Live Review: Bon Iver, Primavera Sound 2017

I had been waiting months for this moment. A new album release and a cancelled European tour (the Luxembourg leg of which I had tickets to, only to find out weeks later that he’d be headlining Primavera Sound in Barcelona, literally right down my road) left my stomach in knots, speculating as to whether or not he’d go through with his forthcoming gigs on the festival circuit. I was weary and anxious, up until the moment I heard that familiar, low buzzing coming from the speakers. The distorted yet unmistakable vocals declared “it might be over soon”. It had finally begun, and the six months of anticipation would be worth the wait.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Bon Iver’s more synthesized recent undertaking with 22, A Million, the show itself proved that Vernon and crew have an entirely firm grasp on the band’s evolving musical style. Skepticism peppered my thoughts as I wondered whether or not 22, A Million would lend itself well to a live performance. One song in, and all preconceived notions dissipated into an array of occasionally minimalist, often bass-heavy intricacies whose live performance served only to emphasize the album’s atmospheric quality. With the sound of Bon Iver’s new album at times somber, at times chaotic, the live gig showcased the remarkable emotional turmoil that Vernon must have gone through in order to create his masterpiece, even adding depth to some of his older hits.

The first half of his set was a track by track playback of his new album, showcasing all of the ersatz bells and synth whistles of 22, A Million. “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” opened the show, slyly reminding the audience of the inevitability of the end of what had just begun. With its rolling, bass-heavy drum intro, ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s t’ solidified Bon Iver’s entrance, while the haunting vocals of ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’ left the crowd speechless (and reduced me to floods of tears). Mid-way through came an unexpected but delightful surprise with ‘Brackett, WI’, a 2009 release on the Dark Was the Night charity album that even I, a self-professed Bon Iver die-hard, had never heard (it’s currently on repeat).

He rounded out the second half of his set with slightly more electro-infused takes on classics like ‘Beach Baby’ and ‘Creature Fear’ from 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago, adding just enough of Bon Iver’s new style to old favorites. Crowd pleasers like ‘Perth’ and ‘Minnesota, WI’ from his self-titled sophomore album had the audience ambling along to their notoriously incomprehensible lyrics.

In a world where showmanship largely trumps authenticity, Vernon remained cool and collected, staying mostly quiet between songs allow for the occasional, humble “thank you”.

While the faces of Bon Iver remained largely shrouded in darkness throughout, strobes, spotlights, and on-screen symbols played themselves out to the beats, synths, peaks, and valleys of the set.

The emotional intensity remained high until the very end of the gig, when Vernon appeared alone on stage for the encore, strumming the familiar chords of ‘Skinny Love’ as a spotlight illuminated his vulnerability. The crowd went wild, belting along until Vernon wrapped up, exiting stage right.

I was reminded of the buzzing vocals that started the night: “it might be over soon.” He was right. It was over far too soon, but the experience was not one that would escape me with any urgency.

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