Bon Iver's well-oiled, whistle-stop tour

Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon (left) was supported by the flawless harmonies of the three sisters of The Staves.
Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon (left) was supported by the flawless harmonies of the three sisters of The Staves.PHOTO: DOMINIC PHUA



The Star Performing Arts Theatre

Last Friday

Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon need not have worried about how his band would be received in this part of the world.

In an interview with The Straits Times earlier this year, he revealed that going back on tour for the first time in four years, and choosing to do that in Asia for the first time, was his way of testing the waters.

More than 5,000 fans here laid to rest any concerns he might have had, welcoming the American folk group with open arms last Friday night, some nine years after they released their debut album in 2007.

In return, Vernon seemed to open his heart - his banter with the crowd was unaffected and sincere, like his music. At times, the bearded frontman sounded overwhelmed to be halfway across the the world from his cabin home in the state of Wisconsin. "We're really far away from home, but it feels... homely," he quipped early on.

Though their music is largely introspective and heartbreaking, it was interesting to watch how it translated to a larger audience.

Comprising a seven-piece ensemble, including English acoustic folk trio The Staves and two drummers, they had a sound that was rich and all-encompassing, almost too loud at points.

But it worked perfectly for recreating the denser sounds of tracks such as Roslyn, originally a collaboration with fellow American indie singer St Vincent.

For a set-up that was doing only a whistle-stop Asian tour, it was tight and well-oiled, as if all of them had been on tour all this while.

The almost 90-minute-long show opened with a spotlight on a solo Vernon as he worked a vocoder and looper to layer distorted vocals on the haunting Woods. The track was the only one he performed from their 2009 EP Blood Bank, in a setlist that drew equally from the band's two albums - For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) and Bon Iver (2011). Even without any new material, the audience was rapt throughout the set.

The three sisters of The Staves - Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley- Taylor - provided stunning backing vocals and flawless harmonies, complementing Vernon's mournful falsetto.

The falsetto was best displayed on songs such as Re: Stacks, which he dedicated to a couple of friends from his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

The multi-Grammy winner allowed himself another moment to be front and centre, performing an impassioned acoustic version of their first single, Skinny Love.

The encore of The Wolves (Act I and II), as well as For Emma, was the only time the audience broke ranks in the seated venue and rushed to the front of the stalls. During The Wolves, Vernon led the crowd in a sing-along, asking the fans to sing the refrain of "what might have been lost" with increasing volume, which they gladly obliged.

A Bon Iver concert is not the kind where you clap or stomp and dance and sing along throughout. Instead, it is one with the crowd listening in attentive silence, in an almost quiet, eyes-closed kind of euphoria. The silence breaks only because of the thunderous applause.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'Bon Iver's well-oiled, whistle-stop tour'. Print Edition | Subscribe