If you’ve read anything I have written before you will understand that as well as addressing the main subject of the article, in this case a Volcano Choir concert, I like to address an ‘Issue’. One thought before writing this piece was to Justin Vernon or not to Justin Vernon? To Bon Iver or not. My compromise is to discuss this before getting to the live review, and then look the performance with a clear mind – exorcised of the elephant in the room and unaffected by comparisons and competition. To over Vernon would be to deny the credit that Volcano Choir deserve in their own right.
There must be elements of playing in a band with such a big star (Vernon) that are frustrating. I expect that these are outweighed by the extra coverage and attention that you will get, but there must feel like there is a Justin shaped shadow looming over things – that there is a man on whom the spotlight will naturally fall. The lucky thing is that Volcano Choir is brilliant, and this is not just the work of the most famous member of the group. The writing process in Volcano choir is not one of autonomy, and the best bits about the band can be distributed evenly. They’re a band, in the purest sense of the word, and thank god. Anyway, that is quite enough of that. On to the show.
The Barbican was the perfect choice of venue. It is large enough to give room to the dramatic and theatrical nature of a lot of their music, but felt personal enough to feel the more tender side of their music.
The set was brought in with a long rumbling organ drone. To this thunderous ambience the band walked on. They had a backdrop that depicted the same moody waves of the latest album ‘Reprave’. This, coupled with the eerie lighting, made for a scene setter that fitted the show perfectly. The drone led into a big rendition of ‘Tinderays’ as the fist song. By this point the band had settled into the format that they would keep for the whole set. Vernon was up front without the help of a single instrument. He did have a few little knobs that he twiddled to change his voice, but that was all. At times he did feel slightly at a loose end without a guitar to pluck or piano to chord. To compensate he led a master class in air drumming and thigh thumping. Actually, it was pretty good!
A huge part of the appeal of Volcano Choir is what their songs sound like, and the nuances of their music. This was exhibited with mastery and enormous
atmosphere. There were seven of them on stage, who, at times, were all producing thunderous sounds. They were made up of three synths, three guitars, drums and vocals – sometimes 6 of them. This created a wall of sound that was completely immersive.
The songs that hit the hardest were a stirring performance of ‘Comrade’, a song that, like a lot of theirs, spends about three minutes building up and about a minute and a half letting loose. There were a fair few moments of loose letting and they do them spectacularly. ‘Byegone’, which is my favourite of all their songs, was epic. During this song that band told everybody to join in the pinnacle of the song and go as mental as they possibly could. Given that we were all sitting down I think that we did well. It wasn’t quite arm-flailing mindless wildness, but we did our best.
The encore was ushered in by ‘Almanac’. If there was any doubt whether they were enjoying themselves they were quickly dispelled when, during a particularly energetic moment, the lead guitarist fell over. This was down to nothing but undiluted over-exuberance - and good on him, hats off. There is nothing quite like falling over to top-off a good evening out.
Vernon ended the evening with an a cappella version of ‘Youlogy’, and it was sweet. If not the obvious star of the show, Vernon can sure deliver a song with heart.
Who knows what is next for Volcano Choir. All of the projects that Justin Vernon involves himself in seem to rely on his presence. This is certainly the case here, with Bon Iver and with Shouting Matches. All we can do is keep our fingers crossed that this one does manage to tie down the fleeting man. They have now produced, in ‘Repave’, one of the most exciting records of the year, and they are a wonderful live band. This concert felt extremely special – a collection of hugely talented musicians coming together to produce work of the very highest order.