To answer your question: Yes. Strolling through Vivid Festival was the perfect prep for the incredible music experience of Bon Iver Presents CERCLE.
The night was a celebration of Justin Vernon’s body of work retold and reinvented by a group of multitalented, multi-instrumentalists positioned around the man himself. While aiding on vocals were three songstresses who usually make up the group, Staves. Stage wise, the arrangement gave an intimate impression that felt as if we were lucky enough to watch a behind doors studio session. In other words, before a chord was even struck, the arrangement had me fixated.
And then Justin Vernon appeared on stage under a slender beam of light to perform ‘Woods.’ Underneath the shadow of his red trucker cap he was almost unidentifiable if it weren’t for his unmistakable stature. The looping, auto-tuned layers of the opening track built to a dense texture, which felt like a massive pipe organ resonating around the halls of the Opera House.
The whole band was then welcomed to the stage to perform a very Bruce Springsteen inspired version of ‘Lump Sum’ from Bon Iver’s critically acclaimed, debut release For Emma, Forever Ago. Perhaps it was the setting but this reinvented version brought out some very obvious influences from contemporary composers like Steve Reich. The dense vocal harmonies were reminiscent of pieces like ‘Music For 18 Musicians’.
Cover songs continued throughout the night with a soulful solo rendition of Bonnie Rait’s ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ and a splice of Billy Joel’s ‘And So It Goes’ into the Bon Iver favourite ‘Holocene’ that elicited nostalgic gasps and sighs from the audience.
The arc of the music reached an explosive climax when the intimate studio vibe exploded into a stadium rock experience momentarily during ‘Creature Fears’. You know it was a rare moment as Vernon leaped from his seat and began moving about the stage in a sea of flashing lights and smoke. When it hit an abrupt finish, the crowd was in a silenced awe as a delayed eruption of applause challenged the volume that had come from the stage.
I’m man enough to admit that during the much anticipated ‘Skinny Love’ I found myself holding back some tears. An inevitable wave of goose bumps circulated through my body as Vernon emotionally belted the refrain.
The perfect close to the show saw the entire band huddled around a single microphone to sing and harmonise ‘For Emma’ with the audience encouraged to sing along toward the end. This was topped off by a picturesque exit – walking out of the Sydney Opera House and seeing the light festival illuminating the Harbour was a fitting celebration of Bon Iver’s return to our city.