REVIEW: Eau Claire indie star Justin Vernon brought a new entourage of musicians and a fuller sound to the stage.
So much for that whole lonely-guy-in-the-woods thing.
Wisconsin indie-rock star Justin Vernon -- a k a Bon Iver, who famously made his 2007 debut album all alone at his dad's hunting cabin near Eau Claire -- returned to his nearest neighboring big city on Tuesday to perform at the Orpheum Theatre. It was his first of two sold-out nights, and his first local show since packing First Avenue in August 2008. And man, oh, man, the anticipation for it was hyper and palpable.
Male audience members in Vernon-like beards weepily sang along to his ambient, falsetto-delivered folk-rock ballads (one guy yelled out, "Thank you for writing this song!" at the start of the haunting number "Re: Stacks"). Young women swooned for the 30-year-old singer, who offstage could probably pass for one of their hick, outstate cousins (one gal yelled, "You're really cute"; apparently she didn't know that the warmly received opening act, Kathleen Edwards, is Vernon's girlfriend).
Anybody not up on Bon Iver's two full-length records might have mistaken this concert for some kind of religious revival. It certainly had a sense of rebirth. Vernon started touring with a band in 2008 after the national re-release of his cabin-bound debut, "For Emma, Forever Ago." On Tuesday, though, fans witnessed a full-blown transformation from solitary songwriter to busybody bandleader.
To help thicken the sonic cushion on his follow-up album, "Bon Iver" -- which debuted in June at No. 2 in Billboard, buoyed commercially by his collaborations last year with unlikely pal/fan Kanye West -- the former high school football player had a marching-band-like group behind him this time around. His nine-man line included two drummers, three horn men and other utility players who changed instruments after just about every song, or sometimes even during one song. Almost all of them got in on the singing, too.
The band's presence was felt right away in the slow-building opening song, "Perth," which included a violin, bass saxophone, synthesizers, chimes, you name it. Dexterous Minneapolis musician Mike Lewis (Happy Apple, Gayngs) made himself known by the third number, "Holocene," a drop-dead-gorgeous song in which he dropped a pretty soprano sax solo.
All the added parts and altered arrangements could have been decried by Bon Iver fanatics, but the recastings worked time and time again. The two biggest pay-offs from the expanded musicianship were a horn-laced blast through "Creature Fear" and an electrifying take on "Blood Bank," where three horns and three guitars spilled over the song in a truly bloody fashion. The horns also added nicely to the pre-encore finale "For Emma" and the encore kickoff "Flume."
The worshipfully received 90-minute set was not entirely without a little human fallibility. "Beach Baby" got a little lost in a hazy, fantastical sense, especially with its long, spotlight violin solo that seemed like something out of "Riverdance." The bleary "Wash." also dragged.
Vernon still had one genuine moment of solitude: He played "Re: Stacks" all by his lonesome self. It was nice for nostalgic reasons, but the new band couldn't return to the stage soon enough.
See Bon Iver's set list at startribune.com/artcetera.