Bon Iver at Riverside Theater
Justin Vernon's underdog story got its final scene Sunday night
- MONDO LUCHA! celebrates fifth anniversary in high-flying style at Turner Hall
- David Sedaris goes off book, shines at Pabst Theater
- Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck offer glimpses of greatness at Riverside Theater
- John Hodgman, Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman give Pabst Theater three shows for price of one
- Top 5 musical moments from Kenosha’s 2013 Ride of the Living Dead
The story behind Bon Iver’s 2008 debut For Emma, Forever Ago has been told and re-told so many times that it’s nearly impossible to see Justin Vernon’s name and not also find “cabin,” “hunting,” and “northern Wisconsin” in the same vicinity. But the lovable underdog tale of Vernon’s unlikely rise from dead-end obscurity to indie-rock stardom finally got its triumphant climactic scene Sunday night at Riverside Theater.
Sitting in front of an adoring hometown crowd—hometown as in Eau Claire, where Vernon still lives and apparently fosters an ever-growing cult of worshipful neighbors who trekked to Milwaukee in droves—the endearingly thankful singer-songwriter announced that his band was playing its last show for “an indefinite amount of time” and ending this chapter of its career on a sky-high note. “This is a really big day in the history of this band,” Vernon said, clearly overwhelmed by the moment. “It seems very strange when dreams come to fruition.” Cue tear-jerking John Williams’ score, and fade to black.
For a night that felt more like a homecoming party than a concert, it almost seems beside the point to note that Bon Iver sounded pretty terrific. Coming almost two years after Vernon played Riverwest music club Mad Planet at the beginning of the For Emma tour cycle, Sunday’s Riverside Theater performance was a telling benchmark for how far Bon Iver has come since. Back then the band seemed tentative and unsure of how to deal with the incredible amount of media hype that clung to Vernon like an overly aggressive groupie. But after so many months playing festivals and increasingly large venues, Vernon has found a way to take his intimately constructed songs apart and put them back together into something larger and more universal—while also retaining the intense emotional bond that so many people have with For Emma.
Hearing Vernon lead his excellent band—comprising guitarist Michael Noyce and multi-instrumentalists Sean Carey and Matthew McCaughan—through surprisingly rocking and powerful versions of “Lump Sum” and “The Wolves,” it seems inevitable that even Riverside Theater will soon be too small for him. While Vernon is often lumped in with sensitive guy balladeers like Sam Beam of Iron And Wine and M. Ward, his proclivity for tricking out delicate acoustic melodies with heaping doses of dissonant noise make him a much more dynamic and potentially enduring artist. Then again, when he plays it a straight, like on a breathtaking version of “Re: Stacks” that reduced the Riverside to the size of a bedroom, he can be pretty spellbinding that way, too.
What Vernon does now is anybody’s guess. Unpredictably has always been the name of the game for Bon Iver. For Emma started out as an accidental collection of demos and ended up being the album that Vernon’s subsequent work will likely be judged against. But as his recent association with Volcano Choir shows, Vernon doesn’t appear to be shackled to the expectations of his audience. He seems set on taking his own path, and that, more than anything, makes him worthy of the adulation he was showered with Sunday night.
CJ FoecklerOpening the show was fellow Eau Claire band The Daredevil Christopher Wright, a charming trio that seemed to struggle initially with the size and scale of the concert it was playing. After an attempt at getting the audience involved early on failed miserably—nobody ever wants to clap rhythmically for the opening band—the Daredevils dug in and won the crowd over with an eclectic set that touched on Belle & Sebastian-esque twee, Afropop, and jangly ’80s college rock. By the end of its performance the audience was engaging in the clap-your-hands bits with lots of enthusiasm. Don’t look now, but Eau Claire might have another successful musical export on its hands.