Review: Bon Iver at the Billiken Club, Tuesday, April 8

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(Check out our video of the night here at this post.)

Bon Iver delivered a show I didn't even know I needed at the Billiken Club on Tuesday night.

For Emma, Forever Ago, the 2008 Jagjaguwar debut from the act (which is the name under which Wisconsin resident Justin Vernon records) is an album of skeletal folk that honors the aching beauty of isolation. Hushed guitars and hymn-like solemnity dominate, while Vernon's keening croon is pure and soulful. Comparisons to a stripped-down TV on the Radio are fair (mainly because of the stacked harmonies), but also don't capture the searing simplicity of Emma's tunes.

Bon Iver's live set preserved the of-a-moment feel of the album handily, as Vernon -- seated for the entire show -- came across like an upper Midwest Neil Young, in the way he crouched over his guitar, lost in the music's emotion and unfurled walls of sound.

Indeed, for as many quiet moments as appeared during the show (the final song, "re:stacks" was a beautiful, quavering solo performance), Vernon and two other musicians -- drummer Sean Carey and multi-instrumentalist Mike Noyce -- fleshed out the album's wintry desolation. Vernon looped his guitars to create a sputtering mass of noise on a song, while Noyce played a washboard at one point and sang pin-point backup harmonies.

Carey especially brought a forceful edge to Vernon's plucked guitars that heightened the impact of Emma's songs. This was no more evident than on highlight "The Wolves (Act I and II)." While beginning slowly and quietly, it built to a loud end, with waterfall rushes of wailing vocals and music washing over the stage atop clattering drums. The next song up, a watery folk song called "Blindsided," was also simply beautiful and sad, still cresting on the waves of emotion from the previous song.

Despite such thoughtful, haunted music, Vernon was in good, light spirits; he humbly and graciously thanked the crowd for coming to the show to listen, and acknowledged the excited audience members who screamed out "Wisconsin!" several times, home-state-pride-style. The show's beauty was how it inspired possibility; Bon Iver's the sort of act to make you become lost in your own head, remembering what might have been -- and also what could be.

-- Annie Zaleski

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