Minneapolis already worshiped Justin Vernon as Bon Iver, but its love affair took on even more of a religious tone at Friday’s Volcano Choir concert.
The bearded indie bard from Eau Claire, Wis. — who won the best new artist Grammy as Bon Iver last year and then stopped working under that name this year — played another sold-out gig with another band Friday at First Avenue. Compared with August’s performance by his more straight-ahead bro-rock trio the Shouting Matches, the 75-minute Volcano Choir set hewed closer to the Bon Iver sound, with electronically manipulated vocals and layered guitar arrangements.
But there was no mistaking one for the other (or for the other other). Instead of the standard singer/songwriter stance at center-stage, Vernon spent the duration of Friday’s gig standing off to the side behind a pulpit. He didn’t once strap on a guitar, and instead tinkered with electronic gear on his lectern or kept his hands free to gesture with his hands like a preacher. He frequently sang in preacher-like rhythmic patterns, too, often building in fervor along with the music.
Even more than Bon Iver, though, Volcano Choir proved to be a Holy Trinity kind of thing. The rest of the six-piece band — mostly culled from the Milwaukee ensemble Collections of Colonies of Bees — played a more central role than the backing band at Bon Iver shows. There was more of a “show,” too, with mood-setting stage lighting and a massive backdrop that looked like a moon topographical map.
Friday’s set kicked off with two crescendoing gems, “Tiderays” and “Island IS,” one apiece from Volcano Choir’s two albums and both built on a hushed ambience that gave way to loud, whirring reverberation. “Island, IS” was especially a showpiece for drummer Jon Mueller, with a waterfall-like cascade of crashing cymbals.
Guitarist Chris Roseneau proved to be the ace in the hole Friday. First off, he joined his old Milwaukee area cohort Mark Mallman in the opening set (as did local club stars Claire de Lune and Sean Anonymous). He also provided elegant acoustic guitar work throughout the concert, which somehow shone through all the electric and electronic instruments, most notably in the dramatic “Comrade.”
Rosneau also did most of the talking Friday, starting with comments about how playing First Ave was “like a dream come true.”
One thing Volcano Choir doesn’t have over Bon Iver is a trove of stage-ready songs. The falsetto workout “Keel” came off like a studio experiment that should have been left in the studio. The hushed and monotone “Youology” especially fell flat as an encore finale, particularly after the pre-encore one-two punch of “Byegone” and “Still.”
In steady rotation at 89.3 the Current, “Byegone” sounded triumphal-march epic in concert. “Still” served as a reminder of all the different avenues Vernon has pursued in recent years, considering parts of it were used for Bon Iver’s “Woods” and Kanye West’s “Lost in the World.” Both the song and the singer felt right at home in Volcano Choir, though.
See Volcano Choir’s set list and more weekend concert reviews at startribune.com/artcetera