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By Benjamin Thorpe | Vice President
Justin Vernon is an unassuming man. Slightly taller than average, with a medium build and a scruffy beard, he’d blend into the crowd at any concert. But on the third Saturday of February, he and the rest of Bon Iver commanded the stunned, silent attention of thousands of people at the Milwaukee Bradley Center. Celebrating the 10-year anniversary of his first album, “For Emma, Forever Ago” Bon Iver gave perhaps the most significant performance of the group’s history, delving back into their roots, true to their foundation.
Bon Iver’s full band presence fit the evening well. Between gentle, heartfelt performances of solo acoustic pieces (with “Skinny Love” being among the first), the band of eight created ambient, growing pieces of instrumentation that filled the auditorium to its brim. Contrasted against the vacuum of silence that settled during Vernon’s solitary performances, a range of dynamics was boredom was impossible. Vernon’s ability to play to his strengths has grown over the past ten years, and he showcased it expertly; his fearless usage of autotune sets Bon Iver head and shoulders above the ‘acoustic’ label.
Vernon even took to the microphone periodically to discuss the growth in himself. Between flashbacks to the winter during which the album was written and stories of the band’s first tour, Vernon crafted a captivatingly personal experience for the audience. Speaking slowly and deeply, he recounted the frustration and isolation that birthed “For Emma, Forever Ago,” being open with his admirers about how he struggled and expressed his confusion at 25 years old.
Vernon contrasted this too by bringing out several guest performers from his youth, including a former roommate who helped write a song on the album. Even 10 years later, after unprecedented international success, Vernon made a point to not forget the purpose of the evening: to remember and share the roots of Bon Iver, even if that took away his own spotlight. The old friendships and musical bonds showcased themselves beautifully onstage.
The evening concluded, during thunderous applause, with Vernon’s barely audible parting words: “We’ll see you again, maybe in ten years.” Even in that moment of love and appreciation from a vast crowd, gathering to hear his first songs, Vernon held no solid beliefs for his future. Vernon seemed to say that whether he returns or not, what happened that evening cannot be undone. The love had been given, the tears had been wept and the songs had been played to perfection for the people that love them; everything that comes after for Justin Vernon will just be frosting on his cake.