearly more than just one man. Admittedly, Mr Vernon took centre stage, but it was never The Justin Vernon Show… far from it.

The band are touring their eponymous second album to a crowd who don’t seem overly familiar with it. They lap up the old stuff like a comforting milky drink, but seemed to get a bit restless during newer tracks, which I felt was a shame.

Obviously it was classics such as ‘Skinny Love’ and ‘Wolves’ that the audience was waiting for, as a hush came over the crowd as soon as the opening chords were strummed.

My highlights were Colin Stetson’s awesome circular-breathing-fest of a solo along with the 80s-inspired album track ‘Beth/Rest’, and the beautiful horn-filled ‘Towers’.

We must admit that ‘Skinny Love’ was bloody brilliant – they cleverly found a way to include the other 8 band members in a track that is in essence just good old Justin and his guitar. Getting the rest of the gang to clap and sing in the background gave the song a touching sort of team spirit vibe… I saw much weeping across the circle seats. (Oddly, my personal tearjerker was ‘Flume’… started with incredibly touching solo acoustic guitar and vocals.)

Another thing: the Hammersmith Apollo have got some serious issues with circle seating. I chose to buy seated circle tickets as I imagined that a Bon Iver gig is the sort of place that you fancy a bit of a sit down whilst weeping quietly into your lap.  I’m sorry to say that most of the weeping we did stemmed from the fact that I was allocated circle standing tickets… aka standing at the back. I wouldn’t have let this dampen my spirits if there had actually been space to stand there… due to overcrowding we opted for sitting in the aisle. Error.

Not only did the beer man keep parading up and down the aisle with his stupid beer backpack and flag but, for some reason, the other audience members just couldn’t sit still. This meant that some of my weeping wasn’t due to the beautiful sounds floating up to me from the stage, but due to being trampled on by brogue-footed men en-route to the toilet… not cool.

Hammersmith Apollo, I have not lost faith in you yet. The situation was salvaged by some of the best lighting I have seen at a gig in years (if only I could have captured this on camera… from the back) ranging from a stark theatrical wash to a multi-layered red and blue state that seriously convinced me that we were in fact watching a very talented 3D hologram rather than nine real human beings playing their hearts out.

The venue’s pros and cons aside, Bon Iver were breathtaking and beautiful, and I can’t wait to see them again (without the beer man).

This piece first appeared at For Folk’s Sake.

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