This weekend, Wisconsin’s native son kicked off his coming-out sold-out summer tour at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater. Both a homecoming and a send-off, Saturday’s Bon Iver show was a time to enjoy what our fair state has produced and provide support for a brother-in-arms as he travels into the world.
Bon Iver, with all its triumphant highs and sappy lows, should only be experienced live. The eight-piece backing band–including two woodwind players, two drummers, and probably eight different keyboards–fleshed out tracks, providing space for the sounds to move and meet. Opening with the humongous “Perth,” Vernon and his Midwestern transplants laid the groundwork for an emotional and epic event. The first half of the show was largely dominated by tunes from Bon Iver, with Vernon going through the album’s first four tracks. Live, the album grows and shifts in the natural air, rather than the at-times overproduction of the recordings.
As a grounded everyman, Vernon commands an audience like no other. The crowd was enraptured by his every move, falling silent or screaming along at all the right parts. They even cheered as Vernon sang “You fucked it friend, it’s on it’s head, it struck the street//You’re in Milwaukee, off your feet,” on “Holocene,” a possibly scathing retelling of Halloween in the Brew-City. He even mastered Björk!
Part of my initial dissent regarding Bon Iver was based on the fact that it was such a departure from the intimacy he forged on For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon’s profound 2008 debut. That said, concerns of sound clash were flushed upon the first chords of “Creature Fear.” Old songs breathed new life under the current bombastic sound. 2009′s “Blood Bank,” maybe my favorite Bon Iver song, doubled in length due to an extended pedal board jam, sending guitar squeals and baritone sax fuzz to the farthest corners of the 83 year old venue. The sing along of “what might have been lost” during the first set closer of “The Wolves (Act I + II)” opened the flood gates, literally and figuratively.
Against all expectations, the encore of “Skinny Love” and “For Emma” was downright rowdy. The crowd shot to their feet to dance and swoon to the earnest standouts of For Emma, as the band provided much needed stomps, claps and swells. The grand finale of “Beth/Rest”–a painful tribute to Lite FM–was disappointing, but understandable due to its track placement on Bon Iver.
As a proud skeptic, I was uneasy about jumping on the Bon Iver train. Not that I’m anti, it just took me a long time to finally stand behind For Emma and I continue to feel the same about Bon Iver. Yeezy taught me to ease up on the guy, after his stellar performances throughout My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but I had not yet gulped the kool-aid. Now, I see: The genius of Bon Iver lies not only in Vernon’s talent and vision, but in his humility. It takes a true Midwesterner to base his art on a feeling of such closeness and community and a true artist to pull it off. While the post-adult contemporary sound may not be where I think he should take the Bon Iver brand, Justin Vernon is both entirely confident in his craft and open to where it may take him. The most exciting part of this whole story is that this is just the beginning. And what a beginning it was.
Setlist: Perth; Minnesota, WI; Holocene; Towers; Hinnom, TX; Wash.; Creature Fear; Blood Bank; Flume; Re: Stacks; Calgary; Who Is It (Björk cover); Michicant; The Wolves//Skinny Love; For Emma; Beth/Rest.
Peter Lillis has many homes. Wisconsin is his favorite.