Bon Iver at Riverside Theater
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Milwaukee sure loves calling Bon Iver its own. No matter that frontman Justin Vernon lives 250 miles away in Eau Claire, which is much closer to Minneapolis, or that his previous band was based more than three times further. It’s as if we kidnapped him and are convinced he’s our paternal son. And maybe it’s just Stockholm syndrome, but Vernon seems to like us back. He kicked off his first tour in two years with a sold-out performance at the Riverside Theater on Friday night. Backed by an eight-piece band, Vernon’s set eschewed the sweet, somber melodies of “broken-guy-holed-in-a-cabin” folk for the vibrant, glowing, and more experimental sounds of his latest record, Bon Iver.
First, though, the city honored Vernon by handing him a Mayor Barrett-written plaque that proclaimed it “Bon Iver Day.” (It’s exactly the same as getting the key to the city, except you don’t have a totally sweet golden key in a box afterward.) After all the award hoopla, “Perth” began the set with a thunderous bottom end from the band’s two raucous drummers. It was immediately obvious that Vernon wished to shed the whole sensitive, acoustic, folk-y dude image that’s been proliferated in the press. The fuller sound worked well with the new stuff, like the slow “Calgary” and the R&B-tinged “Hinnom, TX.” Vernon wasn’t opposed to ditching the band altogether, like on “Re: Stacks,” the night’s most tender moment.
His encore appeased the many For Emma, Forever Ago listeners screaming throughout the entire show. “Skinny Love” raised the audience members from their seats for the first time—odd that they didn’t stand for the rollicking performance that preceded it—and closer “The Wolves (Act I & II)” built into a cacophonous sonic frenzy turned up to deafening levels. Thrown in between was a saxophone-heavy cover of Bjork’s “Who Is It” that sounded straight from the ’80s. “This one’s for all of you, I guess,” Vernon playfully remarked before “Holocene” midway through the show. The crowd roared when he sang “You’re in Milwaukee, / off your feet,” perhaps not realizing the song is a possible dig about our heavy drinking habits. It didn’t really matter. Vernon played one hell of a kick-off show, and he’s ours, damn it.