Bon Iver returns to the Edinburgh Playhouse for a sparse but emotive set

27th September

Bon Iver returned to Edinburgh this Wednesday for the first time since the release of his third studio album 22, A Million. This LP was a relative departure from his previous two, marking his first foray into folktronic as opposed to his previous modern folk and accordingly was met with considerable critical acclaim.

Here, Justin Vernon (the man behind Bon Iver) and his stripped back supporting band consisting of only a drummer (Sean Carey) and a saxophone playing bassist (Michael Lewis), began the set with the majority of the album 22, A Million. Although the sheer technical ability is very clear in these reproductions, some of the shortcomings of these songs are exposed in a live setting. On the album many of these songs, while beautiful, at times feel like they are slightly underdeveloped or overly short and so on stage these can feel almost like vignettes, abruptly stopped just as they are beginning to flourish.

Thankfully, after the first four songs these renditions become less rigidly faithful to the original material and from here on the set finds its feet. ‘___45___’ in particular receives what the earlier songs did not, space to develop. The freeform lament played in near perfect unison by Vernon on keyboard and Lewis on saxophone comes across as a modern day retelling of ‘Lonely Woman’ by Ornette Coleman and is a true show of the impressive virtuosity of both musicians.  

The Edinburgh Playhouse is well suited to this event, providing a suitable sense of grandeur to many of Vernon’s compositions. The venue is in fact, according to Vernon, one of the few places Tom Waits actually enjoys to play and this gives the band a chance to play a cover of the Waits classic ‘Take It With Me’. This is one of the most affecting moments of the night as the sparse instrumentation shows a great contrast to the majority of the other material. We also get to see Vernon sing in a much lower register, showing impressive range and arguably a greater sense of vulnerability.

After closing the set with ‘Team’, Vernon returned alone to the stage for the beginning of the encore with an impressive rendition of ‘Woods’, yet another example of the wide range of his vocal abilities. The band returned for the end of the encore to play ‘Wolves’ before leaving the stage to rapturous applause from adoring fans. As people started to leave, Vernon came on one last time to perform an emotionally charged ‘Skinny Love’ before the well-satisfied audience made it’s way into the rainy Edinburgh night.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this show is the ability that Vernon has to collate aspects of many genres into one cohesive set. From the aspects of glitchy electronica reminiscent of Aphex Twin to the post rock climaxes and acoustic folk anthems, Bon Iver seems to tie it all with such ease, while making it his own.

IMAGE: danieljordahl, Wikimedia CC

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