Bon Iver - Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Sat 22 Oct 2011

Justin Vernon's large ensemble fails to capture the albums' spare beauty

To a long since sold-out crowd of ardent devotees, Justin Vernon takes the stage – after the audience impatiently chats through support act Kathleen Edwards’ countrified indie folk. (Vernon helped out with production and instrumental duties on Edwards upcoming Voyageur album.)

Vernon’s come a long way from that cabin in the woods in Wisconsin where he retreated to mend a broken heart and pour himself into his first album, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago. With a beguiling blend of falsetto harmonies and acoustic accompaniment, he managed to both capture the specificity of his situation and touch a chord with universal experience. It ended up in plenty ‘Best Album of the Year’ lists on blogs and in magazines around the world that year, (at the time, The List described it as, ‘a gloriously minimal and spectral solo debut’) and simultaneously fuelled a trend for young men growing beards and wearing soft check shirts. Significantly, three years after For Emma…’s release, the Usher Hall audience is dotted with lumberjack-aping Vernon look-a-likes.

Now smartly attired in a white shirt and black tie, and with a noticeably cheerful demeanour – he stops his set at several points to beam about what a great time he is having ‘up here’ – Vernon heads up a band of two drummers and multiple mariachi-style horns for a near track-by-track run through of the more energetic and fuller-sounding second album, this year’s Bon Iver. The busy stage-full of quality musicians lend a muscularity to the larger scale of these recent tracks that takes the songs even further away from the spare beauty of his debut. Bolstering his vocals with instrumentals, Vernon clearly enjoys the camaraderie of the Arcade Fire-style set-up but it’s a case of less is more.

When, in a few quieter returns to his first album (particularly ‘re:stacks’), he trusts his voice and guitar to be enough, the audience is granted access to what a good deal of them came for: the affecting, ethereal, melancholy beauty of the magic Vernon first captured in that cabin.

Bon Iver - Re: Stacks

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