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Monday, July 25, 2011

Bon Iver @ The Riverside Theater

July 22, 2011

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Bon Iver launched its latest tour Friday night, playing the first of two sold-out shows at the Riverside Theater, but not before a representative of the city read a statement from Mayor Tom Barrett proclaiming July 22 Bon Iver Day. That singer-songwriter Justin Vernon received such a hometown hero's welcome speaks to the scope of his accomplishments—his band's magnificent new album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, cements him as one of today's most widely praised independent songwriters—but considering that he isn't actually from the city, the honor mostly speaks to the Milwaukee's desire to claim his success story as its own. Never mind that Vernon's Eau Claire base is 250 miles outside of Milwaukee (a drive about three times longer than the one from here to Chicago); he's from the same state and he occasionally weekends here, and in a city so starved for name ambassadors, that's more than qualification enough.

Friday's crowd, then, greeted Vernon with the combination of fandom and pride that's more directed at home teams than touring musicians. The band took the stage to a din of enthused cheers and a hearty, full-theater arena clap that made Cheap Trick's Budokan audience sound unappreciative by comparison. With the Bon Iver of just two years ago, there might have been a mismatch between the audience's boisterous enthusiasm and the quiet solemnity of Vernon's folk songs, but this was a newly expanded and de-folked incarnation of Bon Iver, a nine-piece well-fitted for the larger venues they'll play on this tour and easily able to drown out even the most vocal crowds. Though the lonely opening chords of "Perth" returned the audience to their seats, they quickly gave way to a theater-shaking, bottom-heavy rumble, and with a three-piece horn section and dueling drummers eager to fill the considerable empty space that Vernon's songs left them, that loudness only let up intermittently. Even some of Bon Iver, Bon Iver's most mellow tracks left ears ringing, particularly "Beth/Rest," the album's love-it or hate-it, '80s-synth-lacquered closer, which the band dialed up to almost subversive volumes. Rarely has a song so tame sounded so confrontational.

Only once did the band leave Vernon alone on stage, for a version of "Re: Stacks" that recaptured the shivery intimacy of his 2008 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. Mostly, though, Vernon refused to play into the reputation as a tortured forest poet which that album gave him. It was in that spirit of reinvention that he made over "Skinny Love," probably For Emma's most pained song, as a plucky audience sing- and clap-along. Though that may have seemed a curiously light reading for a song so fraught with suicidal imagery, it also seemed an honest one: Why would Vernon want to wallow in misery when he was playing for what must have been one of the happiest, most adoring crowds of his career?
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