What might have been lost

We stood under an overcast sky last night at Sidney Myer Music Bowl, clouds glowing orange with the lights from the city. As the twilight deepened, Bon Iver‘s support act, Sally Seltmann, began her set, and I felt that to be here, in this big and rushing city, was not so bad after all. In the midst of bustle and busyness, of traffic jams and too many shops, the place and the moment was an oasis to remind me of all that was good.

We bought tickets to Bon Iver late last year. At that point, a few very difficult months loomed ahead of us due to circumstances outside our control – a period of time that offered no surety as to how it would turn out in the end. The tickets were a promise for the future, an acknowledgement of hope.

So when the delicate but rousing first chords of “Perth” rang out to the audience of 12,000, I looked up to the orange sky, felt the music sweep into my body, and the sense of happiness was complete. To be there was magic; those first chords took it to a whole new level. A few drops of rain fell, a gentle reminder of the city in which we stood, and then the rain left us for the rest of the night: for the next two hours of incredible, inspiring music.

I fell for Bon Iver’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago while I was staying in a hostel on a Canadian ski mountain nearly three years ago. It fitted perfectly, and it never occurred to me that perhaps the environment was right: headman Justin Vernon wrote the album while holed up for the winter in a hut in the Wisconsin mountains, and he says he would have moved to Australia yesterday if he didn’t like the cold so much.

I have listened to the first album and, to a lesser extent, the self-titled second album, on and off ever since. Sometimes I listen with concentration, sometimes with abandon. Always it sweeps me away from the present – sometimes right away from the music, taking my thoughts elsewhere entirely, but more often the music is there beside me, sending me on a journey and coming along with me. These journeys are always into the imagination, and sometimes into the future.

To see the nine-piece band play and to hear Vernon hit the high notes in person was something else altogether. From “Perth” they slid smoothly into “Minnesota, WI” – just as these two tracks meld together on bon iver, bon iver. Vernon’s voice dropped for the second song, an indication of his vocal range that would emerge throughout the show.

The music veered from delicate melodies to thicker vocal sections. Lyrics that are barely understandable on CD suddenly became much more clear. The songs that I had heard over and over again took on new depth of sound and feeling out there under the vaulted ceiling of the clouded Melbourne sky.

It was not just the sound and atmosphere that was brilliant. The footage broadcast on two big screens either side of the stage for those of us on the lawn seating was well shot – close-ups of Vernon’s hands on guitar strings or keyboard, of the horn and saxophone and violin, of the drummer striking cymbals with wire brushes.

The backdrop to the stage hung like torn strips of bark in three V-shapes, leaving black spaces the shape of two mountains. Across this torn backdrop, images and lights played and changed: colours danced, or a blood-red river flowed against gravity; later surf rolled in. It was never distracting but it was always interesting, combining the elements that make a good music video with the live music experience.

It’s a while since I’ve been to a big concert, and there was a focus in the crowd that you don’t always get. You could sense the restless elements starting to fidget during some of the instrumental sections, particularly during the long saxophone solo at the end of “Holocene”.

Largely this was a crowd that was joyful to be there and keen to let the band know this between songs, but falling into silence during the quieter and more gentle songs. I think it’s a brave thing, to slow down and sing softly in front of a crowd that size, but Bon Iver handled it on a number of occasions before bringing back the strong beats and sending the crowd’s energy skywards again.

I’d forgotten the power of a good concert, and of hearing music that you love played live. It’s not just about the enjoyment of the moment; for me it’s also about where the music takes my imagination. It’s about the sense of calm, the cheerfulness, that you carry with you afterwards.

It’s about looking back, the next day or the next week or the next year, and remembering how it felt at the moment of the opening chords, or how it felt in the middle of the song that was the first of theirs you ever heard. There is something special, undefinable and ungraspable about just being there, with however many other people, at that moment in time when music makes the world seem bigger, fuller and happier.

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