- Live Review
- 18 Oct 22
It is almost ten years since Justin Vernon told his Irish audience that he was about to cast off his identity as Bon Iver forever. But life and evolution have worked their unpredictable alchemy and Vernon was in marvellous form on his return, that old moniker still on the masthead. Colin Sheridan reports on an evening where beauty prevailed...
Being from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and having spent a winter living in rain-soaked Galway in his college days, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon knows a thing or two about storms, not least the existential type which have driven him to produce some of the most exhilarating and eclectic music of the last fifteen years.
Fitting then, that there was a tempest of mid-western proportions blowing outside the 3Arena to welcome Vernon back to Dublin. It was the appropriate setting for him to work his musical alchemy. And work it he did, staying true to his chameleon self in the process.
This is an artist who has shifted from the sure-thing acoustic mastery of his breakthrough For Emma, Forever Ago, to the techno chill of his most recent outing, i,i, without so much as a backwards glance. Every album in between – each one arguably better than the one before – has been a subtle graduation, the surest sign of an artist who. however tortured (and yes, Vernon clearly fits that stereotype), is always seeking evolution, refusing to stand still, unwilling merely to repeat the trick and give the people what they might think they want.
His return to the 3Arena, almost ten years to the day since he told the same venue it would be his last as Bon Iver, saw a man revitalised, triumphantly emerging from the metaphorical woods of COVID, and an artistic coventry which saw him collaborate with Taylor Swift and his old running mates The National all to new and great effect. Still, for all that creative output, those who know and love him must’ve worried if he’d ever rediscover the will to bring his genius on the road again, understanding how that drudgery fed the beast of torment that lurks within him. This gig was a triumphant middle finger to the darkness, all lit up like a glorious spaceship.
Vernon’s Dublin set was a prime example of the sheer beauty of his work speaking for itself. Eschewing the comfort of winning over the sold out arena with hits from earlier albums (no 'Skinny Love’ or ‘Calgary', for example), his first five numbers all came from i,i arguably his best but least accessible work, the last of that opening quintet being the cracking 'Hey Ma’ – a call to arms for all present to love him as he is now, not for whom he once was. When you say little, what you do say matters: Vernon, conscious perhaps of his defeatist declarations a decade ago, reassured the crowd that he and his team had thought long and hard about whether this was what they wanted to do. His performance left everyone in no doubt. The crowd, pensive to that point about his state of mind, exhaled. The bandaid was off.
For all of the mesmerising lights and techno trickery, however, the highlight of the night was ‘Re: Stacks', the only number Vernon performed acoustic and solo. What set it apart was not it being one of his oldest and most beloved songs, but because it isolated and amplified his greatest instrument – his naked voice – and in doing so revealed the vulnerability of his songs when stripped back to their skeletal, beautiful best. Vernon is the antithesis of the emperor's new clothes; with him more is otherworldly and undeniably great, but somehow, less is even better.
As ever with Justin Vernon, there is poetry worked into the margins. Nothing is by accident. In the vacuum between support act and main event, a pair of large screens either side of the stage depicted an apparently unremarkable scene: a man – maybe Vernon, maybe not – shooting a basketball in a backyard. In the corner of the screen was the shot count – shots taken versus shots scored, and the shot percentage. Filmed in real time, the footage was set against a backdrop of daylight fading to evening, before receding to nightfall, the shooter backlit against a streetlight. The scene continued for almost half an hour before Vernon took to the stage with his band, scored by nothing but the expectant din of the thousands present.
Understanding Vernon’s obsession with numbers and symbols, nature and process, all of which were depicted on the screens to mesmerising, yet easily unnoticed effect, you realised this was no absentminded filler. The shooter was one of us, clearly amateur and imperfect in his motion; but, watching him as the sun set, was to bear silent witness to mundane beauty, a silhoueed man clearly passionate about his art, sometimes missing, often scoring, perpetually striving to be better.
Watching it was the perfect prelude to what was to follow. Vernon, like the anonymous man with the basketball shooting hoops, is one of us, set apart by an exceptional talent that has often threatened to suffocate him. This night in Dublin hinted that he finally believes his shoulders strong enough to carry the burden of his creative cross. May the road rise to meet him.
In his own words, at the close of ‘Re: Stacks': “This is not the sound of a new man/ or crispy realisation/ It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away/ Your love will be/ Safe with me...”
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