St Giles church sits a little way back from the road in central London, a stone's throw from Tottenham Court Road station, where the buses swing round onto New Oxford Street, and the pedestrians spill out across the pavements. On a weekday evening in early summer, when the trees in the churchyard hung heavy and waxy, Bon Iver played here at St Giles, a world away from the bustle outside, sitting quietly at the top of the aisle before an audience of some 200 people.
There was something about the Bon Iver album that lit me up. Released at the start of this year, For Emma, Forever Ago ran a mere 37 minutes long. Yet its nine songs proved more potent, more redemptive, more astonishing, than anything I have heard since Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.
I'd seen them played live in a number of locations, from the Social to the Scala, but I had never heard those songs sound quite so rapturous as that night at St Giles. Perhaps it was the setting that brought out the gospel tinge to Justin Vernon's voice, perhaps it was the instinctive sense of awe that descends whenever one finds oneself seated on wooden pews, before stained glass, breathing hallowed air. But as the evening unfolded in layers of falsetto, drums and steel guitar, the air quivered with utter devotion.
The audience that evening was largely made up of jaded music industry aficionados and hipster types, but by the end of the short, sweet set, there was a sense that we had all witnessed something monumental. For the final song, the band came out into the aisle to sing The Wolves (Act I and II), entirely without amplification. The audience crowded round, joined in, and afterwards cheered, applauded, whooped. I looked around and saw there row upon row of people — or perhaps we might call them believers — standing wet-eyed with joy.
Bon Iver, Into the Woods...