Volcano Choir leaves past behind at sold-out Pabst Theater show
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After Saturday night’s sold-out Volcano Choir show at the Pabst Theater, nobody in Milwaukee is likely to bemoan Justin Vernon’s proposed retirement of the Bon Iver moniker. Surrounded by a veritable supergroup of Wisconsin musicians, Vernon played his usual role of the aloof, reluctant star, but the persona smacked of genuine humility. He seemed comfortable just being the singer of a band, content to let affable guitarist Chris Rosenau provide most of the banter and play MC to his hometown crowd. Volcano Choir originally came together through a long-distance file-swapping collaboration between Vernon and members of Milwaukee post-rock band Collections Of Colonies Of Bees—basically a homework side project—but now it is definitely a band. Bolstered by a batch of excellent songs on the new Repave album, as well as Vernon’s drastically improved vocal command, Volcano Choir’s second outing has left its past—as well as most of Vernon’s prior work—in the dust.
Anyone who has seen CoCoB live in the past few years has probably noted the band’s shift away from the acoustic intricacies of its recorded work towards a more balls-out electric rock approach, and this trend seems to be carrying over into the new Choir material that the band unveiled at Saturday’s performance. “Valleyinaire” and “The Agreement,” two unreleased new tunes, both eschewed subtlety for warm, dramatic guitar pop. These, like most of the songs, were largely driven by the beastly drumming of Jon Mueller, but they also served to highlight the versatility of Rosenau’s guitar work. His distinctive acoustic plunking on tracks like “Tiderays,” “Keel,” and “Alaskans” brought the classic CoCoB sound to mind, but the electric din produced in tandem with Daniel Spack’s more textural style filled the room up with as much sheer musical intensity as it could hold.
The various personalities of the musicians onstage could scarcely be more different, and even on Repave, the songs feel a little calculated and pieced together. But it’s evident that the band’s first significant U.S. tour has allowed the songs to breathe and the members to relax. During the grandiose swells of songs like “Island, IS” and “Acetate,” it was pointless to try and make out who was producing which elements of the wall of sound; music like this is felt as much as heard. Vernon utilized his various vocal-manipulation gizmos tastefully à la Thom Yorke in the influential Radiohead track “Everything In Its Right Place,” particularly effective at the end of “Comrade” and the chilling “Youlogy” finale. He has developed his overall range significantly in the years since his 2008 breakthrough For Emma, Forever Ago, relying less on his gimmicky falsetto, which only became a distraction during a couple parts of “Alaskans,” while his emotive singing in “Dancepack” contributed to a breathtaking overall highlight of the show.
Of course, the most memorable moments came at the end of the set. “Let’s do this one together,” suggested a beaming Rosenau as Spack began the droning, one-note riff to current hit “Byegone,” prompting an uplifting mass singalong of “Set sail!” that the Pabst could barely contain. Then came “Still,” perhaps Vernon’s most iconic piece of music, which built into a menacing pulse of synth, guitar, and effects, conducted by the militaristic drumming of Mueller, who essentially morphed the end of the song into a Death Blues-style meditation. Few bands ever reach a point where they can produce this level of intensity, to say nothing of the dynamic range between ground-shaking noise and delicate acoustic interludes. Volcano Choir is no longer just another Vernon project; it’s one of the best live bands around.