Festivals Bon Iver brings All Points East 2019 to a delicate but grandiose close
John Grant, Mac DeMarco, Ezra Furman and more also helped see the double weekender out.
After two weekends of glorious bands, too many pints, sporadic floods from the heavens and one slightly sad sound issue that we’ll try not to dwell on, All Points East is almost ready to bow out of East London’s Victoria Park for another year. But not before Bon Iver and some of music’s more cerebral faves (and Mac DeMarco) give its final Sunday a suitably soothing send off.
But before people get too comfortable, Congolese troupe KOKOKO! are here to bring an altogether more visceral party to the main stage. Uniformed in matching yellow boiler suits, with varying degrees of impressive eyewear on show, the band tout homemade percussion and instruments welded together from rudimentary materials, conjuring up a storm of celebratory beats and almost punk attitude. ‘Azo Toke’, with its exuberant call and response cries, is basically the perfect unifying festival tune.
Over on the North Stage, Julien Baker’s strain of emotionally-intense, inward-looking songwriting might not naturally lend itself to big, outdoor stages full of afternoon drinkers, but the Memphis singer has the sizeable gathering in the palm of her hand, nonetheless. It’s a vibe that could slightly polarise; the singer’s hyper-earnest emoting and tendency to step back unusually far from her mic, lending a distanced quality to her vocal, isn’t for all. But there’s more than enough people here today that are on board and, among a crowd of Bon Iver fans, Julien makes sense.
Back on the main stage, Phosphorescent delivers an amiable if unremarkable set of sun-bleached drive time Americana, while Ezra Furman makes a stronger mark back up North. With forthcoming album ‘Twelve Nudes’ on the way, the singer is on fiery form, his inimitable rasping howl even more raw and unfiltered live as he intersperses songs with demands for trans rights.
A quick stop over to the Jagerhaus and, before the warm croons of Westerman can swaddle us, we end up caught in the strange mania of a psych-addled DJ set from Steve Davis – yep that Steve Davis. “How many snooker titles have you got mate?!” heckles one punter as the six-time world champ leaves and poor Will Westerman replaces him. The answer, we assume, is none, however what the London singer does have is a timeless, Paul Simon-esque way with a melody and the kind of pure, soft vocals that could bring grown men to tears.
Back over on the main stage, the skies may be threatening to erupt, but John Grant – masked in black eye glitter and with hips to rival Shakira – is exactly the man to command the heavens to his mercy. Weirdly, he seems to do just that. The early swoop of ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ and the crotchety, sexually frustrated ‘Preppy Boy’ are delivered as dark clouds gather above, but by the time the gloriously contrary singer dips it low for ‘He’s Got His Mother’s Hips’ before uniting the crowd in a soaring piano sing-along of ‘GMF’ (“I am the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet…”) the sun’s poked his head through and John’s grinning like the only bearded leader we’ll ever really need. The side of stage screen cameras zoom in to his piano; on top of it are two plastic dinosaur figurines perched jauntily atop. It couldn’t be possible to love him more.
A quick hop over to the second stage and, though Mac DeMarco’s headline set is heaving, there’s something about it all that feels a bit off today. Of course, the Canadian jokester is known as much for his on-stage buffoonery and cheeky-chappy manner as his lilting lo-fi hits, but tonight it’s all just a little cringey. Taking off his top and pulling his shorts up to his armpits, Mac stomps around the stage, throwing wrestling poses; maybe it’s because it’s a bit dreary outside, maybe it’s because Mac’s not 21 anymore, but there’s something strained about it all – a man who perhaps feels he SHOULD act the fool, rather than actually fitting the part still.
While Bon Iver’s last appearance on UK soil saw him take on the ambitious - but still somehow intimate - feat of playing seven shows at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, his headline slot closing All Points East feels much more grandiose. Having become more known for his aloofness during early performances around the release of ‘22, A Million’ - with Justin Vernon facing away from the crowd, or obscuring his face - tonight is a world away from that, with Vernon looking closer to a musical mad professor, very much in his element.
Dipping in and out of his back catalogue, ‘Blood Bank’ sounds as eerily beautiful as ever, even a decade on, with its fragility heightened when paired alongside the newer, glitchily satisfying ‘29 #Strafford APTS’ and ‘666 ʇ’. And despite the precious folklore that’s surrounded the band, there’s little of that here tonight: even the delicate build of ‘Woods’ - another revered 2009 track - comes punctuated with an easy humour after Justin messes up creating his own loop. “Fuuuck, I fucked it up!” he yells, reminding the audience that Bon Iver are still a very human outfit, even with the now-infamous vocoder.
Unsurprisingly, ‘Skinny Love’ is a collective highlight, with the crowd welcoming its falsetto with a joyful singalong. And while the warm familiarity of their classics reign supreme here, as they close their set with a preview of two new, previously unheard tracks, it’s clear that Bon Iver are still very much facing towards the future.
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