Fresh from a David Letterman appearance and just hours after Madison’s biggest snowstorm of the season, Bon Iver spread a blanket of flannel mysticism over a sold-out crowd of nearly a thousand at the Barrymore Theater. The boys from the back roads of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, reveled to be on a stage in their home state after months on the road, including eight weeks overseas.
Athens, Minneapolis, Seattle, and now comes…the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, sound. Bon Iver founder Justin Vernon cooked it up in his father’s remote deer hunting shack. For Emma, Forever Ago is the disc that emerged from Vernon’s self-exile into the artistic density of a long Wisconsin winter two years ago. The songs from that album were the muscle of this night’s all-too-brief set of music.
What, you may ask, is the Eau Claire sound? It involves falsetto singing sharpened by extreme three-part harmonies, and a lyrical far-fetched-ness that is as sturdy and grounded as a stack of dry firewood. It also involves beards (not that looks matter), and performing seated rather than standing.
Vernon, co-captain of the 1999 Eau Claire Memorial High School football team, took the stage wearing red flannel and proudly sporting a mop of wild hat hair. Vernon sings like a choirboy who could kick your ass; think Sufjan Stevens on a weightlifting program. He shed the flannel to reveal a navy hooded sweatshirt by the third song, “Skinny Love”, the tune that seemed to freak out Letterman the week before.
Bon Iver performs “Skinny Love” at the Barrymore in Madison.
“Skinny Love” is a gothic campfire lament that features Vernon’s wood chop-strength steel guitar strumming. The song’s intensity is fueled by Vernon’s bandmates, all three of whom played drums on this selection: one with sticks over his snare, the other two pounding mallets prehistorically on individual floor toms, using both the head and rims of their drums to cast emotions into the thrall of Vernon’s vocal pleas.
Vernon’s falsetto is anything but pretentious. On the contrary, it’s as though he found this high voice under a Dunn County fieldstone and took it home to tinker with it. He’s an expressionist, and the tension in his metallic and pure voice comes from a place we’ve forgotten, or try to avoid.
Or haven’t yet experienced. Bon Iver has a sophisticated but young fan base; some in the audience didn’t quite know what to do with the tumult. During the intense “Re: Stacks”, several young women on the floor in front of the stage simply planted their faces into their hands and kept them there until the song ended.
Still, for all the band’s astral trajectories, Bon Iver is rooted deep into northwestern Wisconsin soil. If patchouli is the smell of a Government Mule audience, Skoal is the smell of a Bon Iver crowd.
“I’m told I say ‘thank you’ too much during a show,” Vernon shared halfway through the band’s 90-minute set. “But we are extremely thankful for you guys being here tonight.” Only someone who appreciates his time in the hot but fickle arc of celebrity could make a comment like that and get away with it. Here’s hoping the arc that began in Eau Claire is a long one.