Words: Steven Spoerl | Photo: Dan Huiting
It was Monday night, December 12th. The excitement was more than palpable. A banner was strewn over the doors announcing a town’s pride of their homecoming hero and his achievements. Doors weren’t set to open until 7pm but a line was already forming at noon. This is an unusual scene for Eau Claire but then again, this was a special show. Bon Iver was finally coming home and (like the banner said) riding high after receiving the distinct honor of having four Grammy nominations for this years outstanding Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The fact that there’s still snow on the ground in Eau Claire made this return all the more fitting. A large variety of newscasters and newspaper journalists alternately picked members of the line out (which included everyone from non-fans to super-fans to Astronautalis) and asked them questions. It was bizarre yet sensible and only elevated the level of anticipation.
After a fairly cold (yet surprisingly warm for December in WI) 5 hour wait, doors finally opened and I entered with a few new friends after deciding to kill time by talking. Two in particular, Raina Beutel and Chris Becker, are how I’m assured that not everyone who waited in line for an extensive amount of time was a fan- they both claimed to be there because of interest in the success story angle. Their unquestioning trust and understanding gave the sense that the whole night would be a unified communal affair and it really was.
So, the doors finally opened and everyone rushed in to the somewhat misleadingly titled Zorn “Arena” (it’s actually UW-Eau Claire’s gymnasium). It took a little over an hour to fit the sold-out crowd into Zorn and I got to watch some of the line that reportedly stretched across half of UW-EC’s sizeable campus. More friends were made during that wait and the increasingly anxious crowd erupted into loud screams as the house lights dimmed and the stage lights went up.
We were then treated to a fantastic UK-based singer/songwriter by the name of Lianne La Havas. I’d never heard any of her material so I was unsure of what to expect and was pleasantly surprised when she turned in a half-hour knockout performance full of virtuosic jazz-tinged fingerpicked folk. Her voice was impressive, to say the least, and she managed to hold the audience rapt with a 6 song set that included an outstanding song called “Forget.” La Havas was in high spirits throughout the show and seemed elated to be a part of the tour and excited about this show in particular. Her banter was amusing, her stage presence was fitting, and her set was fantastic and the exact right length.
The stage lights dimmed again and the house lights came back on. After La Havas ended, the excitement practically doubled for the homecoming heroes and the audience was abuzz with talk of Bon Iver-related memories. I heard bits and pieces of this all around as I grew anxious, unsure of what to expect from the band live. When the crowd erupted again (and they truly did) and Justin Vernon, S. Carey, Colin Stetson, and the rest of the band came out waving and smiling, I let my fears get the better of me and prepared myself for inevitable disappointment. However, after the opening strains of “Perth” my fears began to subside and by the songs mid-point, specifically when the guitars really kick in, my jaw was on the floor and my mind was nearly decimated.
At the end of “Perth,” my stance had completely changed direction and I began waiting for the next life-affirming moment (which is the closest I can come to truthfully describing how I felt). I didn’t have to wait very long because on every subsequent number the band proved to be a veritable tour-de-force conjuring a sound so huge, rich, and lush that it was somewhat reminiscent of Arcade Fire’s live show. While Bon Iver certainly didn’t come close to matching Arcade Fire’s overwhelming energy and catharsis, they more than made up for it with grace and the willingness to allow themselves to get energetic during noise-punk moments that recalled both Miles Davis’ free-jazz experiments and Sonic Youth in their purest form. After “Perth” and awe-inspiring renditions of “Minnesota, WI,” “Holocene,” “Towers” (which Vernon announced was about a building “up the hill” reminding us of this particular shows direct meaning), and “Michicant” they finally hit an unbelievable blissed-out strobe-light-assisted crescendo at the end of “Creature Fear causing one of the biggest crowd reactions of the night. With that song Bon Iver had officially catapulted themselves into completely excessing my initial expectations which I thought to be unreachable.
After “Creature Fear” ended and I mouthed a few incredulous expletives to my good friend (and UW-EC student) Ryan Schoonover, the band dipped back into two of the most ambient cuts from Bon Iver, Bon Iver “Hinnom, TX,” and “Wash” which served as the perfect tracks to wind the crowd back down after having our senses obliterated with the “Creature Fear” outro. It was around this time Vernon began telling a story of how the band was on tour in Europe a few months ago, feeling completely drained and lifeless when they saw the news footage of people lining up for blocks at 4 in the morning to buy tickets to this very show (the tickets weren’t sold online and could only be purchased in Eau Claire at UW-Eau Claire) and it breathed life and pride into them. Vernon couldn’t help but getting a little emotional while recalling this, providing one of the most genuinely heartwarming moments I’ve ever seen. I looked over at Ryan again and there were traces of pride on his face as well as he was one of the people in that line (thanks for the tickets again, Ryan). It was a genuinely special moment that perfectly characterized how special this show was, not just to the band- but to everybody.
