It was a beautiful evening at Summerfest, thanks to warm and breezy weather and an emotional, powerful performance by Wisconsin’s Bon Iver at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater.
It was the band’s first time performing at Summerfest even though they’re no strangers to Milwaukee, largely due to the fact frontman Justin Vernon is from Eau Claire and still lives in the northwestern Wisconsin city after international recognition. Last year, Bon Iver gave a one-time-only performance in Brew City for the 10th anniversary of their debut album "For Emma, Forever Ago."
Tonight’s concert kicked off with a loud, emotional version of "Perth" from Bon Iver’s self-titled second album. The band went on to play a few more songs – including "715 Creeks" and "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄" from the third album called "22, A Million" – before Vernon addressed the audience.
Vernon was extremely present even though he only engaged with the audience a few times. "Thank you," were the first two words he said on stage and he repeated these words at least 10 times throughout the show. At one point he genuinely but awkwardly asked the audience if we felt safe and then suggested we ask the people in our lives and our neighbors if they do because many people don’t right now.
He also reminisced that the last time he was inside the Summerfest amphitheater was in 1997 when he saw James Taylor. Jokingly he referred to the new amphitheater – which will be completed by Summerfest 2020 – as the "Marcus-Amphitheater-slash-American-Family-Dental-Insurance-Theater."
Bon Iver drew from all three of the band’s albums as well as their 2009 EP with an extended version of "Blood Bank" and intense lighting and pulsating bright red graphics. They also played – for the very first time live – "Hey, Ma" from their yet-to-be-released fourth album. The song was accompanied on the screens with Vernon family footage from home movies made in the 1970s and 80s.
Many of the songs played tonight were arranged in new and imaginative ways, giving the audience old favorites, but with new twists.
And after a dozen songs, the inevitability of Vernon’s most famous song "Skinny Love" finally came up on the setlist. The fan-favorite inspired an audience sing-a-long. Equal enthusiasm erupted for "Holocene," especially when Vernon delivered the line "it's on its head, it struck the street/You’re in Milwaukee, off your feet."
Despite his decision to put his popular Eaux Claires music festival on hiatus this summer (it will return in 2020), Vernon has been extremely busy collaborating on music projects with big names like Bruce Hornsby, The National and Eminem and he recently announced a fall tour.
During tonight’s show, Vernon donned a sleeveless Brewers / Christian Yelich T-shirt and his signature "Up North" beard. The combination of Vernon’s woodsy-and-masculine appearance with his high singing voice uniquely blend into an overall vibe that’s strong, uplifting and wistful – even sad – at the same time.
The only lack of harmony literally and figuratively during tonight’s show was the division of the audience. For the first half of the show, the majority of the fans sat in their seats absorbed by the performance, while clusters of other fans stood and listened, but also talked and laughed. But by the last few songs – and certainly the encore – the audience united with everyone on their feet, mesmerized by the powerful, passionate performance.
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Vernon invited the audience to see him at his gig in Chicago. He joked that maybe everyone could come to the show together and then added, sounding like a true Wisconsinite, "That would be nice."
Going into the show, I wondered if Saturday night was the best spot to book the melancholy Bon Iver, but by the end of the concert that was a rumbling, shattering explosion of sound and emotion – similar to a grand finale in a fireworks show – there was no doubt it was worthy of a Saturday night slot at Summerfest.
5. Heavenly Father
7. Blood Bank
8. Beach Baby
9. Hey, Ma
10. Minnesota, WI
11. 8 (circle)
13. 33 "GOD"
14. Skinny Love
15. 22 (OVERS0000N)
16. Creature Fear
2. The Wolves
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.