With Mark Mallman
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Friday, October 18, 2013
When Volcano Choir made their U.S. live debut at the Cedar in 2011, it marked the beginning of the band exploring their grand and spacious live sound. And at a sold-out First Avenue on Friday night, the seven-piece group comprised of Justin Vernon and cohorts from Collection of Colonies of Bees delivered an impassioned 85-minute set that drew mainly from their exquisite new album, Repave.
There's a groundswell of interest around Vernon and his Grammy-winning Bon Iver project, but in Volcano Choir he's content to only play a vocal role in the band's sonic direction. Behind a lit up pulpit, he evangelized only with his lyrics and some electronic vocal effects while the group carried the songs heavenward around him.
Guitarist Chris Rosenau provided much of the texture and tone to the songs, as well as most of the between-song banter, with the rest of the group adding their own swelling flourishes. Behind the band was a backdrop that looked like a modern art interpretation of a topographical map of a planet we've yet to discover (or simply Eau Claire), and the warm lighting cast ominous shadows, with different splashes of color eliciting contrasting sentiments as the night wore on.
The show started strongly with "Tiderays" and "Island, IS." After a gorgeous, slow-burning version of "Comrade," Rosenau thanked the supportive crowd, and mentioned, "Playing First Avenue is a total dream come true for us," before introducing the first of two new songs the band offered up during the set, "Valleyonaire," which elegantly took shape and would bode well for another Volcano Choir record.
"Thank you all so much," Vernon said appreciatively as the well-earned cheers died down. "We've got kind of a nautical-themed record, and this is a song called 'Keel,' which is a part of a boat if I remember correctly." A rather hushed version of that track followed, but the din of the large club took away from the song's subtle grace. Things picked right back up with a vibrant run through of "Dancepack," which was driven along by the insistent rhythm of drummer Jon Mueller.
Rosenau introduced another new song, "The Agreement," by saying, "This is another song that hasn't found a home yet," while Vernon assured us, "It's all right to dance a little bit to this one." And indeed, the band had fully found their groove by this point, and "The Argument" took on an assured, pulsing swing that at least got the crowd swaying a bit instead of full-on dancing.
"Acetate" kept the strong finish to the main set rolling, with Vernon even putting on headphones as the textured track took off, manipulating his vocals to fit the swelling nature of the track. That jubilant moment served as the perfect introduction to the unquestioned high point of the evening. The exultant, towering version of "Byegone" that followed had the entire club singing the "Set sail!" refrain.
"Still" closed out the main set stylishly, as Vernon's familiar vocal lines (used by both Kanye West and Bon Iver) guided the song forward, with the group brazenly expanding the boundaries of the track while blissfully getting lost in the inventive extended outro. After a brief encore break, the band returned and kept the strong momentum going with a simmering, glorious version of the lead track on Repave, "Almanac," which again reinforced the thematic journey the band took us on with this wonderful performance.
Following that splendid moment, the stage was then shrouded in complete darkness, with only Vernon's modern-day pulpit glowing like a lone cluster of ghostly stars. The group brought the show to an elegant close with the mournful "Youlogy," which served as a solemn prayer to keep us all safe until we have a chance to this all over again.
Personal Bias: While I enjoyed Volcano Choir's debut album, Unmap, those songs didn't truly take life for me until VC's Cedar show. But I absolutely fell in love with Repave on my first listen, and this stirring show only caused me to take those songs even more to heart.
The Crowd: Based on how fast the show sold out, the club was rightfully packed with fans who were there for the music, mixed in with the annoying Friday night clubgoers who still refer to Justin Vernon as Bon Iver.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Do you think this place has a cappuccino machine?"
Random Notebook Dump: Mark Mallman delivered a rousing opening solo set that thrilled his longtime supporters and won over many local music fans who, for some inexplicable reason, have never seen him perform before. In addition to the keyboard-laden tracks Mallman played by himself, he also brought out a talented trio of guests, including his old friend Chris Rosenau ("This is one of the guys that you paid to see"), as well as Sean Anonymous and Claire de Lune, who all helped add some texture and pulse to Mark's spirited songs. Mallman's boundless sense of humor was on full display as well as his effervescent showmanship, as he ushered Rosenau off the stage with some words of encouragement. "Hey, good luck with that band. I hope they take off. They may love you at 9:14, but later on who knows? Miley might have done something by then."