While there has always been an endearing air of mystique surrounding Bon Iver, the sudden cancellation of an entire UK tour earlier this year left fans with more disappointment than intrigue.
Justin Vernon’s indie-folk outfit returned to the Scottish capital this week for the first time in five years, performing over two nights that were originally scheduled for February. A statement had merely cited ‘personal reasons’ for the pulled shows, which had included dates in Europe. Without further explanation, it nonetheless concluded with a promise: ‘we will be back’.
And with the jarring yet intricate samples of ’22 (Over Soon)’, back they were. The track’s experimentalism is characteristic of last year’s 22, A Million, and the opening portion of the set was largely comprised of the record’s acclaimed tracks.
The Playhouse was electrified by Vernon’s stunning, auto-tuned a cappella on ‘715 – Creeks’, and without a movement in a seat or a single phone screen in sight, it was plainly clear why a venue such as this grand theatre is fitting for the Wisconsin act. Music and theatre has been entwined for generations, but in the case of Bon Iver, the music itself becomes theatre.
Integral is percussionist Sean Carey, providing the unrelenting and dynamic drive to ‘Creature Fear’ while harmonising beautifully with Vernon throughout. Completing the live band is bassist and saxophonist Mike Lewis, the trio near-motionless upon separate platforms and sublimely tuned in to one another.
A gorgeous version of ‘Flume’, from 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago, features support act Mikaela Davis on harp and vocals and signals a second half of mostly older material. Vernon barely speaks; he introduces ‘The Wolves: Act I & II’ with a playful reminder that ‘this is not church – clearly’ and an invitation to participate in the haunting refrain: ‘what might’ve been lost.’
A wholehearted ovation leaves not a single seat occupied as the band leave the stage, only for Vernon to duly return. The ethereal ‘Woods’ remains an essential live experience – as the sparse layered vocal lines build, the audience’s cheers are picked up by the sampler and become part of the performance, clearly audible with each loop and creating an astonishing, inclusionary authenticity.
Breakthrough hit ‘Skinny Love’ is nowhere to be seen after ‘00000 Million’ closes and the lights come up, but Vernon’s work is done.
It might as well have been ten years and as many cancelled tours, and Edinburgh would still have been left with a collective, sobering lump in its throat.