Saturday night, the Madison music scene left nothing to be desired. City residents had an inkling of what was coming weeks beforehand as flyers cropped up all over town — from the Majestic’s “Britney vs. Gaga” event to a three-part musical masterpiece at the Frequency with The Daredevil, Icarus Himself and Caroline Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps.
The Orpheum Theater’s doors opened at 7 p.m. for Bon Iver, and for once I was there on time with my wits totally about me. The opener, beautifully British singer Lianne La Havas, was a pleasant surprise. I thought for sure it would have been a Midwest native easily upstaged by Bon Iver. Of course, on the latter count, she was. But that’s saying more about Bon Iver’s talent than hers, because at any other show she could have been headlining. The crowd’s response to her Adele-meets-Norah Jones vocals was extremely positive.
What stunned me about the Orpheum on this visit was not only its historic and cosmetic beauty, but how full it was. Standing five rows away from the stage gave me a tunnel vision view of what was going on, so it wasn’t until during curtain call that I finally looked back at the audience — I was taken aback by the rows upon rows of people standing and applauding from the relatively expansive balcony and the seats below it.
Even prior to the main event, the audience was already in unadulterated awe. The pre-show chatter had an unmistakable antsy atmosphere, which intensified the longer the wait. Bon Iver’s lateness to going onstage was frustratingly fashionable.
There was this pretense, I think, that we were all trying to hold onto before the show: “Calm down, he’s not really a god; he’s just a guy from Wisconsin.” That was soon lost when Bon Iver began to play.
Justin Vernon had seven people up on stage with him, and all of them emitted a rock star aura I’d never experienced. The set list they chose to play in Madison purposefully left out several mellower works in lieu of showcasing what I’ll describe as a tremendous, commanding veneer. This brought to light one critical observation: If listeners allow themselves to get lost among its softer pieces of Bon Iver music like “Fall Creek Boys Choir” with James Blake, they could swiftly and easily forget the kind of powerful sounds of which this band is capable. With the exponential rate at which Bon Iver rose to fame, I feel fortunate to have seen the band at an intimate setting like the Orpheum, and in his home state to top it off.
Superficially, this doesn’t really matter, but half of the reason people go to concerts is proximity to the artist, so I can’t believe that seeing them in a sentimental location is entirely ambiguous — just ask any Chicagoan where they would prefer to see Kanye West if given the choice, or extend to an Ohio native the same question on The Black Keys.
Vernon repeatedly expressed his intentions for brevity between songs so that the band could keep playing as much music as they could before the end, but he did make a point to emphasize that this performance was significant. Although the other members’ origins range from North Carolina to New York, he assured the audience that statements like “I’m so glad to be here, Cincinnati!” aren’t quite as heartfelt as when made within a 200-mile radius from Eau Claire, Wis.
Vernon has the unique ability to craft a clear picture of a location through merely the imagery of his rich, rolling and dulcet singing. For example, in “Flume,” where he croons, “I move in water, shore to shore … Lapping lakes like leery loons” with the exquisite inexactness of an impressionistic painter. Songs like “Wisconsin” and “Minnesota, WI,” are of course exceptionally accessible to the people of this state — each bar, chord and lyric evokes an emotional vision of its lakes and woods. Those who have experienced Wisconsin’s physical geography first-hand fully understand, and other listeners are just fortunate enough to take part in the musical allusion.
Throughout the show, pre-tears accumulated but were not shed — with Vernon in such close proximity I felt I had to hold it together. This is more than many, many others in attendance could say: I’m talking to you, girl who screamed “You’re sooo talented!” during Vernon’s only solo performance, of “Re: Stacks.”
That said, Bon Iver’s members also impressed. The seven other band members play an astounding variety of instruments, and definitely rival Vernon’s vocal talents during harmonies. He made a joke about them, in particular beat boxing trombonist and singer Reggie Pace, sometimes garnering more attention than him on stage.
My personal favorite to see live was Michael Noyce, from Madison. As much as his appearance would suggest otherwise, he is older than 18. He was Vernon’s guitar student for several years before college, and his talents on that instrument, while great, are surpassed by his voice. The band’s encore consisted of a cover sandwiched between two tracks off of For Emma, Forever Ago. Even still, the concert seemed cruelly short: One second of soul-crawling magnificence when in a just world they would have played for an eternity. In a word, breathtaking can only describe the experience as a whole.