Beardy folky hipster, Kanye West's favourite sidekick, alt-rock's best falsetto or reclusive log cabin fan.

Who, exactly, is Justin Vernon?

It doesn't matter, because you won't properly understand the Wisconsin singer until you see him, and his eight-piece band, live.

Bon Iver proved to be louder, more grandiose and far more epic live than they are on record at their first New Zealand show, one of the many musical coups scored by this year's International Arts Festival.


Anticipation for the event was so high, tickets were going for up to five times their face value on TradeMe, and the Wellington Town Hall was packed well before the 8pm start time.

It was easy to understand the hype once they kicked off: With two drummers, a horn section and several multi-instrumentalists on stage, Bon Iver build Vernon's minimalist folky ballads into surprisingly chaotic - and at times, unhinged - symphonies.

Their widescreen ambitions were a perfect fit on a vastly reworked Creature Fear, as Bon Iver's drummers hammered the song into a wonky electronic close, while Blood Bank heaved in a similarly freaky fashion.

Anyone wondering why hip-hop star Kanye West loves them so much found out why on ballads Wash and Calgary. The artists share a love for stirring, off-kilter orchestral arrangements, and they perfectly match Vernon's startling falsetto.

The show came to a head on a rare solo version of re: Stacks, a song from 2008's heartbreaking album For Emma, Forever Ago that was so emotionally charged, Vernon had the crowd eating out his hand. You could have heard a pin drop.

But the biggest screams of all were saved for shouty standout Skinny Love and an encore of The Wolves (Act I and II), as Vernon and the raucous crowd soared together through the "what might have been lost" cresendo.

It was an effort that had band and fans giving each other a standing ovation, and inspired an obviously elated Vernon to declare: "We will never forget this show".

For just a minute, his mile-wide smile belied his image as an angsty troubadour. It's unlikely anyone else will forget this show either.


What: Bon Iver
Where: Wellington Town Hall
When: Monday, February 27

* Bon Iver also play the Wellington Town Hall on Tuesday night.