So I’ll start with an admission. This week, in the presale, with absolutely no hesitation, I bought myself a ticket to see Bon Iver at Manchester Arena. Of course I did. Anyone who read my review of i,i on Sunday will know how excited I should be to see those songs live. And I am. I am. I am.
Kind of. I may have said there was no hesitation in buying the ticket, and that much is true. But I’m guessing you are starting to sense more than a little hesitation about the gig itself. You’d be right. But it’s not about my main man Justin Vernon, who I know will be superb, or even the support from Aaron Dessner’s Big 37d03d Machine, which I am hoping will be mindblowing. I can’t wait to see them both. I just wish, very strongly, that I was seeing them somewhere else. That they were touring in smaller venues.
Because I fucking hate arena tours.
When I think of Bon Iver live, I will always remember the intimate, seated show at Manchester Apollo just prior to the release of the second, self-titled album. Most of the songs were from For Emma, Forever Ago, and the venue was small enough for a version of ‘Skinny Love’ in which instruments were largely cast aside and the backing band simply clapped the tune with their very own hands. It was a thing of beauty. Unforgettable. But, in a venue the size of Manchester Arena it would have looked like a bunch of tiny people bashing their hands together and we’d have heard absolutely nothing. That memory would not exist.
And it’s not just Bon Iver. When Radiohead came out with A Moon Shaped Pool, I was lucky enough to get a ticket for their show at The Roundhouse in Camden. While not a tiny venue, it is small enough for a wander through to the front view rows and for the sound to be impeccable wherever you end up. Months later, I saw them in an arena. It was still good, it was still Radiohead, but in such a big venue there is space for the idiots who only want to hear The Bends to be heard loudly through all of the quieter, more beautiful moments. There is also less of an opportunity to see the interaction of the band, to watch Thom do his crazy dancing, to feel like the £75 price tag was totally worth it.
Further examples abound: reviewing The Cure, again at Manchester Arena, I was allocated a seated ticket so far from the stage that their three-hour set felt like listening to a CD while watching an, admittedly impressive, light show. And a younger version of me remembers being able to have a normal volume chat over the top of Oasis at The Millenium Stadium, or leaving before the end of The Stereophonics at Sheffield Arena because I couldn’t see or hear a thing. That might sound like a blessing now, but I loved them at the time.
And yes, I know that for all these bands there was a time when playing a venue so big was nothing but a distant dream. I know this means they made it. This is the first time Bon Iver have toured in arenas, and I should be happy for them, I should recognise the achievement and the hard work that has got them there. And I do. But there is also a real sadness that I won’t see the songs I love in such an intimate setting again, that I won’t be able to watch the fingers on the guitar strings or catch the emotion in the faces. That is how live music, particularly music of some of the genres I love, is supposed to be witnessed. Arena gigs that have bucked the trend of disappointment in recent times are few and far between, probably only Lauryn Hill and Nick Cave, but I will have to hope that this is one of them. I will let you know in April.
Words by Fran Slater