Live Review

Bon Iver, Wembley Arena, London

If anything, the slightly bizarre setting of Wembley only serves to demonstrate what Justin Vernon has done for folk.

Navigating your way to the scary reaches of Zone 4 can sometimes be terrifying, and our own journey is particularly fraught with perils tonight. We arrive in Wembley hot and irritable, huffing and puffing, and really praying our journey has been worthwhile. We are somewhat skeptical about the venue choice. Justin Vernon might be pals with Kanye, but there’s something slightly unsettling about going to see him at an arena. Not only does the whole affair reek similarly to if Laura Marling played a gig sponsored by McDonalds, Wembley Arena is (well noticed, Sherlock) absolutely collosal. When you think of artists playing here you might picture the big pop acts; Rihanna, Lady Gaga – and God help us, One Direction. It’s fair to say you might not place Bon Iver, with such tender, subtle folk-tinged wares here. Justin Vernon’s music, written in a isolated log cabin, fits perfectly with the smell of pinewood, rain-specked windows and woodland huts – not so easily, perhaps, with the faceless darkness of a packed arena. After a momentary bout of confusion we locate our fairly conspicuous destination. Handily a distinctive trail is leading the way to Bon Iver. The folk fans of London are descending in a polite, orderly rabble, in a scene that resembles a factory sale at the Edinburgh Woollen Mill.

The Staves kick off proceedings, almost succeeding in making the enormity of Wembley feel like a tiny, intimate back room. The sound they produce from three voices and an acoustic guitar is incredible and the whole place is hushed in awe. “If you’re curious to see what it looks like to see someone shit themselves on live TV”, quips Emily Staveley-Taylor “we recorded our set for Jools Holland yesterday. You can see it happening then.” The room laughs with her. “No actual shit was involved,” she reassures. We can’t help feeling The Staves are going to get used to high-key performances, though, because they are nothing short of stunning.

On to main events, and Bon Iver bound onto the stage with an array of weird and wonderful instruments in tow. Justin Vernon takes up his guitar, and the audience roar deafeningly. With the band scattered amongst the ‘atmospherically’ draped sacking and LED candelabras, there’s a sort of functionally rustic feel to the whole thing. Bon Iver, in fact, look like they are in IKEA Lapland. You can see what they’re going for, though. It might not be practical to play a gig to thousands of people in the woods, what with our somewhat temperamental British weather, and so Bon Iver have done the next best thing, and brought some of the woodland into Wembley. “I almost wish I’d brought my camping chair and a flask of soup,’ remarks my companion.

If there was any doubt that Bon Iver could fill an arena with beautiful noise before tonight, it is dashed in an instant as ‘Creature Fear’ warps from melancholy beginnings into an expansive cacophony; as ‘Perth’ - propelled by the force of two drummers and a fully fledged brass section - unfurls into every free inch of the venue. Those magical moments from ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ seem as new as the first time you heard Bon Iver’s first record – and the second finally makes more sense in a space where it has room to breathe. Joined by again by The Staves, ‘re:stacks’ is spine-tinglingly flawless, and we must confess, we might’ve have a quick weep at this point – it is really that good. ‘The Wolves (Part I & II)’, ‘Skinny Love’ and ‘For Emma’ are greeted by the biggest cheers, perhaps because they remind us why we fell in love with Justin Vernon, loveable flannel-clad beardy man, in the first place.

If anything, the slightly bizarre setting of Wembley only serves to demonstrate what Justin Vernon has done for folk. However much some might tut and roll their eyes at mere mention of Mumford & Sons and other ‘mainstream folk acts’, there’s no denying it – pre-Bon Iver, it did not sell like it does now. Pre-‘For Emma’, suggesting a band who recorded their debut in a log cabin would sell out an arena might’ve prompted jeers of laughter. Pre-tonight, not many people would believe such a strange concert could ever work – we know we had our reservations. However, standing with 12,000 people in Wembley Arena, it’s like standing in a soulless concrete city and looking up to see a blazing sky full with shooting stars. It’s difficult to see how Bon Iver can go one better than this, but for tonight, they’ve nailed it.

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