To quote the Curtis Mayfield-penned slow jam that slinked out of the P.A. right before he took the stage, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver was determined to give the audience something it could feel last night at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater. And not just in the emotional, teary-eyed, deep-down-in-your-heart-space way you’d expect, but also in the gonad-rattling, eardrum-battering, tear-your-freaking-beard-off-by-the-roots sense. Bon Iver launched its new tour in support of its Number Two-charting album Bon Iver in surprisingly assaultive fashion, with Vernon furiously strumming his prickly guitar hymn “Perth” on a gold Gibson as horns, strings and two Bonham-sized drummers blared behind him and literally shook seats in the first several rows. Not only has Vernon not taken all those James Taylor comparisons to heart, he has decided to shove them up his critics’ asses.
Not that Vernon has to worry about critics these days. Certainly not in Milwaukee, which gave him a hero’s welcome befitting Wisconsin’s most celebrated musical export since the Violent Femmes. It began when Vernon was introduced by his godfather Tom Gartner, who as Milwaukee’s assistant city attorney appeared on behalf of Mayor Tom Barrett to formally declare Friday “Bon Iver Day.” Once he stepped out, Vernon was showered with wild applause as soon as he uttered his first word (“uh”) and the tone of worshipful adoration – with the guys yelling “I love you!” as often as the ladies – didn’t break for the next hour and a half. Not even “Holocene,” which a caused a minor kerfuffle locally due to an unflattering lyrical reference to the city, ruffled any feathers on this night. (The Milwaukee line instead drew hearty cheers and “Holocene” was among the most warmly received songs from Bon Iver.)
Vernon initially appeared a little uncomfortable amid all the adulation, moving stiffly through the opening cluster of songs without engaging much with the audience. Perhaps he was feeling a little rusty. “The last time Bon Iver played a show was here,” Vernon said later, referring to a spine-tingling concert performed with a different backing band nearly two years earlier at the venue. “We didn’t know how to get back in the groove of things, so we came back here.”
By the show’s second half, Bon Iver had found that groove, shaking off the busy arrangements and fruitless noodling that marred “Minnesota, WI” and a beefed-up “Blood Bank” for more stream-lined takes on the anthemic “Calgary” and an impressively fleet-footed cover of Björk’s “Who Is It,” featuring some show-stopping beat-boxing from trombonist Reggie Pace. (Watch video below.) But the real stunner of the night came when the band exited the stage and left Vernon alone to play his most beautiful song, “Re: Stacks.” Even the most excitable members of the audience sat in silence as Vernon briefly returned to the original incarnation of Bon Iver and quietly justified the night’s considerable amount of hype and hosannas.
“Who Is It”
“Wolves (Act I & II)”