Homecoming king

Story by Eric Christenson

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A lot has changed in the three years since Bon Iver last performed in Eau Claire. It was at the State Theater downtown in December of 2008, after the wide release of the band’s critically acclaimed debut, “For Emma, Forever Ago.”

Since then, Justin Vernon and Co. have nabbed acclaim from a wide number of publications like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork Media and New York Times Magazine and the band’s been on many late night TV shows such as Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Colbert Report.

Not to mention Vernon, a UW-Eau Claire alumnus, has been involved in side projects Volcano Choir (a collaboration with Collections of Colonies of Bees from Milwaukee), GAYNGS (a midwest, slow-jam supergroup) and he worked with a small, humble hip hop artist from Chicago named Kanye West.  And drummer Sean Carey, also an alum, has been off making his own debut record called “All We Grow” and touring it around the country.

Vernon built a recording studio out of an old veterinary clinic in Fall Creek, he did songs with St. Vincent, Aaron Dessner of The National, James Blake and Bon Iver headlined Pitchfork’s first ever music festival in Paris, France.

And if I’m not mistaken, somewhere in there, he found time to put together an extraordinary 9-piece band and record a Grammy-nominated self-titled followup to “For Emma”,

So your average, supportive Eau Clairean could understand that he’s been busy.

The long, long wait for Bon Iver to return home was almost something of a necessity as it turned any fleck of “they’ve forgotten about us” mentality into “finally!” and “can’t wait!” and almost from the second the announcement came that Bon Iver would be playing in the heart of Eau Claire, the city’s been abuzz.

And, on Monday night, waves and waves of students, community members and people from all over the nation crammed into Zorn arena. I heard someone remark that the space hadn’t been so tightly packed since President Obama visited campus in early 2007 during his presidential campaign.

It certainly marks a special evening when your hometown heroes gather as big of crowds as our nation’s leader, if I may slightly digress.

It’s cliche to state that anticipation hung in the air, but cliches are cliches for a reason and it heavily applies here.

An anxious crowd happily listened to the charming, talented Lianne La Havas, an English songwriter who couldn’t resist taking a quick photo of the enormous outpouring of fans before her short set.

And after a small wait, Bon Iver took the stage to shouts and noise as they rocketed through the first 3 tracks of “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” garnishing the space between songs with horns and looped effects.

Vernon paused after “Holocene” to talk about the next logical song, the fourth track on “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” “Towers” whose namesake lay in as Vernon put it, “two buildings up the hill.”

You knew it was coming, but it still hit hard as a UWEC student.

The band played “Michicant” next, but was quick to break any ideas that they were just playing their newest album front to back with a huge version of “Creature Fear” from “For Emma”.

Highlights included a nearly 2-minute instrumental breakdown smack in the middle of “Flume” and Vernon playing Bon Iver’s most gorgeous song — in my opinion, obviously — “Re: Stacks” to a near fully silent arena.

Following the pounding, heavy drums of the set-closer “Beth / Rest”, the entire band came to the front of the stage and took a lengthy bow, but obviously returned after (an obligatory) encore of “For Emma” (the song) and “The Wolves: Parts 1 and 2,” with hefty crowd participationin Part 2.

I think the show had to mean a lot to any Eau Claire resident that after such a long wait, the act that’s thrust the community into a partial spotlight returned home for an incredibly satisfying and emotionally stirring set.

And why wouldn’t it?  The aspect of home clearly means a lot to Vernon and the band, but it might even mean a little more to the people here.

Bon Iver’s done more than go out and teach the world about Towers and The Joynt.  It’s instilled a larger sense of community here in Eau Claire, especially for students only here for a short span of time.

Some of you might resent Bon Iver for your own reasons — which is fine, it’s your opinion — but I’d hope that you can at least admire that.

Because when everyone in Zorn Arena is singing aloud to “The Wolves” to close out the show, it seems, if at least just for that moment, that there’s something incredibly vibrant and good happening here.

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