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"Holocene" is the most poignant song on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the album Vernon released via Jagjaguwar last month. A web of acoustic guitars, vibraphone and steel guitar, all layered with Vernon's most delicate singing to date, the song is an elliptical story of redemption. The guitar part is actually borrowed, at least in part, from "Hazelton," the title track to the EP Vernon self-released in Raleigh just before DeYarmond Edison disbanded. The song begins with an episode of blackout drunkenness in Milwaukee and moves to memories of celebrations in an Eau Claire house, where friends, including the Cook brothers, once lived. The twisting tune ends with Vernon, at home during Christmas, smoking pot with his younger brother, Nate. Together, they watch the smoke spiral into space.
"The first verse is this weird amalgamation of the darkness that came with those times," Vernon said. "The last verse is about all of that stuff getting released."
Tonight in Milwaukee, "Holocene" comes early in the show; the band moves with remarkable grace for its live debut, the horns and guitars sighing perfectly beneath the circular acoustic. When Vernon sings "You're in Milwaukee, off your feet," the capacity crowd of 2,500 erupts, ignoring the tragedy inherent in the line.
Ivan Howard stands about 10 feet from the stage entrance, beaming like an overjoyed parent for Vernon's new band. Just 90 minutes earlier, Vernon stood in the same spot, pumping his fist and mouthing along to "The Woods," the best song on the new album by The Rosebuds, Loud Planes Fly Low. It's the first record by The Rosebuds that hasn't involved Vernon since 2005's Birds Make Good Neighbors. What's more, this is the first time Howard has seen Bon Iver play since an early incarnation performed at Local 506 Feb. 18, 2008, the day Jagjaguwar released For Emma, Forever Ago.
"I wasn't shocked, because I know what Justin is as a frontman, and I wasn't shocked at people's reactions to it, because I know how people react at shows," says Howard of the Milwaukee debut. "But I was so proud of these sounds—the way it came together, the bigness. It was really moving. It was perfect."
The Rosebuds have always been a revolving door of temporary memberships, arrivals and departures, but the span between Vernon's tenure with the band in early 2007 and his reconnection with them in Milwaukee last week was one of the most difficult. Vernon joined The Rosebuds just as Crisp and Howard finally admitted that there was a problem in their relationship, and that the current configuration—as husband, wife and bandmates—couldn't last much longer. They suppressed those feelings during the tour for Night of the Furies, when Vernon played lead guitar by night and mixed his own record in the back of the van by day.
By the time they recorded their fourth album, Howard and Crisp were separated, but they chose to continue publicly as a "couple's act," for fear the change would impact their image. As a result, the three years between Life Like and Loud Planes Fly Low were perhaps the most frustrating for the two, as they tried to sort out their new lives only behind closed doors. When they finally broached the topic of the divorce by writing these most recent songs, says Crisp, it served as therapy, a release of tension that let them work together well once again. It's also the best work they've done in six years.
In that sense, it's not unlike For Emma, Forever Ago, a therapeutic project for a self-exiled songwriter. "I felt very un-special. So when I made For Emma, Forever Ago, I was very much making a record that I needed to make. It was my last chance. I remember coming back from living with Ivan and Kelly and staying with you, and being so much happier as a person than I was six months earlier," says Vernon, who briefly lived in my spare bedroom while he rehearsed with The Rosebuds and mixed For Emma. "It wasn't because I thought the record was my chance to be successful; it was because the record actually meant something to me. I felt like I was actually applying myself."
In part to honor the inspiration they gave him and in part because he says they make "some of the most important music in the world," Vernon asked The Rosebuds to open the first 12 dates of this behemoth tour. These shows are an arrival for both parties, the other side of a difficult and arduous narrative arc for everyone involved.
"He told me, 'They took me on my first real tour, so I want to take them out,'" remembers Bon Iver's booking agent, Adam Voith, sitting by the backstage door on a set of steps that overlooks the river. Tonight's show has been in the works for the better part of two years, he says, and he's stunned it's finally about to happen. "One of the most amazing things about this band is it hasn't changed from day one. Its operations, its motivations, its measures of success, its decisions—it hasn't changed. They haven't made one compromise."
Oftentimes, when large bands go on tour, their booking agent and manager accept proposals from smaller bands that are interested in opening. Voith says that almost any band in the world would have wanted to open this tour; after only four shows, it is almost entirely sold out through November, from Brooklyn and Minneapolis to Oslo and Hamburg. But Bon Iver didn't accept submissions. Vernon knew he wanted The Rosebuds.
Throughout his popular ascension, Vernon's mentality has focused heavily on this aspect of the pack, or the friends that supported him long before any throng at Glastonbury sang along to "Skinny Love" or before Kanye West called him to ask for samples and, eventually, collaborations. Just as he has been building his aesthetic for well over a decade, and finally releasing songs he started writing four years ago, he's also been building and maintaining the circle of people he trusts.
When he made the first promotional appearance for Bon Iver, Bon Iver, on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, he asked his old DeYarmond Edison bandmate and musical mentor, Phil Cook, to join on piano for a medley of Bonnie Raitt and Donnie Hathaway tunes. Some producers would have paid to record this album, one of the most hotly anticipated follow-ups in a decade. (Indeed, the day the first song, "Calgary," was released, Bon Iver was a worldwide trending topic on Twitter.) