Bon Iver at Mad Cool: a fine end to the ‘22, A Million’ era, but they “don’t know how” to play the new songs

We’re coming to the end of Bon Iver’s ‘22, A Million’ era. Justin Vernon et al’s brilliant, glitchy third album was released almost two years ago, and now, on the day of his Mad Cool Festival headline show, album number four ‘i,i’ has just been announced. But if you expect a set littered with glimpses of new music and revealed secrets, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

“We put out a couple of new songs today but we don’t know how to play them yet,” Vernon tells the audience at one point, before adding: “But if you want to check them out after you’ve heard a lot of other music for a long time, that’d be great!” So no new tunes tonight (apart from an outing for previous released ‘i,i’ single ‘Hey, Ma’), then. Instead what we get is a victory lap of Bon Iver’s euphoric ‘22, A Million’ live show.

Cutting an unassuming figure, Vernon wanders onto stage alone and opens his 80-minute set with a vocodered, a Capella version of ‘Woods’. Accompanied by pulsating strobe lights and jerky visuals, the jagged electronics gradually build until they climax into roaring cacophony, from which the familiar ticking beats of ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T’ emerge.

As expected, the set is weighted to songs from ‘22, A Million’, but these are intermixed with older offerings from earlier albums and EPs. And often these tunes are given an electronic makeover so the old and new sit seamlessly alongside each other. The dark and heavy version of ‘Blood Bank’ culminates in a glorious wall of sound, and subtle electric blips permeate the folky baroque pop of ‘Minnesota, WI’. Immaculately performed with elegant transitions that weave each song into the next, it’s hard to believe that the band changes the setlist for each show.

This is the joy of a Bon Iver gig: you don’t quite know what you’re going to get. There’s no way of looking up the setlist and tactically planning when you’re going to dip out and grab a pint as you could miss a rare outing of a favourite tune.

The rest of the set passes in a blur of jubilant breakdowns and whirring electronics. ‘Holocene’ is typically beautiful, with a gorgeous saxophone outro that leads stylishly into ‘33 “GOD”’. ‘Creature Fear’ boasts blues-flecked verses with Vernon half-speaking the lyrics, before the song erupts into the booming chorus. And then, in a flash of jittering lights and the soaring electronic riffs of ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, the band are done.

They briefly reappear for an encore of ‘For Emma’ (the song’s first outing in 2019). “We’re going to take it back to the beginning,” Vernon tells the crowd before they play it. “It’d be nice to think we’re an old band, but really we’re young”.

And he’s right, in the grand scheme of things the band’s 12 or so years together pales to the decades some headliners can claim. But over the course of three albums they’ve done more than some bands who’ve been together several times as long. Constantly reinventing themselves (from the gorgeous lilting folk of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ to the expansive baroque pop of ‘Bon Iver’ and their current chapter of folktronica), Bon Iver have remained a genuinely exciting band to follow.

Tonight feels like a final hurrah for ‘22, A Million’, triumphant, and ever so slightly bittersweet. “Check out the new shit!” Justin instructs the crowd before leaving the stage for a final time. You know we will.

Bon Iver played:

10 d E A T h b R E a s T
Heavenly Father
666 ʇ
Blood Bank
Minnesota, WI
715 – CR∑∑KS
8 (circle)
Skinny Love
Hey, Ma
Creature Fear
33 “GOD”
22 (OVER S∞∞N)

For Emma