After all that, “Flume” became the first truly quiet song to bring the place down. The audience was hanging on to every high note and every fractured emotion present and reciprocated a powerful performance with powerful applause. However, that applause was short-lived because the song segued into another noise segment that bridged that to the downright explosive “Blood Bank.” Flooded with red lights, distortion and volume jacked to their peak, the band absolutely crushed this single song and poured practically everything they had into it. Towards the end Vernon provided a special treat; a Dinosaur Jr.-worthy guitar solo. I didn’t know he had it in him. After that easy set highlight (which once again brought Arcade Fire’s live show to mind- only this time replicating their energy as well) and feeling the insides of my chest reset themselves into the correct places, everyone but Vernon left the stage.
With nothing but a microphone and a Les Paul, Justin Vernon set about quieting the audience with a devastating performance of For Emma’s haunting closing track “Re: Stacks.” The one time I managed to pry my eyes away from the stage, with that sole spotlight descending onto Vernon, I noticed not only some girls but some guys as well, wiping away a tear. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience so invested in the performance of a single song. It marked a rare moment of complete appreciation for the company of a particular audience. After all, this meant a lot to more than just the band and that was never more clear than it was at that precise moment. In a word: beautiful.
After Re: Stacks closed to thunderous applause, some of the band rejoined Vernon in their positions onstage while the others formed in two lines around a chair and a Dobro was brought onstage and given to Vernon. I knew what was coming so I looked to the bleacher section to see how all the people who were sitting down would react and I wasn’t disappointed. When that first C chord of “Skinny Love” hit, half of them rocketed up and were soon joined by the other half. Yet again, the place was practically torn apart by the end with applause that went beyond appreciated and was outright rapturous. Once again, the band was also showcased in fine form with each member perfectly in sync with the rest as far as timing and harmony are concerned. It’s a pleasure to see bands excel in technical prowess but not flaunt it and Bon Iver proved to be one of the finest examples of this all throughout the evening.
They closed out their main set with a trio of songs from Bon Iver, Bon Iver, starting with a fiery rendition of “Calgary” before seguing into “Lisbon, OH” which included an unexpected interlude in which spoken word artist Mike Perry stepped out from the wings to recite John Denver’s Christmas poem “Alfie the Christmas Tree” from the album John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together. What was strange about it was also wonderful; it was a perfect fit and suited the moment better than it had any right to. It left some confused but me grinning and comitting that moment to memory as a telling snapshot of just how special this particular occasion was. They finally closed with an unbelievable performance of what’s arguably the year’s most divisive song, the Bruce Hornsby-channeling “Beth/Rest.” I can guarantee you this song wouldn’t be as divisive if the version on the record was the version they played that night, however. They tore into it with relish and propelled it forward and to new heights with waves of crashing primal drums and blistering distortion and ended kind of abrutply but in perfect unison with each other. Unbelievable.
What happened next may have been my favorite moment of the night. The encore applause. Lately, the shows I’ve seen have had confusing and disheartening encore applauses that seem scant and forced (with the worst offense being the very recently departed Grinderman). This was certainly not the case. All the infuriatingly weak attempts I’ve had to bewilderingly suffer over the past year were more than made up for when the Eau Claire audience unleashed a cavalcade of screams that seemed to be pouring out of every crevice in the building to cheer the band back. When they returned, they were all smiles and you could sense Vernon’s elation at not just the response but perhaps the complete realization that he was finally home… and that he had a home that loved him as much as that crowd did. It was another perfect moment in a night full of them.
When the band finally started playing again, they chose what’s potentially the most triumphant song in their discography, the fantastic “For Emma.” Everyone was in bright spirits and it became clear that this was as much of a show as it was a celebration. The fact that at that point everyone in the builiding felt like friends made the experience all the more rewarding. “For Emma” was absolutely exhilirating and the band was grinning despite themselves as the crowd cheered along. I’m not sure I’ve been to a show where the audience has interjected as many mid-song screams of applause as they did that night, with “For Emma” being no exception. When that song was brought to its rousing conclusion, Vernon announced they’d saved one last one and once again, I grinned knowing what was about to come- and sure enough, before the song started Vernon coached the audience in a sing-a-long of “what might have been lost” and when he was satisfied that they’d gotten it down (which they probably already did before coming, honestly) the band kicked into their final performance; “The Wolves (Act I & II).”
“The Wolves (Act I & II)” was one of the greatest single-song live performances I’ve ever witnessed for multiple reasons. None of the reasons being stronger than one in particular; watching Vernon tear up as the band hit that unbelievable climax as the music hurdles towards complete chaos after he lets out that gutteral high-pitched wolf-like scream… only to have the band be drowned out by the audience screaming louder than I’d heard any audience get before. It was one of the nights most emotionally charged moments and perhaps the fiercest live number that the band gave. From the perfectly timed drum blasts in the otherwise hushed and beautifully harmonized into to the ending cavalcade of chaotic noise that ends in shambles on the record but ever so sharply live it was the perfect conclusion to the evening. As Justin and the band exited beaming, I couldn’t help but notice some tears welling up in his eyes. He was finally home.