Calling Justin Vernon a nice guy is like saying the Rolling Stones are a good blues rock band. They’re both whopping understatements. Bon Iver’s frontman goes out of his way to make you feel welcome. And the guy’s so polite that he apologizes for being so polite. It’s this sincerity that made his performance Sunday night at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater such a treat.
Vernon’s tall tale, and now familiar, back-story has always threatened to eclipse his music (Raleigh folkie breaks up with girlfriend and band; moves back to northwestern Wisconsin hometown; locks himself in cabin for three months and composes beautiful debut album) 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago. But here in Milwaukee, a place where fans want to claim Bon Iver as their own, Vernon and company are calling it quits for “an indefinite amount of time.” Not surprisingly, Vernon won’t stop thanking people.
The hiatus coincides with Vernon’s latest release with his side project, Volcano Choir, featuring the Milwaukee group Collection of Colonies of Bees. There were murmurs of a possible invitation to the group to join him on stage, but nothing came of it. The thought must have whirled around Vernon’s head, but it would’ve been an imposing, egotistical move. Someone with his grace wouldn’t sideline his own band to introduce his new outfit, especially on the former’s final gig.
Vernon’s whinny falsetto has always defined Bon Iver’s sound, but it was his backing band that gave the group its ethereal beauty on Sunday. Michael Noyce’s guitar creaked, evoking rusty, wooden doors; multi-instrumentalist Sean Carey’s quaint wind chimes opened “Lump Sum,” giving the song an eerily pastoral feel. The two’s percussion, along with Matthew McCaughan, rang like thunder on “Skinny Love.” During this tune, along with “Flume” and “Lump Sum,” Vernon, with unkempt hair and scraggly beard, transplanted the audience back to his solitary Eau Claire cabin. He didn’t leave them there long, though, mixing his set with shredding solos on “Creature Fear” and “Blood Bank,” showing glimpses of his experimental side.
A staple of their live shows, Bon Iver covered The Outfield’s “Your Love,” bringing some ‘80s camp to the otherwise serene night. “The Wolves (Part I And II)” transcendentally closed the set as the crowd repeated the line “what might have been lost,” crescendoing louder and louder into a full-out burst of energy. As the seats rumbled it was obvious that, no matter how courteous, Justin Vernon still puts on a hell of a rock show.
The entire performance can be streamed here.