The Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival may have taken the year off, but area fans of progressive indie-folk still got their annual helping of Justin Vernon.
The 38-year-old, better known as the mastermind of Bon Iver, packed 10,000 fans into St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center Thursday night to hear the material from their fourth album, August’s i, i.
Vernon is rightfully embraced as a local hero. He hails from nearby Eau Claire, recorded his landmark debut (2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago) in a hunting cabin in the remote woods of western Wisconsin, co-founded Eaux Claires in 2015 (four editions in, it’s solidified as one of the world’s most unique and place-specific festivals), and has featured scores of Twin Cities musicians on his records (including Velvet Negroni and Poliça’s Channy Leanagh on the latest LP). Thursday’s gig, then, was something of a homecoming, a celebration of the first dozen years of a still-developing career that’s taken Vernon from the Turf Club to the VIP suite.
The falsetto-favoring singer actually returned to the Turf in January, along with the National’s Aaron Dessner and their bandmates in Big Red Machine, one of a litany of side projects Vernon busies himself with in the long intervals between Bon Iver albums. There, members of the Prior Lake Native American drum group Iron Boy introduced the set with a beautifully haunting traditional. The Xcel show began the same way, and though it’s a challenge to keep 10,000 people with beers in their hands quiet for anything, the entire crowd respectfully embraced the unconventional opening.
After that, Vernon and the seven musicians that constitute the current live iteration of Bon Iver, including Minneapolis multi-instrumentalist Michael Lewis, strode onstage. They kicked off the set with the first four songs from i, i, the rhyming trio of “Yi,” “iMi,” and “We,” followed by the mysteriously-comma’d “Holyfields,” before segueing into a curious selection (and the only tuned played from the band’s best-known album, For Emma): “Lump Sum.”
That record was clearly forever ago in Vernon’s mind—“I don’t like talking about the cabin so much,” as he put it when talking about how opener Feist had inspired his isolationist recording process. There would be no swooning to “Skinny Love” or mass exaltation in “For Emma” at this particular concert. There were three songs from the follow-up that cemented him as a star, 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the majestic “Perth” chief among them. But in a risky move for any arena show, this one was all about i, i and, to a lesser degree, its sonic cousin, 2016’s groundbreaking 22, A Million.
Judging by the passionate response to new tunes like “Faith” and “Hey, Ma,” Vernon’s Minneapolis faithful didn’t to mind. Those songs became Bon Iver’s new anthems Thursday, and the 23-song, 110-minute gig spotlighted all 13 tracks from i, i. The elaborately minimalistic stage setup provided a visually-striking companion to his latest collection of songs, as each musician performed inside a bow-tie-shaped set of lasers, as a bank of UFO lights hovered and shifted above them.
When a defeated and depressed Vernon recorded those simple-yet-beautiful tunes in that lonely cottage twelve years ago, not even his singular, revolutionary mind could have predicted that he’d one day be presenting genre-defying, electro-chamber pop backed by an intricate light show to an audience in the five figures. That’s the best thing about following the Bon Iver story, though: Just as he did Thursday, Vernon will always keep the listener—and himself—on their toes.
Critic’s bias: This was my fourth Bon Iver show, including triumphant Eaux Claires sets in 2015 and 2016 and the For Emma, Forever Ago 10th birthday show in Milwaukee two winters back. That means I’ve seen him play three of his four albums in full (he debuted 22, A Million to the world at EC ’16), so I’m really pulling for a Bon Iver, Bon Iver anniversary tour in 2021.
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