There was always going to be something special about the first Bon Iver show in three years. Though Justin Vernon has set his Bon Iver project aside so he can explore other opportunities, like his collaboration with Collections of Colonies of Bees, Volcano Choir, in February he announced one more Bon Iver show at his inaugural Eaux Claires Festival.
The festival itself was a family affair, showcasing Vernon and all of his friends. Phil Cook, Vernon’s collaborator in DeYarmond Edison, showcased his own material and played alongside Hiss Golden Messenger, another of Vernon’s friends. Amelia Meath played with her act Sylvan Esso, as well as Phil Cook, Hiss Golden Messenger and several others. Sufjan Stevens joined The National onstage, as did Vernon himself, and gospel act, The Blind Boys of Alabama were joined onstage by Phil Cook, Vernon and various members of the No BS Brass Band who never had their own set but were seemingly kept on retainer to perform with everyone, from The Tallest Man On Earth to Charles Bradley.
Yet as the festival wore on, Vernon’s Saturday night set with Bon Iver loomed over all of the other acts, so much so that after an incredibly spirited Sylvan Esso set on the other side of the festival grounds, it seemed like the entire festival was willing to skip a highly anticipated Sufjan Stevens set to camp out for an hour and a half before Bon Iver’s performance.
It was worth it.
After a spirited introduction by festival narrator Michael Perry, Vernon, innocuously located stage right, leaving center stage open for collaborators later on in the set, launched into Heavenly Father, a track he made for the film, Wish I Was Here. Vernon was joined onstage by a drummer, two guitarists, a bassist and a keyboardist while Vernon himself played guitar, keys and sang. Frequent collaborators, The Staves, joined Vernon onstage and sang backup, using their tight harmonies to not just accent Vernon’s voice but create instrumental lines that ebbed and flowed through much of the performance.
Vernon’s setlist was influenced heavily by his location, with tracks Towers, Brackett, WI and Blindsided played early in the setlist, despite the latter’s absence from Bon Iver setlists since 2008. Towers, Vernon told us, was about a building not too far from the festival grounds, Brackett, WI is unsurprisingly about a town located just a few exits from Eau Claire, Vernon’s hometown and the site of the festival, and Blindsided recounts Vernon’s failed attempt to sneak into an unfinished building in downtown Eau Claire in the dead of winter.
Collaboration seemed to be the theme of the entire festival, and Vernon’s Bon Iver set proved no different. The Staves frequented the set as backup singers, and classically trained sextet yMusic, notable for their recent collaboration with Ben Folds, also join Vernon on several tracks. Vernon took the middle of his set as an opportunity to introduce infrequent collaborators. Blindsided featured a verse sang by Aero Flynn’s Josh Scott and another verse sang by Vernon’s backup guitarist. The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner joined Vernon onstage for Babys, and experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson added some ambiance to Brackett, WI.
If there were to be a highlight of the set, however it came after these collaborations. Vernon, joined by The Staves and yMusic played a tear-jerking rendition of Holocene, which highlighted the respectfulness of the crowd or perhaps just the sanctity of the moment, as the only times in the set where the crowd chimed in with vocals were during, Holocene’s “I was not magnificent,” and later Skinny Love’s “My my my,” part.
After Holocene came the set’s best track, Perth. Vernon was joined onstage again by The Staves, who masterfully wove their presence in and out of the song, adding something incredible to an already breathtaking experience. As the track came to its climax during the post-chorus instrumentals, The No BS Brass Band added themselves to the mix, creating a joyously overstimulating blend of expertly crafted sounds that inarguably represented the absolute best that live music could ever offer an audience.
Vernon wound the set down with For Emma, keeping the No BS Brass Band onstage for one final track before they left and Vernon’s original band played The Wolves, (Act I and II). While Vernon meant for that to be the end of his set, instead of leaving the stage, he gave a tearful speech about the value of friendship, appropriate given the festival lineup consisted almost exclusively of Vernon’s friends.
After thanking the audience for believing in him, his music and his festival, Vernon confirmed that he indeed had a few new tracks for us and proceeded to leave us with two yet-to-be-released songs without confirming any future plans for a tour, EP or album. The new tracks were stellar, building on the adept studio craftsmanship of Bon Iver’s self-titled second release and sounding closer to Heavenly Father than anything else in the set, with a continuous, whirring backdrop of sounds.
After the two new tracks, the set ended in the only way it could. Bon Iver’s roadie brought out Vernon’s tried and true resonator guitar and Vernon sat center-stage instead of his usual perch at stage right. To say that Vernon played Skinny Love would be almost inaccurate. We all played Skinny Love. The low hum of the audience singing along added to the sanctity of the moment, with every member of the audience belting out, “My my my,” when appropriate. As the song came to its triumphant close, the audience half sang along to Vernon’s impromptu falsetto riffing, half cheered and half cried, the emotional outpouring appropriate for Vernon’s oft-lampooned tear-jerking tracks.
Vernon left the stage and the audience shuffled to the busses they would take back to the campgrounds. Walk The Moon’s Shut Up And Dance played in the background, a great song that, in the moment, felt cheapened by the absolute majesty that Bon Iver had graced us with earlier.
Eaux Claires was a unique experience, full of collaboration and an undeniable love for music that seemingly permeated the very air we breathed. Midway through his set, Sylvan Esso’s Nick Sanborn appropriately commented, “We do festivals like these all the time and this is the first one that’s actually about the music.” Yet without Vernon’s closing Bon Iver set, or his unconditional outpouring of love and support to all of his fellow performers, the festival wouldn’t have been half of the experience it was. Bon Iver was one of the best shows that many in the audience had ever seen. Masterful execution, unmatched anticipation and all-star collaborators created an experience that far exceeded everyone’s already sky-high expectations.
As Pitchfork said of Bon Iver’s self-titled second release, “the music moves like a river, every bend both unpredictable and inevitable as it carves sound and emotion out of silence.” Michael Perry echoed that sentiment during his introduction to Bon Iver’s set. “It’s good to have music near a river. There’s this idea of baptism, of absolution, no matter what you believe.” The religious metaphors aren’t wholly inappropriate for Bon Iver’s set. Perhaps apotheosis isn’t a wholly inappropriate term to apply to Vernon during his Bon Iver set, either. It’s hard to imagine someone who could create something as masterful and poignant, ethereal yet undeniably concrete as Vernon had on that day. Even if we weren’t born again or absolved upon leaving the festival, we certainly had a new idea of what live music could create and why we love it so much.