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Review: Bon Iver @ The Riverstage (Brisbane)

Bon Iver played The Riverstage (Brisbane) on 2 March, 2023.
Our eclectic team of writers from around Australia – and a couple beyond – with decades of combined experience and interest in all fields.

Like settlers of their own individual islands made of multiple instruments – synthesizers, keyboards and microphones – the six band members of Bon Iver are spaced out across the stage.

What is about to unfold here is nothing short of magic. Bon Iver's Brisbane concert at the sold-out Riverstage (2 March) starts with '22 (OVER S∞∞N)' from their 2016 album '22, A Million'.

From the get-go the packed audience are held in spellbound silence, breaking their riveted stillness only to applaud between songs; singing along to known lyrics, and boisterous chatter among friends – trademarks of the contemporary live concert experience – are not present.

This doesn't feel like any other concert I've ever been to – externally and internally – and I really hope it won't be over soon.

Frontman Justin Vernon, who started Bon Iver in 2008, is a humble, soft-spoken individual, who doesn't fill any of the 100 minutes the band spends on stage with anecdotes about the songs.

Besides the occasional, genuine expression of gratitude, it is clear this is about the music. And this music defies gravity. How they are doing it, is the mystery I'm entirely dumbstruck by.

Bon Iver
Image © Bianca Holderness

At one stage Vernon is somehow controlling the sound of Mike Lewis' sax through his synth, stretching, stuttering, smashing, distorting and muffling it, and singing at the same time – bear in mind that Mike is on his island of instruments playing the sax and Justin is on his, singing and playing the synth.

It's incredible; and I feel like its rearranging neural pathways in my brain.

The sheer sonic scale of the songs is staggering. The intricacy of the arrangements, and the way these six human beings perform them as elegantly as if they were simply speaking their mother tongue. How the songs rise and fall through glitch-out electronica, distortion, soaring and crescendo is utterly masterful.

Twice Justin performs a solo – the first is the vocoder-driven '715 - CR∑∑KS' and toward the end of the concert a tender acoustic rendition of 're:Stacks'. There is a confessional quality, a saturation of raw, emotional truth in Vernon's falsetto.

Bon Iver.2
Image © Bianca Holderness

Even when his vocals are distorted to gargled electronic howls and glitches, the beating heart of this human is witnessed, is felt – like a man refusing the veneer of pretences, fully vulnerable, holding up and revealing the full spectrum of his emotional reality. It's breathtaking.

A sharply choreographed light show perfectly accompanies the performance.

The band returns for an encore of two songs, closing the show with 'RABi', which Justin introduces by saying: "Our time here is short, on this note we leave you."

"Spread love," are his final words to us; and as I walk away among the throng, I have no doubt I've been in the presence of musical wizards.

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