After a long wait, Bon Iver return to Perth with a talented line-up of musicians. Harvey Rae joins the crowd for an overwhelming sensory experience.
Red Hill Auditorium, 26 February 2023
For Justin Vernon, remote places are a source of inspiration. So it makes sense that his Bon Iver project has found a second home in Australia, and in particular Perth, the world’s most isolated city.
Not only is the opening song on his second album called Perth. On the 2012 tour for that album, which also took place at the gorgeous Red Hill Auditorium for Perth Festival, he penned 29 #Strafford Apts, about a waking dream state he experienced while in Adelaide.
Vernon reveals as much on Bon Iver’s return visit to Red Hill, originally scheduled for RAC Arena pre-COVID.
On the city outskirts, Red Hill is a venue that suits his love for our country and its vast expanses. Let’s not forget Vernon’s breakthrough record, For Emma, Forever Ago, was famously written in isolation in a remote Wisconsin cabin. This is a man who thrives on the fresh air of faraway places.
Despite that debut album’s continued popularity, Sunday night’s set concentrates largely on the glitch-tech of Bon Iver’s last two records. That wouldn’t have come as a surprise to the sold-out crowd, given the progressive aesthetic that’s been evident to Perth audiences dating all the way back to Vernon’s first visit at the old Fly By Night Club (now Freo Social) in 2009, still his best WA show.
While that concert benefitted from a multi-instrumental focus and increased live production compared to the accompanying record’s minimalism, Sunday’s concert ups the ante again for an overwhelming sensory experience. The six band members on stage trade between two drum kits, at least four synthesisers and even more guitars. The instrument swapping and virtuosity is a standout, with the musicality nothing short of awe-inspiring.
As radically reinterpreted versions of favourites such as Towers and the Radiohead-inspired 10 Death Breast teach the crowd to expect the unexpected, we’re introduced to a talented line-up of individually successful artists. S. Carey alternates between drums and keys, but it’s the coup of Wye Oak singer and multi-instrumentalist Jenn Wasner that has the biggest impact, adding wild, organic digital sounds via her synth set-up, as well as serene backing vocals and guitar.
There’s no Colin Stetson on sax as per previous visits, but Mike Lewis does a sensational job in his place, particularly on the instrumental outro for Sh’Diah near set’s end.
The lesser-known highlights continue late with RABi to close the encore, a lyrical tour de force with some welcome, easy-to-understand annunciation. Unfortunately, it follows Bon Iver’s biggest hit Skinny Love, so many in the crowd are already leaving in the name of a quicker exit following the exhaustive entry process, sensing they have what they came for.
Other standouts include the aforementioned Perth, the moving and catchy Hey Ma, epic renditions of Holocene and Calgary, while Naeem is chosen to close the main set to universal cheers.
There’s an impressive array of experimental effects and layered a cappella vocals throughout, making total sense of support act Gordi’s placement on the bill. Her first Perth appearance in five years is a blessing for fans, and a surprise treat for those unfamiliar; she’s as awkwardly charming and unusual as Vernon himself.
While never reaching the peaks of sensory production of Bon Iver’s set, Gordi’s electronic textures, pedals, synths and lush vocal loops tend towards the ethereal and, in the case of Heaven I Know, it’s nothing short of breathtaking.
Pictured top: Bon Iver give a masterclass in musicality at Red Hill Auditorium. Photo: Tashi Hall
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