Simon Sweetman - Dominion Post
It's rare that the Arts Festival gets it right with popular music - but the decision to include Bon Iver in the bill was inspired.
The band is riding high on the back of its self-titled sophomore release and the cult has been growing ever since 2007's debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, arrived with its charming log-cabin back- story.
Justin Vernon was the band at that point - a solo artist hiding behind a band-name, his broken heart smeared across an album of desperate homilies that seemed deeply unremarkable.
The extraordinary reaction to it was perhaps what made it extraordinary. For the Bon Iver album, Vernon is now the lead singer/ guitarist for a band. His spidery, scribbly guitar lines dart in and around his new country/folk amalgams.
The songs are more like paintings, musical colours bleeding into each other.
But to see it all unfold live - a nine-piece band threatening the calm with explosions that reference free-jazz and improvised music, tracing around alt-country and experimental rock - is to finally see (and hear) it all make sense. The audience, so constantly elated, had Vernon purring earnest-artist stories during his brief banter. Telling all about how wonderful it was to have this reception.
But it was the music that spoke volumes - and, despite the songs bordering on the absurd, it was a stunning play of group virtuosity.
Though so many Bon Iver fans might well be won over by Vernon's voice, to me the magic was in watching and hearing this band work as one, the two drummers finishing each other's sentences, dribbles of guitar and violin flowing in and over a warm swell of bass; the horns working to stir the soul without ever resorting to the pointless parping punctuation that can often be the default setting.
The songs from the latest album, barely fitting the description of "song" in many cases, stretched and sprawled, completely unconventional - wafting and falling out from the stage.
Reverentially received by an audience enthralled, the intensity of the music was matched by strobes and pulsing lights - timed to perfection, mimicking the mood, the passages of instrumental noodling caught in blues and greens, frenzied snare rolls and bursts of guitar riffs framed in red.
The most amazing thing is that music so close to baffling - beguiling to be polite - has been so warmly embraced by so many.
The call for an encore was the loudest I think I have ever heard.