By Sophie Mueller
A broken heart.
A cold Wisconsin winter.
These were all an essential part of Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. For three months Justin Vernon, the lead vocalist and musician, retreated to a family cabin after recently breaking up with his girlfriend and dispersing from his previous band, DeYarmond Edison. This was the beginning of a venture that created a beautiful, sad, uplifting, and heart-wrenching album. Who knew what Bon Iver was about to become? Three albums and one Grammy later, Justin Vernon continues to innovate and curate music that heals the human soul. After ten years, Bon Iver revisited the beauty and ingenuity of their debut album. I was fortunate enough to attend his concert in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The stage, littered with various candelabras in sync with the percussion, lighting up on beat and creating an ethereal atmosphere. The simplistic lighting and stage set up made a crowd of about 20,000 people feel as if they were at an intimate concert with 20 of their closest friends. The opening bands, Field Report and Collections of Colonies of Bees were equally impressive and built up the energy in the crowd. Each from Milwaukee, they graciously took the stage and fans eagerly gave them their full attention, with both bands getting standing ovations. Although Justin did not play any songs from his most recent album, 22, A Million, he played the entirety of For Emma, Forever Ago. His performance of “Creature Fear” brought the whole arena to its feet, as it started with a simplistic guitar and swelled into a massive production with layered guitar. As soon as Vernon started playing the first chords of “Skinny Love”, the entire crowd erupted with happiness, singing along with every word. Vernon’s rendition of “Woods,” emphasized his solitude on stage, as he used the loop pedal, filling the arena with his powerful vocals. He brought his former roommate and friend who contributed vocals for “Flume” on stage to perform the song, seemingly transporting everyone in attendance back to the inception of Emma. In between songs, he shared personal information regarding touring For Emma, Forever Ago as well as the people that helped him make the album possible, giving his mega fans an inside look into the creative process. Quite possibly the best moment of the night was when Justin dedicated his song “Holocene” to the city of Milwaukee, causing the crowd to erupt into cheers when he sang “you’re in Milwaukee off your feet.”
Vernon is also curating an awesome in environment in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. A small town four hours north of Milwaukee, Justin has opened a hotel there as well as creating a music festival, dubbed Eaux Claires, which occurs in the summer and is going on its fourth year. His philanthropic work with local organizations prompts others to get involved with the community. Working with other acclaimed artists such as Feist, Grizzly Bear, and Iron & Wine, Justin collaborated on the album, Dark Was The Night, with all proceeds going towards HIV/AIDS research. Additionally, he was honorary chair of AIDS Walk Wisconsin, an event put on each October through the non-profit AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. The night of the concert Justin also gave a shout out to the Sojourner Peace Center, which helps women suffering from abuse. Clearly, Vernon has made it a priority to put his time, money, and effort into creating a stronger local community in conjunction with his music career.
After the concert, my family and I looked at one another taking in the greatness of the past hour and a half. This concert was a special night as we listened to our favorite songs from the past 10 years together. Bon Iver and their performance was essentially a love letter to Wisconsin, embracing imperfections and flaws, and surrendering our burdens or stress to the power of music. Despite the excitement of Bon Iver celebrating the 10 year anniversary of Emma, Vernon warned us that we must be careful, as he said “nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.” Yet for everyone that has been following Bon Iver’s journey, this one night was unforgettable as we celebrated music that continues to unite us, even after ten years.