There were few empty seats at the Xcel Energy Center last night. The arena was packed full of millennials sporting the Northern uniform of warm-toned flannels and denim, eager to see Wisconsin’s Bon Iver. The band’s frontman, Justin Vernon, looked a bit more casual, wearing headphones and a bandana tied tightly around his forehead.
In August, Bon Iver released their fourth album, i,i. After the dense electronic crunch of 2016’s 22, A Million, Vernon returned with swelling harmonies and lush arrangements on i,i. The album features dozens of collaborators, a few of whom Vernon brought to Xcel. Bon Iver brought an evening of transcendent solos, rich arrangements, and fervent collaboration to a mesmerized crowd.
The opening of Bon Iver’s set didn’t feature Vernon, but rather a group of Native drummers. Three men stood side-by-side on the stage, beating hand drums in a synchronized rhythm and singing a layered melody. One of these musicians was Joe Rainey Sr., a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians in Northern Minnesota, who recorded vocals on the i,i song “We.”
“Friends and relatives, these songs are for you,” singer Mike “Migizi” Sullivan announced. “Listen to these songs. Listen to the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Let it move you.” Three dancers joined the stage: a man in feathered regalia and two women, whose quick movements mirrored the drummers’ beat.
Yes I can elaborate! The dance company is called Bizhiki. That’s who you seen. What you heard was indeed 3 Chips singing while Mike”Migizi”Sullivan addressing the crowd in Ojibwe. Migizi and I are on the song WE on i,i.
— Joe Rainey Sr. (@rainmanmnx33) October 4, 2019
After their performance, Vernon and his band stepped onstage to the industrial clamor of “Yi.” The screens on either side of the stage sprung to life with colorful, collage images. Geometric arrays of LED lights illuminated six pods, each home to one of Bon Iver’s band members: Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak), Sean Carey (also known as S. Carey), Matthew McCaughan, Mike Lewis, and Andrew Fitzpatrick, and Justin Vernon.
The Native drum and dance troupe joined the band for “We” a couple songs later, and the singers’ clear melodies mixed with the electronic crunch of Vernon’s distorted vocals. Bon Iver played through songs on i,i including “Holyfields” and “U (Man Like),” while adding in a few older releases like 2014’s “Heavenly Father,” which Vernon wrote for the Zach Braff film Wish I Was Here.
The band threw the crowd another old favorite with “Perth” from Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Vernon’s opening guitar part was met with cheers from the crowd and as the song built, a wash of green enveloped the stage. Place names frequently pop up in Vernon’s music, and the song’s vermillion backdrop seemed especially poignant in light of the global climate strike that took place just two weeks ago.
Vernon seemed humble about his role as bandleader, sharing the spotlight with his band members and guests. During his frenetic guitar solo during “Perth,” he didn’t take any self-aggrandizing turns, but rather slid his melodies in skillfully along the rest of his bandmates’ parts. During instrumental breaks, Vernon would turn his back to the audience to face towards the circle of musicians onstage. His posture seemed to say, “This isn’t my moment, it’s ours.”
Vernon shared little stage banter with the audience, except to thank the crowd. “We believe in renewal — that’s why we do these concerts and why you come, I suppose,” he said in a break between songs. “We feel blessed to be here.”
He also gave a shout-out to the night’s opener, Feist, speaking on the two musicians’ ties. “I don’t like to talk about the cabin very much,” he started, referring to the solitary trip he took to Wisconsin’s woods to record For Emma, Forever Ago. Alone in the cabin, Vernon said some of the first music he heard “was Leslie [Feist]’s voice, and it brought me back to the real world.”
The energy during Bon Iver’s set remained fairly mellow, colored with brief moments of catharsis, like the booming crescendo at the end of “Heavenly Father.” The band’s subdued energy allowed each member to have moments in the spotlight.
Each band member frequently switched instruments to suit the song. Vernon toggled between acoustic and electric guitar and synthesizer. Drummers S. Carey and Matthew McCaughan — yes, Bon Iver brought two drummers to Xcel — created pounding, complex rhythms that made thousands of heads bob in sync. Jenn Wasner’s hands flew from keyboards to guitar strings, and the audience cheered for her brief vocal solo in “U (Man Like).” The rest of the band also lent their voices to Bon Iver’s lush arrangements, captivating the expansiveness of i,i‘s songs.
One of the night’s most transfixing moments came from Mike Lewis, the Minneapolis saxophonist who plays with the contemporary jazz trio Happy Apple. Lewis led the audience through a lyrical solo at the end of “Sh’Diah” so full of longing and hope that it almost left me in tears.
Above the band, a series of rectangular panels hung from thin wires. Throughout the set, they shone with different colors of LED lights and soared above the stage like a colorful smattering of stars. As Wasner pounded out the opening chords of “Naeem” on her keyboard, a single panel slowly descended from the ceiling. Vernon began to sing the song’s repeated lyric, “I can hear crying,” and a spotlight shone directly on the mirrored panel, sending beams of light flying in every direction.
The effect was stunning: rays of warm light shot to the far corners of the stadium, creating a glowing prism of light above the stage. In an audience that was previously blanketed in shadow, I could begin to see faces of individual audience members glowing in the spotlights created by these rays.
Looking into the crowd, I couldn’t help but think about how many lives have been touched by the project of one man, who trekked into Wisconsin’s wilderness to record his first album. While Bon Iver began with Justin Vernon and an acoustic guitar, it quickly grew to include an ever-growing list of collaborators, the Eaux Claires music festival, and artistic collective PEOPLE. But as Bon Iver grows, Vernon doesn’t linger in the spotlight for too long. He’d rather it bounce off of him, and light up the room instead.
Bon Iver Set list
715 – CRΣΣKS
U (Man Like)
Colleen Cowie runs the blog Pass The Mic.
Photos courtesy of Bon Iver/Graham Tolbert: