If the vast array of instruments set up on stage at the Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee didn’t make it completely clear to everyone in the audience that this was a new, more fully-realized incarnation of Bon Iver, then that point was driven home about a minute into the stirring set opener, ‘Perth,’ as an enormous wall of bass washed over the crowd. This wasn’t going to be a flimsy, diaphanous live attempt to capture the beauty and majesty of Justin Vernon’s songs, this was going to be a performance with teeth, one that you can feel physically as well as emotionally.
This was Bon Iver Version 2.0, and it was a stunning, robust realization of Vernon’s artistic vision, filling the sold-out Riverside with two nights of massive, breath-taking sounds crafted by Justin and his stellar 8-piece backing band, which featured a thunderous, double-drum attack, as well as numerous brass flourishes that really fleshed out the songs nicely. The band had been in the theatre all week rehearsing before the show (the first official Bon Iver live show since performing in this same venue nearly two years earlier), and that practice clearly paid off, as the songs soared with the band’s studied, textured approach, transitioning effortlessly from one track to the next while keeping the intensity level high throughout each 95-minute performance.
The setlists didn’t vary too much over the course of the two shows, with just a couple different songs switched out each evening (‘Beach Baby’ and ‘Brackett, WI’ from Night One exchanged for ‘Creature Fear’ and ‘For Emma’ on Night Two). But it definitely seemed like there was a nervous excitement that pulsed throughout the first show (which was proclaimed Bon Iver Day in Milwaukee by the mayor), which was replaced on the second night by a focus and potency that only added to the strength of the songs. The new tracks were all dynamic and simply enormous sounding, as the big band breathed a spirit and force into those songs that made the lovely, delicate album versions sound quite tame by comparison.
There were also elements of Justin’s spare, solitary musical roots that shone through the performance, as the band left Vernon alone on stage for a solo, stirring version of ‘Re: Stacks,’ that was a gorgeous, unguarded moment of pure musical perfection. A powerful rendition of ‘Blood Bank’ was another clear highlight, augmented perfectly by deep red lights that ominously bathed the stage. But the real stars of the show were Justin and his first-rate band, who proved to be dexterous (with most of them fluidly bouncing from one instrument to the next) and diverse, going from a tender, touching Bon Iver song one moment (‘Skinny Love’ on Night One and ‘Calgary’ on Night Two), to a surprisingly awesome cover of Björk’s ‘Who Is It,’ which featured the on-point beatboxing of horn player Reggie Pace.
‘Skinny Love’ actually kicked off the encore of each show, with the band benevolently assembling around Vernon while providing jubilant, hand-clap percussion as he played a spirited, acoustic version of the exquisite number, with the enthusiastic audience joining in for a rousing group singalong. The sax-driven pop anthem ‘Beth/Rest’ was the main-set closer on Friday night, but rightfully closed the entire two-night stand on Saturday, ending the show in a triumphant, celebratory way that sent everyone home with a smile plastered on their face.
I’ve seen Bon Iver a handful of times in their previous lineup, but I’ve never heard them sound anything like this. As Justin mentioned to me after the show, “We’re getting there, man. We’re getting there.” He’s clearly on a quest to be able to fully match the distinct sound in his head, and I can’t help but feel that these shows were as close as he’s come thus far to doing just that. It will definitely be interesting to hear just how much (or little) their show evolves over the course of their current tour when I see them again in Minneapolis in September.
But wherever they eventually end up, this large band and their rich, sturdy sound represents a bold new chapter in Vernon’s musical career, one that finds him a long way from that oft-mentioned cabin in Wisconsin, with the spotlight of the music world squarely on him. And he’s making the most of this opportunity, confidently leading the group through the ins and outs of his impassioned songs while crafting a live show that ranks among the best I’ve seen in years. And, if these performances are any indication, that spotlight won’t be fading anytime soon.