By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
THE CROWD AT MILWAUKEE'S RIVERSIDE THEATER is bursting. It's been two years since Bon Iver has performed live—at the very same venue, back in September of 2009—and a feverish anticipation is flooding the sold-out room.
When the lights finally dim and the band files onstage, the place erupts. Bon Iver's founder, songwriter, and leader, Justin Vernon, is playing the part of the reluctant showman, dressed in a tan vest and slacks and flanked by eight musicians. A spectacular display of vertical LED lights bathes the players in electric blue as Vernon begins to weave his guitar through the opening riff of "Perth," the first track on the band's just-released Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and the crowd recognizes it immediately. The first voice to ring out isn't Vernon's, but that of longtime sidekick and guitarist Mike Noyce, and a few bars later the entire band comes crashing to life, masterfully fleshing out the intricate layers of the song and effectively stunning the room. Gone are the days of Bon Iver's pin-drop quiet, delicate live shows; the Justin Vernon of 2011 is commanding an unapologetically fierce rock band.
Still, that sense of emotional immediacy remains. Fans clutch their faces in their hands and swallow lumps in their throats, many shaking their heads at one another in disbelief. When Vernon sings, his voice easily stands out above the instruments and the cheers of "I love you!" Even with all the other action happening onstage, every backing musician falls in line behind that voice, which rings out like a rooftop aria and sounds too lofty and lovely to match the scruffy, persistently bed-headed man who is unleashing it on the room. Of all of the things that are enticing about Bon Iver, it's this disparity that is perhaps the most disarming: Justin Vernon, the universally likable, unassailably uncontroversial, Wisconsin-bred bro's bro, isn't afraid to be beautiful. And try as he might to avoid the wildfire success and the limelight, his beauty has caught the attention of everyone from Stephen Colbert to Kanye West and is positioning the college town of Eau Claire squarely at the epicenter of the indie world.
JUSTIN VERNON IS RECLINING in a pink chaise lounge, a splendidly garish piece of furniture that once sat in a hallway at his parents' house in Eau Claire and now resides at his brother Nate's loft in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis. Vernon has only a few hours of downtime in the Twin Cities before he heads to New York to perform on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Colbert Report, and he and his brother are taking full advantage of the momentary lull in the promotional furor to chain-smoke cigarettes and joints and crack open bottles of beer between episodes of Party Down.
Though his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, blew up the indie sphere, the band's latest, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is pushing Vernon into the mainstream. Since its release earlier this summer, when it debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts right under the new release by Jill Scott, Bon Iver, Bon Iver has caught the ear of critics nationwide and earned lavish praise from outlets like the New York Times, Spin, and Rolling Stone, whose reviewer Will Hermes called Vernon "one of our era's defining singers." Since the launch of the group's tour in Milwaukee, Bon Iver have started looping the U.S. for a journey that will eventually take them overseas to headline the Pitchfork Music Festival Paris in late October—including two back-to-back shows on Tuesday, September 6, and Wednesday, September 7, that find him at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis.
When he is asked how he manages to stay centered despite the swirling activity around him, Vernon smiles wryly. "There's vibe patrol on the phone every week," he says.
In addition to hiring his brother and his longtime friend and colleague, Kyle Frenette, as co-managers of Bon Iver, Vernon has surrounded himself with a large circle of friends and trusted professional companions who tour as a pack with him from place to place—think Entourage for the down-home Midwestern set. "They just make you remain who you are and who you were," he says. "By being good friends they hold you accountable, I guess, and they always have. I think it's really easy to see a lot of—and I don't want to be negative about it—but a lot of falsities about how things actually are. Like the whole fame thing, and how there are famous people talking to famous people. There's the industry, even at an indie level, and that can just be not real sometimes, even though it pretends to be. Not in a negative way, it's just not aware of itself. I just feel like by knowing that, you kind of remain far away from some of that and know that you're not a part of something that's weird."
Throughout the interview, Vernon returns to the idea of his pack, especially as a way of keeping him down to earth. "It's just family and friends, actually. They treat you how you're supposed to be treated. I don't know, that's like the only thing," he says. He takes another American Spirit out of a wrinkled pack, and his brother Nate appears out of nowhere to help him light it. "They come and give you lighters when you need one," Vernon says, laughing.