From his delicate albums, his laidback appearances on stage with his close personal chum Kanye West – including during West’s Glastonbury headline spot in 2015 – and general low key cap-and-workwear-sporting demeanour, you’d think that Bon Iver mainman Justin Vernon would be pretty damn content with simply shuffling about, doing a gig here or there, and spending the rest of the time distilling his own whiskey or blending his own coffee out the back of a VW camper van.
Well hold the coffee beans, because last night’s top secret, extra special show at Berlin’s Michelberger Hotel proved that Justin Vernon is perfectly capable of being a rock star of major league proportions.
It’s 36 hours before the official release of ‘22, A Million’ – the third Bon Iver album after 2007’s breakout break-up record ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ and 2012’s self-titled, Grammy-grabbing follow-up – and Justin Vernon is in Berlin, here to take part in an experimental, untitled music festival taking place at the wonderfully named Funkhaus with his pals in The National. But before all that starts, he’s decided to play a little gig in a hotel courtyard, which, we’re sure, must be quite a treat for those who booked a last minute mini-break and randomly decided upon staying in this hotel.
The stage is plonked almost in the middle of the white-tiled courtyard and Justin Vernon and his band amble into place and set up in the round. During an album campaign that’s been based around Justin never really showing his face, it’s a bit of a surprise to see him in full, instead of with a artfully ripped bit of paper in front of his face, or ink blots over his eyes. But there he is, cap and workwear duly in place, roll-up cigarette perched behind his ear, and about to do some serious damage to the pedalboards, guitar and all the other kit he has laid out in front of him, like some kind of unhinged sonic scientist.
He goes on to play ’22, A Million’ almost in full. Of course in a particularly Bon Iver-esque move the band decide to skip the track from the record that most people here are likely to have heard (’22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ and instead go deep into the willfully esoteric, experimental record that’s full of technological glitches and chip-tune breakdowns.
Yet live the record takes on a new, very human dimension, thanks not only to Justin’s fondness for leaping up and down and general intensity. The acapella vocoder piece ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’ is impossibly stirring, while ’29 #Strafford APTS’ manages to sum up what’s just so great about Bon Iver – the seamless mixture of Fleetwood Mac style classic rock epicness and Kanye-like experimentalism. And if that wasn’t enough, halfway through the show somebody whips out a saxophone. “I like the wind,” explains Justin as a strong breeze flutters through the courtyard, rustling through the paper lanterns that have been strung up for the evening. “The wind is, like, part of it.”
After almost an hour of general amazingness that’s as challenging as it is lovely, the band finish up with ‘Creature Fear’, the only ‘old’ song to get an airing tonight. It’s a sign of how far Vernon’s come – not just in terms of typography, but sonically too. From here the next step surely is world domination – or at least a fair few headline slots come festival season 2017.