Staff writer Christian Skoch offers his take on Tuesday night’s show at the Billiken Club.  Was it really worth it for Justin Vernon to stay in that cabin all winter…?

Bon Iver’s debut CD showed up on the new release racks in KSLU a month or so ago. It probably would have gone without notice if it weren’t for the Billiken Club show a few weeks away. I listened to the album a few times straight through and loved it. The story behind the making of the album is that Justin Vernon moved into northwestern Wisconsin and lived alone on a property for three months, writing and recording in periods as long as 12 hours. He stayed all winter, and by the spring he had a nine song album he entitled For Emma, Forever Ago. I decided I couldn’t miss the show.

The free show began with Collections of Colonies of Bees, a side project of the post-rock group Pele started by Chris Rosenau and Jon Mueller. They started the project to explore the mixing of traditional folk with modern technology. The result was a series of electric compositions that usually blended together very well, although at times they were very repetitive and it seemed like I was listening to a skipping CD or a broken record. There were two laptops and at least two keyboards on stage that I could see, with cords running all over the stage.

The stage couldn’t have looked more different when Bon Iver (pronounced bohn eeVAIR, an intentional misspelling of the French phrase meaning ‘good winter’) took the stage. Justin Vernon’s minimalist setup consisted a few effects pedals, a drummer, and a guitarist. I wasn’t sure before he took the stage if he was able to perform his characteristic soundscapes of beautiful harmonies live as well as he recorded them, but his first song dispelled any concerns I had. All three of the people onstage were singing, and their voices melded together so well that it was difficult to hear which person was singing which part most of the time.  What’s more, there wasn’t one voice out of key or one break in the complex harmonies during the whole show.

He made an unusual choice to play For Emma, Forever Ago through in its entirety, but it seemed to work out for the best. Most artists avoid doing this to avoid making the audience feel that they are just sitting at home listening to the CD. Bon Iver did vary the makeup of his songs a little, but it didn’t seem to flow with the overall feel of his album. He seemed too much like he was trying to imitate his proclaimed heroes Collections of Colonies of Bees and not staying true to the folky, mellow rock he plays so well. However, his choice to play the album straight through meant I got to hear all of my favorite songs such as Skinny Love and Re: Stacks.  Overall it was an amazing performance, though, and one I was glad I didn’t miss.