Picture this. A packed auditorium, seating close to 5,000 Singaporeans — all who came to witness a man who discreetly dropped an album that changed and shattered minds around the world years ago. It’s safe to say For Emma, Forever Ago will be regarded as a classic singer-songwriter record, but that’ll be for another time.
In this moment, right now, everyone is silent, staring at the brawny man onstage who's fiddling with knobs, trying to get the sound right. He sang into the microphone but out came a wall of distortion.
Having not heard any new material from Bon Iver since 2011 (aside from one soundtrack contribution), and with this being the third show of his comeback tour, you wouldn't be chastised if — for that brief moment— you'd wildly guess if this was part of a new, bold sonic direction for Bon Iver circa 2016.
But no, the soundman got it fixed. “I’m up in the woods.” Autotune never sounded so lush.
Justin Vernon, the brains behind the beloved project, built up and deconstructed the song just like he did in Blood Bank, and the progressive turmoil of vocal layers signaled the entrance for the rest of the band — welcoming onstage a few familiar faces, especially drummer Sean Carey (alongside a second (!) drummer), but missing a certain Colin Stetson, whose bass saxophone lent a worldly heft to Bon Iver’s arrangements pre-2012.
The most notable onstage alongside Vernon were British trio The Staves, who served as the band’s compelling harmonic backbone to Bon Iver’s signature falsetto.
Part of Bon Iver’s appeal has always been the unyielding intimacy in their songs, even as they explored a widescreen palette of sounds on their last album. But it was especially fascinating to see how the songs off For Emma would translate on a big stage.
Following ‘Woods’, the band kicked off with the first two tracks off Bon Iver, Bon Iver — the bombastic ‘Perth’ and the slow-burning ‘Minnesota, WI’ — along with a recent one-off single, the uncharacteristically immediate ‘Heavenly Father’. The songs sounded alive to us, and we were entranced.
It was when the first few notes of ‘Flume’ were played that the trip took a sharp turn into an unprecedented direction. The song’s lo-fi veneer was washed away but its emotional core fully intact — here was a song familiar to us all, presented in a way we’d never expect.
His power was not in mere translation: he amplified the unnerving calmness of ‘Lump Sum’ with The Staves’ celestial harmonies replacing the song’s originally hazy intro — 100% acapella, with their soaring pastoral voices breathtakingly aligned. And it wasn’t the only time in the night that got everyone hushed and hunched forward.
They moved forward with ‘Roslyn, WA’, with a surprising portion of Grizzly Bear’s ‘On A Neck, On A Spit’ squeezed in, a stunningly intricate ‘Towers’, a version of ‘Blindsided’ boosted by an electrifying extended section — not to forget the impenetrable synths on ‘Calgary’, which providentially washed over the auditorium.
The live arrangements of ‘Re:Stacks’ and ‘The Wolves’ have been the stuff of legend, and the mere vocal presence of The Staves helped set it in stone. But with the former, we also learned that night that the song was inspired by an unfortunate round of poker, and that it was the "beginning of everything bad".
The guy he lost the game to? He was there, sitting in the front row.
The audience participation in ‘The Wolves (Act I and II)’, on the other hand, was the extended gesture by Vernon they badly wanted — for many of them sorely realized ‘Skinny Love’ was truly not made for the merry sing-alongs they had all initially hoped for. Alas, fans with poor timing attempted to clap along to the well-known song — Lord Jesus, have mercy — which unconsciously undermined a moment of pure intensity.
But by the second half, everyone promptly stopped and got their shit together. They learned to just listen instead.
Ending off with ‘For Emma’ sealed the night with such joy and emotional catharsis that, hell, even streams of confetti wouldn’t have been too out of place, but a standing ovation felt absolutely mandatory.
His poker-winning friend at the front almost sat through it — eventually standing up, of course — remaining indifferent to the adulation towards his old friend from Eaux Claire, Wisconsin. But for many Singaporean fans, that night meant the world.
See more photos from that night:
Special thanks to Secret Sounds Asia for organizing the show.
Bon Iver and The Staves