A highly contested election met one of Wisconsin’s greatest musical minds at The Sylvee Saturday evening.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., was accompanied by Eau Claire native Justin Vernon and his band Bon Iver for an “Early Vote Rally” to encourage early voting on the University of Wisconsin campus, which started Oct. 22.
Vernon’s career shows an ongoing struggle between self and fame. He made his mark on the music world with the release of For Emma, Forever Ago and with that came a mythology surrounding a man searching for himself in his family’s cabin.
From there, Vernon became a Kanye West collaborator, Grammy award winner and a music festival curator. Vernon is the pinnacle of indie stardom, yet underneath it all, he hates the limelight that comes with his work.
At his own music festival, Eaux Claires, which he calls a “family reunion,” he hasn’t performed as Bon Iver for the past two iterations. His press photos for his other group, Big Red Machine, and recent album 22, A Million both obstruct Vernon’s face. He performed sitting down wearing headphones during his headlining set at Coachella.
Vernon’s story is one of loving his craft and hating the fame that comes with it. Of course, this is a reoccurring theme in popular music, but for Vernon, there hasn’t been an identity crisis. The artist suffering from heartbreak on For Emma, Forever Ago, is the same one handling his anxiety on 22, A Million. The Midwesterner dreaming of a simple life consisting of close friends, good music and even better drinks never disappears, and this search for a good life for all is what brought Vernon to Madison this weekend.
Despite his disillusionment with fame, Vernon understands the power and reach of his voice. He supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’, I-Ver., campaign when the candidate stopped in Vernon’s hometown. He also endorsed Madison’s Kelda Roys in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, although she eventually lost to Tony Evers in August.
Again, Vernon saw a moment where he could not be silent — this time he voiced his support of Baldwin in her campaign for reelection, saying she’s a politician willing to support all of us. Who knew a 2018 midterm election is what it would take to get a living musical legend to perform again in Madison?
Tickets to the rally started at $50, and were quickly sold out. Some seats were priced at $1,000, which included a meet and greet with Baldwin and prime, reserved viewing of The Sylvee stage from the upper levels of the venue. All ticket sales were political donations to the Baldwin Wisconsin Victory Fund.
The event began with Collections of Colonies of Bees’ Chris Rosenau performing an opening set. A friend of Vernon’s, Rosenau plays with the alternative genre genius in the group Volcano Choir. It became clear Rosenau was a good idea of where Vernon got many of his ideas for Bon Iver’s 2016 studio album 22, A Million. Some might have been reminded of 21 MOON WATER after Rosenau showcased his talent, giving depth to the influence he had on Bon Iver’s latest project.
Rosenau didn’t sing, yet the strings of his guitar provided delightful ambiance as the crowd settled around the stage. Each instrumental was a slow build up of chords recorded over a loop pedal until Rosenau was satisfied with his creation. Once a background sound was established, he switched guitars, took his guitar pick from his lips and began strumming and plucking solos with animated expressions on his face.
His final act had everyone focused on Rosenau’s closed eyes, rocking back and forth as the peak of all the recordings he set came together. As each chord loop from the pedal dissipated, Rosenau was left playing with his new guitar, concluding a fitting opening act. The ax master thanked the crowd and made way for the host of the festivities himself.
With the conclusion of Rosenau’s opening set came a speech from Vernon. He expressed gratitude for being lucky enough to travel the world “sharing the medicine of music” with his friends. He continued to say many are not as fortunate to be able to perform music around the world or even go to a show to heal their troubles. Vernon said his support for Baldwin is rooted in her willingness to fight for those who are currently not free.
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A greater round of applause came when he welcomed Baldwin with open arms and embraced her with a hug.
Prior to the rally, Baldwin set the tone with a tweet back in September saying, “This is the hippest I’ve ever felt!”
This is the hippest I’ve ever felt!
— Tammy Baldwin (@tammybaldwin) September 28, 2018
Baldwin had a genuine smile on her face, fussing with her phone to prove how hip she was, mildly gloating about her timer giving the exact amount of weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds until the polls close Nov. 6.
Baldwin chose to make affordable and accessible healthcare her rallying call for voters. The senator shared a story of becoming ill as a nine-year-old and her family’s struggle finding healthcare for her. She extended her anecdote to the countless stories similar to her own she’s heard across Wisconsin in her campaign and time as a senator.
After less than 10 minutes, Baldwin reminded everyone to vote, early if possible, after they enjoyed a rare Bon Iver performance.
The band played songs from 22, A Million, Blood Bank EP, For Emma, Forever Ago and even “Heavenly Father.” Oddly, no tracks from Bon Iver, Bon Iver made the set list. Although lovely classics were missed, tracks like “666 (upside-down cross)” showed the band’s ability to fill the room, while Vernon also played more somber tracks such as “715 CREEKS” showcasing his ability to keep the room in awe alone. The solo rendition was far and wide the pinnacle of his performance.
The show proved to be personable from an artist selling out shows around the world. Vernon interacted with the audience as if they were friends. He gave a Tom Waits impersonation and even jokingly asked for the Brewers score at one point in the performance. The answer displeased Vernon, as did most. His “blah blah blah” response was the mood of the moment. The For Emma, Forever Ago outro “Re: Stacks” promptly followed, poetic for somber Brewer hopefuls.
Vernon’s final call to the audience came through a cover of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” from the 1964 record The Times They Are a-Changin.’ He asked the audience to listen to the lyrics closely. The show ended with Dylan’s famous line breaking from the irony present on the rest of the song, “if God’s on our side, He’ll stop the next war,” as the crowd applauded to the fatalist Hail Mary plea for God to save us from our own destruction.
The icon left the stage, slowly making sure to thank every section of the audience with applause. As he walked off stage, he put a peace sign in the air hoping that the sold-out crowd will go to the polls to save a world from heading in a direction Vernon clearly fears.
The performance showed Vernon acting as a political figure in a way that continues to stay true to his persona. The show was never about him and it wasn’t even about Baldwin — it was about us. Or, to use the latest Vernonism — it was about giving us the “medicine of music” to heal us of the ails of a fractured political landscape and empower us to change our current path.