10 Years of Bon Iver: Justin Vernon Returns to Milwaukee

10 years ago, Bon Iver delivered a Pabst Theater performance that Milwaukee fans still talk about.

Before curating the Eaux Claires festival, before beating Skrillex and Nicki Minaj for a Grammy in the Best New Artist category, before contributing to Kanye West’s acclaimed record My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Justin Vernon gave a heart-wrenching performance at The Pabst Theater. That day, in August 2008, the Bon Iver frontman solidified his status as Wisconsin’s champion of indie music.

It was a mantle that Vernon seemed happy to bear. “The Pabst, in our humble opinion, is quite possibly the most beautiful venue in America,” Vernon later wrote.

Vernon famously recorded For Emma, Forever Ago over a winter in a rustic hunting cabin northwest of his hometown, Eau Claire, and he initially released it unceremoniously on Myspace. But the deeply personal, falsetto-laden folk record picked up hype on music blogs, eventually earning a February 2008 re-release on the notable Midwestern independent label Jagjaguwar.

Ryan Miller, host of Indie Soundcheck on FM 102.1, recalls being moved by Bon Iver’s encore at the Pabst, when Vernon and three bandmates huddled around a microphone and harmonized to Sarah Siskind’s “Lovin’s for Fools.” “It’s tough for me to think of a more captivating encore,” Miller says.

Bon Iver performs at The Pabst Theater in 2008
Bon Iver performs at The Pabst Theater in 2008; photo courtesy of The Pabst Theater

Ryan Matteson, a blogger and early supporter of the album, had just started working at the Pabst, as director of public relations, when Bon Iver played the theater. “There was a lot of statewide pride with someone like Justin,” Matteson says. “You root for him, and you’re proud to have him part of the state of Wisconsin and part of the overall music community.”

Matteson now manages bands such as The Mountain Goats, Bully and Strand of Oaks. But he remembers that 2008 show at the Pabst clearly – the way a sense of anticipation ran through the crowd, which listened with unusually rapt attention. “I remember being able to hear a pin drop,” Matteson recalls.

Vernon went to the Pabst Lounge after the set to catch up with fans. “There were so many people out there that I think maybe that was the first time he got a sense of how big things had gotten,” Matteson says.

Vernon would come back to the city for a sold-out AIDS benefit in 2009. And he kicked off an international tour for his sophomore album with two sold-out 2011 performances at the Riverside Theater. Mayor Tom Barrett officially proclaimed July 22, 2011, “Bon Iver Day.”

The love connection between Vernon and Milwaukee continues Feb. 17, when Bon Iver returns for an exclusive 10-year celebration of For Emma, Forever Ago at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Local groups Field Report and Collections of Colonies of Bees, members of which perform in post-rock group Volcano Choir with Vernon, open the show. ◆

Fellow Travelers

Scores of indie musicians – including some hometown heroes – have trekked across the country roads and evergreen forests of Eau Claire County to record at Vernon’s remote Fall Creek studio, April Base.

“We were given free rein over the entire home and studio. We cooked, drank, sang and played for three days and came away with 16 songs.”

Nathaniel Heuer, frontman of Milwaukee folk four-piece Hello Death

“Much of the music and many of the people I care about deeply are connected to that place. The studio itself is almost like a record: They are always making changes, looking for ways for it to resonate even deeper.”

Chris Porterfield, frontman of the nationally renowned local folk band Field Report

“When we arrived, the lights were on and the place was unlocked. Justin’s flannels were hanging by the door and his brother’s checkbook was on the table. I felt a little like Goldilocks stumbling upon a cozy nook in the woods, but instead of taking a nap while the owners were out, we tracked an album.”

Jentri Colello, frontman of the minimalist Madison outfit Land of Vandals

‘Bon Anniversaire, Bon Iver’ appears in the February 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning January 29, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Kevin is a freelance writer residing in Milwaukee. He’s contributed to The Shepherd Express, Third Coast Daily, Pop Matters and the sadly now-defunct A.V. Club Milwaukee. He looks forward to forging a deeper connection with the city’s impressive music scene during his gig as a Music Notes blogger. His talents include music criticism, riding a bicycle, drinking tasty beers and a crafty croquet swing. His weaknesses comprise Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, professional wrestling and his ever-growing record collection. He’s in desperate need to find more physical (and hard drive) space for the exceptional albums Milwaukee musicians keep churning out.