Bon Iver at the First Direct Arena in Leeds was the biggest show I’ve been to in a good long while. The First Direct Arena is massive and almost totally characterless: plain concrete and lowest-bidder amenities abound; a pint of beer sets you back the nearly-unbearable (and doubtlessly market-analysis-optimised) price of £7.50. The interior is roughly one-third an ice hockey arena, maybe like everything from the blue line backwards.
The band, however—and here I was struck for the first time by how much Bon Iver isn’t Justin Vernon on his own—put on an excellent show. Vernon’s got great stage presence and the banter was welcome in a sort of faceless way (although his outlook might be a little granola for my taste; there were frequent Lennonesque exhortations to love and be good to one another).
Vernon also called out his crew a couple of times over the course of the show (including a comical vignette about riding on the ferry and the homely band being confused with the dashing crew), with good reason: the staging, the lighting, and the sound were absolutely on point. There was this movable lattice of reflective panels edged with lights, used to great effect throughout the show—sometimes undulating like waves, sometimes retracting into a massive dome, sometimes pulling in close and reflecting light across Vernon’s face to create an air of intimacy. Whoever came up with those panels needs some kind of recognition.
On the sound front, I’m used to smaller venues that overwhelm with noise and leave your ears ringing. Part of the reason that I like going to gigs is the opportunity to be obliterated by noise. But maybe because this was more commercial, more broad-market (half the audience was seated!), the noise was a bit more restrained and the sound quality was dialled in. The drums sounded louder than life; I could pick out the individual instruments with ease. The fidelity of the noise felt realer than life, somehow.
All of which gave the impression less of a live concert and more of an immersive multimiedia recording. I know that this is probably because the show’s been fine-tuned to oblivion, that the musicians are all absolutely at the top of their craft, because the music is sort of progressive-adjacent without being challenging—that they’re just really good at putting on a show!—and an immersive recording’s no better nor worse than a poorly optimised live show. Just different.
Now that I’ve seen them live, I don’t think I need to see them again—maybe in years and years if they’re still going. I took a couple of videos and a couple of recordings and I think that’ll be enough.