Live Review: Bon Iver, Leeds Arena, 19th Nov 2022

When I was younger I definitely went to a lot more gigs completely on a whim. Heading off to see a band just because I could, just because they were there! Cramming concerts into already busy schedules without a thought for repercussions. Picking up tickets for gigs without it ever entering into my head how I plan on getting there and back. I’d like to think I’m older and wiser… but I’m still terribly forgetful when it comes to the logistics of getting to gigs. I’ll admit however that these days my gig going schedule has a lot more purpose – ticking off the list of acts I wanna see before I die, prioritising certain tours to better the chances of hearing my favourite tracks etc. But you need to do something in a spur of the moment every now and then, right? And seeing Bon Iver was one of my best “heat of the moment” gig experiences.

I’ll preface this by saying that the band don’t particularly hold special significance for me. They were certainly on “the list” – they’re inarguably one of the most influential acts of my lifetime, and their first three records were all career-defining masterpieces in their own right, all drastically different from each other. But lacking a more personal connection to the music, I had them at a lower priority than other acts on the list. It was pure chance that pushed them ahead. Having a brief yet intense Bon Iver phase, I checked to see if they were touring, and I bought a ticket within moments of seeing the price. These were the most affordable arena tickets I have ever seen! Easily the cheapest gig of this scale that I’ve ever been to. At a time when lesser acts have been making headlines for tickets so extortionate that fans have been struggling to make rent, the prospect of seeing a band of this calibre at such a reasonable price felt like an opportunity not to be missed. 

There was an interesting atmosphere at play whilst waiting for the show to start. While most shows will have a playlist on a loop as people file in and find their places, the background music was little more than a simple beat. Almost a clock ticking down to the start of the show. Accompanying this on the big screens was footage of a man shooting hoops with stats showing how many shots he’d taken and a percentage score of his accuracy. Between the sun setting slowly behind him, and the percentage going up as his aim improved, the whole thing was oddly fascinating. In some ways it was more entertaining than the opening act CARM, who were fascinatingly odd. The experimental DJ/trumpet duo was an experience pretty much exactly how it sounds. Better than experimental DJs without trumpets I suppose? There were a few pleasant ambient passages, and a few moments of grandeur that sounded lifted from a historical epic like Ben-Hur, but overall there was a bit too much chaos and cacophony for me. 

The main event thankfully had a lot more musicality to it, even if the set list wasn’t quite my cup of tea. Playing 2019’s i,i nearly in its entirety, a fine if underwhelming record that left little impression on fans and critics alike, certainly felt a little self indulgent. This impressive troupe of multi-instrumentalists performed the deep cuts with the same conviction as the hits however, which I felt made all the difference. The harmonies were haunting, and each member played so many different roles you often didn’t know where to look when a new instrument entered the fray. The two drummers in particular injected an immense amount of presence and drama to arrangements, and the camaraderie between them, grinning at each other from across the stage, was lovely to see. Naturally though it was the older material that elicited the biggest reaction and proved the biggest highlights of the night. Tracks like ‘Flume’ and ‘re: Stacks’ saw Justin Vernon performing solo acoustically, while the climactic grandeur of ‘Perth’ and the blissful expanse of ‘Holocene’ saw the band working in perfect unity and the crowd thoroughly enraptured. 

Special mention has to go to the lighting, which was simply on another level. The diamond shaped halos of light that surrounded each band member was the first unique feature to catch my eye, but it was the array of mirrored panels that descended from the ceiling that stole the show. Each individually controlled, able to rise, fall and pivot, they flowed like a wave and flexed like serpent scales. Bouncing lights from their mirrored surfaces to form a criss-crossing web of rays, the ingenuity and intricacy of the whole display was unlike anything I’ve seen before. I would never have pegged my cheapest arena gig to also be a strong contender for the best visual spectacle too, yet here we are. 

I’ve been lucky enough to go to some incredible gigs in my time, some of them truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but I’ve never had a reaction like the one I had to this gig. I’ve had numerous people, some I’d not spoken to in ages, messaging me to say how jealous they were and how much they wished they could’ve been there. This wasn’t a one-off event full of wall to wall hits, it was just another date on a tour, one which leaned heavily on deep cuts, and the fact that it still elicited such a reaction speaks volumes about the love people feel for this band. If you catch Bon Iver on their next tour, whether they’re at the top of your list or just a gig on a whim, you will not leave disappointed.