Bon Iver puts Chicago to bed after the weekend

July 25, 2011

When I was in high school, I went to a Ben Folds (sans the Five) concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York. People smoked marijuana in the theater, but the show had to stop promptly at 10 pm so they could set up for the Radio City Rockettes performances the next day. The use of illicit materials in a largely tame and family friendly setting struck me as particularly funny, as though we could have been at a classical concert at Lincoln Center, albeit a slightly rocked up one.

That same feeling came to me at the Chicago Theatre on Sunday night during Bon Iver's sold out show. The group, who had been in Milwaukee for the previous two nights, and according to Rolling Stone, received "a hero's welcome befitting Wisconsin's most celebrated musical export since the Violent Femmes" (it was Bon Iver Day, after all). But for Chicagoans, this show was more along the lines of bedtime music for slightly non-conformist grown-ups, much to the chagrin of one über-fan.

Standing after every song and cheering, while throwing up a "Rock On!" hand signal, this middle-aged man seemed utterly dismayed at the lack of visible excitement from audience members, who mostly stayed seated, getting up only to replenish their plastic cups. At one point, he even turned around to the audience and yelled "'C'mon Chicago!" in a frustrated voice.

Justin Vernon wasn't fazed, and neither was the rest of his band; they rocked entirely at their own pace. But when another fan repeated the same "C'mon Chicago!" refrain, Vernon replied, "Yeah, exactly; c'mon Chicago, what up. Up there in Milwaukee, they were drinking some beers and singing pretty loud" (to be read in a decidely purposeful Wisconsin accent).

Though Bon Iver's music has been compared by some music critics as too similar to Mike and the Mechanics (or Eddy Duchin), Vernon's eight-piece backing band more than made up for the muddled sounds of his most recent recorded work. This included horns, strings, multiple drummers and some impressive beat-boxing by Reggie Pace, usually on trombone, as they covered Björk's "Who Is It."

The audience chose to express their love in sporadic ways, with one young woman yelling "So sexy" and another shouting what Vernon took to be "Great abs!"

"That's the best thing I've ever heard at a concert. It's encouraging. It's just all you would want from an audience," he replied.

It took the encore to raise any large portion of people out of their seats, but they stayed that way for the three final songs. In a rendition of "Skinny Love" that included the majority of his band clapping and singing backup in a semi-circle behind him, Vernon said he hoped that the song would help birth his friend's baby, who was apparently in the audience.

But the closest the crowd ever got to listening to the "C'mon Chicago" pleas was during "The Wolves (Act I and Act II)," where Vernon asked the crowd to sing the lyric "What might have been lost" in an increasingly louder voice.

For the moment, I was back in Radio City, with Ben Folds conducting a round of harmonies from atop his piano. It may have been bedtime, but it seemed like Chicago finally woke up.