In 1979, Kate Bush played at the Hammersmith Apollo. The last night of her Tour of Life, it offered a glimmer of the 20-year-old’s remarkable potential with 17 costume changes and 24 songs. She didn’t play again for 25 years, when she packed up her crippling stage fright and returned to the west-London venue for another 22 nights.
With An Evening with Bon Iver, then, Justin Vernon was nudging on somewhat sacred ground. This was the first of an eight-night residency from the reclusive 36-year-old American, and his only performances in the UK after continent-wide cancellations last year. His fans, a culty bunch drawn to the emotion hewn into his electronic, vulnerable nu-folk, were prepared for something special.
It’s fair to say Vernon is not a natural spotlight-stealer – he came to fame after making music holed up, Henry David Thoreau-like, in woodland solitude. His second album was forged during a self-imposed exile in lonely European hotel rooms. He barely gives interviews. On stage, he recalls Kraftwerk, masterminding a tight-knit band and brass section from behind a raised desk of synths and mics, occasionally reaching for a guitar.
Vernon compensated for all this, though, with set-dressing. The Apollo’s stage was swagged in knitted drapes that carried projections of fragmented uterine scans and geometric patterns that synced – seemingly algorithmically – with the glottal stops and swells of songs from his 2016 record 22, A Million.
Dozens of amber lights scorched the stage during 8, when strummed guitars and oscillating beats built to a brass-bellied cacophony that sounded close to euphoria. Everything shut down during 715, an acapella psalm of heartbreak backed only by Vernon’s autotune, his spit and sharp inhale evoking pain as if it were freshly made.
Greatness arrived when Vernon delivered songs as deftly orchestrated as this, but they were heavily sandwiched with self-indulgence; songs reduced to juddering synths or thrashing wig-outs that laid a stupefying hand on the patient crowd.
Vernon’s real failing, however, was to introduce a 22-minute-long interval to his set, which shattered the delicate atmosphere he’d conjured inside the Apollo. Suddenly, the lights came on, and thousands clamoured for the toilet. When he came back, even with fan favourites Blood Bank and For Emma (controversially, for some, his breakthrough hit Skinny Love was ditched at the last minute), there was a noticeable shift in the room; the hush had been broken, and with it, Vernon’s spell.