It’s rare to get a stunning summer day in the UK. It kicks up all sorts of fuss and chaos, lighting a fire underneath people to throw themselves into every facet of the day. It’s a fine coincidence that Bon Iver coming to down for his biggest UK headline show to date has timed so perfectly. There are not many artists who’ve connected the way Justin Vernon has, whether it was the raw heartbreak of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, his bolder self-titled follow-up or the distinctly original flourishes across ‘22, A Million’. At each step, he’s been ahead of the pack, yet in 2019 he feels more exciting than ever.That ability to draw in the personal and produce something astounding is a theme that pulsates throughout the day at Victoria Park. Snail Mail takes to the stage early on but immediately goes about seizing her moment. Warm and rich, it’s an engaging set that takes the big stage she finds herself on and makes it seem like just another day at the office. In ‘Clean’, Snail Mail has a debut album that lays out exactly what she’s all about – from spinning breakdowns and gripping sways to infectious energy and fun. As the likes of ‘Pristine’ and ‘Baby Blue’ end her set, it’s going to be enthralling to see what Snail Mail does next.
Vulnerability and visceral emotion pour from Julien Baker soon after. Striding out on stage with just a guitar and keys, it’s a jaw-dropping display in how to raise a voice louder than any other while stripping things down to the core. Playing tracks from across her stunning latest album ‘Turn Out The Lights’, each rip and call sends chills down the spine, silencing the crowd gathered. It may not be the loudest set of the day in terms of volume, but it’s certainly the most affecting.Tucked into the JagerHaus, Westerman is a shining gem. Coming on stage after a pounding techno ending from a snooker player DJing is no mean feat, but Westerman plays a masterstroke by coming on and letting his voice do the talking with chilling acapella. From there, the crowd is in the palm of his hand – an effortless take on lo-fi dream pop all pulled into place by the smooth R&B flairs that burst from his every note. Born out of a bedroom this may feel, but Westerman is stepping out into the sunshine now.
With the day so far stringing through raw and introspective mellow sounds, it’s about time Ezra Furman came kicking through; a beloved darling of the alternative world who flourishes in independence and swagger-filled hooks. Today is no exception, bouncing off the stage and immediately turning Victoria Park into a collective celebration that goes from Springsteen-esque jamborees to punchy punk kicks. With a back catalogue filled with creativity and defining statements, it’s the sort of set the day needs, transforming the crowd into a joyous meld of faces and ages. There’s nobody quite like Ezra Furman right now, a must-see act over a must-see summer.With a career that’s spanned nearly two decades, John Grant‘s become a beloved hero of the alternative – his booming voice finding a perfect home at All Points East in a set that at points reminds of Depeche Mode and at others, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. The huge screen behind him lifts the set to another level, from the menacing jabs of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ to fresh cuts from latest album ‘Love Is Magic’ – everything feels important. Throwing shapes and playful throughout, for John Grant is deserving of a coronation.
“Tobbyy Carveryyy” is not the sort of thing you’d expect to be screaming out of the speakers in East London, but then again Mac DeMarco is all about cracking a laugh in the face of preconceptions. His set at the North Stage sees one of the biggest crowds of the festival (both weekends included) flock to witness the sort of laugh-out-loud fun that has come to characterise his every move. With new album ‘Here Comes The Cowboy’ in tow, tonight is a trip down memory lane – opening with the loose croons of ‘On The Level’ before ‘Salad Days’ sees a collective singalong that rings far and wide past Victoria Park’s walls. Already seeing new songs sung back to him, it’s clear that Mac Demarco is the sort of artist that’ll remain in demand no matter what the occasion.
There’s something special in the air as the crowds gather ahead of Bon Iver’s headline set; it feels like a rare occasion to witness one of the pioneering creatives of recent times in full flight. From his early days full of confessional solitude to now, the journey has been spellbinding. On the grandest of festival stages, Justin Vernon feels firmly at home.
Drenched in impressive musicianship, the wall of sound that comes as his band kicks into ‘Perth’ and ‘Minnesota’ immediately silences the packed crowds. Leading his band through every electric twist and turn packed across his deep catalogue, it’s a masterful display that touches at the very fabric of human emotion. ‘Heavenly Father’ rises with the sort of crowning ease that has hands aloft, while ‘Blood Bank’ has a similar effect as a singalong breaks out.
The influence of latest album ’22, A Million’ plays out in a big way live, with songs throughout his history now played through the eyes of that record – ‘Woods’ rises and spins, offering laughter as Justin cracks after messing up a bit of the start (“FUCK,” he smiles), while ‘Creature Fear’ is almost unstoppable in its overflowing crescendo. Power rings through ’22, A Million’ and its finest moments – ‘8 (circle)’, ‘715 – CREEKS’, ’22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ and ’33 (GOD)’ are magical their delivery. By the time ‘Skinny Love’ comes round, Victoria Park falls silent to become a mass choir joining Justin in an intimate moment.
Leaving the masses with a ripping version of ‘Holocene’ before exiting the stage to the airing of two completely new songs played through the speakers and on the screen in the middle of the stage – it’s clear Bon Iver is far from done. Ripping up the rulebook with a world of symbols and gold, it’s a memorable night under the stars; we’re living in a Bon Iver era, and things are about to get even bigger.
Words: Jamie Muir