Bon Iver Carefully Skirt Nostalgia at 10-Year Boniversary in Milwaukee

Originally published with City Pages

Some dubbed it a special event, others a “Boniversary,” but Justin Vernon just called it a birthday party.

“For Emma, Ten Year,” the one-off Milwaukee show celebrating the 10th anniversary of Bon Iver’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago, was both celebratory and reflective—a chance to cut the cake and wax poetic about the icing.

For Emma changed Vernon’s life, skyrocketing his musical career past whatever ordinary expectations a singer-songwriter might have and introducing him to a level of fame he still wrestles with.

But as grateful as Vernon was to mark the occasion, he eschewed overly effusive declarations. “Be careful about nostalgia,” he warned the crowd at the BMO Harris Bradley Center before beginning to strum “Skinny Love,” the song that introduced the world to his yearning falsetto and love-strained confidences.

When he tours these days, Vernon is most often found behind a laptop, but he returned to old ways on Saturday, playing an acoustic guitar for most of the show. Standing on a stage that evoked the setting in which he created For Emma (moss-like decor draped the wings and soft yellow lights surrounded the band), he fused the stark songwriting of his past with the extensive arrangements of his present.

Rather than play the album in its entirety, Vernon and crew opted to revisit and reimagine some of the album’s standouts, and possibly even exhume a skeleton or two. During “Skinny Love,” S. Carey and Matt McCaughan pounded their drums in tandem, underscoring the pain radiating at the song’s center and shifting it closer to the profuse instrumentation on Bon Iver’s 2013’s self-titled album. On “Re: Stacks,” Vernon dropped his falsetto momentarily, letting his dusky voice create a raw, candid moment. The sound carried throughout the arena (usually a dubious setting for more nuanced music) and made the 20,000-seat space seem almost intimate.

Vernon reflected on Bon Iver’s start not simply by performing the songs that shaped the early half of his career, but also by offering attendees a broader overall picture. He brought out his former Raleigh roommate Christy Smith to sing “Flume,” explaining that they’d recorded it shortly after installing Pro Tools but before he retreated to the infamous Wisconsin cabin where he worked on For Emma. He also played two songs he wrote at that time but excluded from the album’s final cut: “Hayward, WI” and “Brackett, WI.” Their lyrics were more clear-cut than some of his other, poetically charged confessions, offering listeners a glimpse into Vernon’s early songwriting practice from a different angle.

Before leaving the stage for the encore, Vernon invited the audience to sing the “Wolves” chorus line, “What might have been lost.” It was a moment he’d shared with many crowds many times, he explained, but he hoped that night would be more explosive. It was. The crowd was all too happy to help the band crescendo, riding that emotional crest into the encore when Bon Iver closed with “Holocene” (with the hometown shout-out, “I’m in Milwaukee, off my feet”) and Sarah Siskind’s “Lovin’s for Fools” (with Siskind herself joining the band on stage). That Vernon chose someone else’s words to punctuate his birthday party suggested that he was willing to revisit but not re-inhabit the mindset that led to For Emma. With the song’s opening verse, “Crazy how I feel/ Living without you/ Inside this house that we built/ It seems like the windows/ Finally opened/ Letting the memories out,” he let go the ghost. And as he sang in “Re: Stacks,” “Everything that happens is from now on.”

Lump Sum
Skinny Love
Creature Fear
For Emma
Hayward, WI
Brackett, WI
Blood Bank
Simple Man (Graham Nash cover)
Re: Stacks
The Wolves (Act I & II)
Lovin’s for Fools (Sarah Siskind cover)

About the openers:
The audience got a twofer with the Wisconsin-based Collections of Colonies of Bees and Field Report. The latter’s Chris Porterfield opened with several songs off his forthcoming album, Summertime Songs, while CCB’s Chris Rosenau regaled listeners with a story about a show Bon Iver played with them and Field Report nigh on ten years ago.

The crowd:
Largely flanneled. Several women shouted out their love for Vernon at inopportune times. As he reached “Re: Stacks”’ peak, they interrupted the heavy hanging pause with their declarations. I also saw more than a few couples hold each other tight during “Skinny Love,” a song about a relationship not going the distance.

Overheard in the crowd:
“That’s some dope shit” (in response to Vernon’s previously unreleased songs).