It’s been 10 years since Justin Vernon, better known as the leader of Bon Iver, performed on the stage of Memorial High School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. But the rising singer-songwriter Rolling Stone profiled in February joined his former high school jazz band on Sunday night (April 19th) for a special show to raise money for group’s trip to Essential Ellington — a competition hosted annually by Wynton Marsalis, who has hailed the Memorial HS jazz outfit as “the $25,000 band” for their consistent ability to raise the funds necessary to make the trip six times in the last 10 years. Their first journey to the event featured Justin Vernon playing lead guitar his senior year.
After Old Abe Jazz Band I’s own set, in which they nailed Duke Ellington tunes, the hometown hero took the stage, joining Bruce Hering, the same man who led the band when Justin cut his chops a decade ago. Backed by a 20-plus-piece brass section and dressed in a bold white-on-white suit, Vernon performed “Lump Sum” (from For Emma, Forever Ago), followed by four standards — Ellington’s “Rocks In My Bed,” Nina Simone’s “Since I Fell For You,” Ella Fitzgerald’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “Miss Otis Regrets” — before doing another of his own songs, “For Emma,” which came alive under the weight of the large brass section. (YouTube below!)
After several standing ovations, Vernon closed with Frank Sinatra’s “The Lady Is a Tramp” and encored with a revelatory solo version of Mahalia Jackon’s “A Satisfied Mind.” He graciously attempted to shift the spotlight off of himself and on to the band (made up of juniors and seniors), the director, the songwriters, the community and his Bon Iver bandmate Mike Noyce, who contributed a wicked harmonica solo to “Since I Fell For You.”