With Bon Iver's sophomore album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, sitting at #2 on the Billboard charts and the band receiving heaps of positive press and selling out venues across the country, it seems a tad unnecessary to jump to their defense and attempt to bat down the inevitable backlash. But as soon as the band fired up the first verse of "Perth" at their second of two tour kick-off shows in Milwaukee on Saturday night, one thing became abundantly clear: All of the Justin Vernon critics who have written him off as a weepy/pretentious/overly sensitive folkie or some kind of purveyor of '80s lite-rock pap are just laughably, unequivocally wrong.
The Bon Iver of 2011 is a vivacious, ballsy rock 'n' roll band, with Vernon falling down to his knees to pummel his guitar and unleash an unholy cacophony. Standing in stark contrast to the spare four-piece configuration of Bon Iver that toured throughout 2008 and 2009 and specialized in holding the audience in silent reverie, the newest lineup swells to nine members and piles on the layers and lights in a dizzying display. Vernon, too, has grown into a more commanding frontman, bantering playfully with the audience and leading his musicians with the finesse of a seasoned big band conductor, even joking at one point that he felt like an old-fashioned bandleader as he shouted out the names and hometowns of the players behind him.
"This is an oldie but a goodie, try to keep up with the changes," Vernon smirked as he snapped his fingers and led the band into "Creature Fear," which didn't show up in the set until they had performed a half dozen tunes off the new record. But the concert didn't have the hurry-up-and-get-to-the-familiar-stuff vibe that often accompanies album-release shows; from those first few familiar guitar arpeggios that make up the intro to "Perth," the crowd responded with giddy recognition to each song Vernon pulled out, making it clear that they had already spent plenty of quality time with the new tracks. Shouts of "You're amazing!," "Have my children!," and "I love you!" -- yelled more often by men than women -- punctuated the few quiet moments of the night and seemed to stoke Vernon's confidence on stage. With Vernon's parents in the audience, guitarist Mike Noyce's siblings holding up "Happy Birthday" signs, and audience members making repeat trips to the bar throughout the show, the whole evening felt like more of a party than some stuffy theater performance, and it was easy to get caught up in the revelry.
When I was walking into the Riverside Theater, my friend and fellow Gimme Noise contributor Erik Thompson described the first night's show as "a realization of Justin's creative vision," which I found to be simultaneously enticing and overwhelming, as it ticked up my expectations for the show even higher than they already were on the drive out. But I can honestly say that I found his statement to be quite accurate as the show wore on; to my ears, Bon Iver, Bon Iver presents itself as one complete, fully formed idea despite all of its genre-swinging from track to track, and likewise the band's live show seemed like a very thoughtful, well-rehearsed dedication to Vernon's musical ideals. (I might even call the live show a revelation, if such hyperbole didn't make me want to roll my own eyes at myself.)
Even the older tracks were reworked into new arrangements -- "older" in this instance meaning from a whopping two or three years ago -- with "Blood Bank" exploding into a percussive aural assault amidst blinking red LED lights and encore opener "Skinny Love" devolving into a full-crowd clap-along as the backing musicians formed in a line behind Vernon and added back-up harmonies. The only song to really remain true to the "old" Bon Iver style was "re: Stacks," which was performed solo by Vernon and provided a jarring but deeply moving and welcome respite from the barrage of multi-layered sounds. Also surprising was Vernon's souped-up cover of Björk's "Who Is It," which showcased horn player Reggie Pace's impressive beatboxing skills, and the extended jam on "Beth/Rest," which seemed much less incongruous live than it does at the end of the new record.
Milwaukee's pair of sold-out shows marked the first time that the new lineup of Bon Iver have played proper shows together, but you'd never have guessed it from their presentation. With the band already sounding so precise and polished live, it'll be fascinating to see how they have evolved by the time they circle back to the Twin Cities in September.
Photos by Ben Clark
Personal bias: I'm in the midst of reporting and writing a longer piece about Bon Iver that will come out next month, so Vernon and Co. have been on my mind a lot these days.
The crowd: Mostly twentysomethings, all very amped for the show.
Overheard in the crowd: "Are you ready for Bon Iver-ski?"
Random notebook dump: The freakout climaxes that this band can deliver remind me of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco. Also: I must mention the opening set by the Rosebuds, who were projecting a New Wave aura and sounded delightfully pouty and boomingly loud.
NEXT PAGE: Full setlists from Friday and Saturday nights and more photos of Bon Iver and the Rosebuds.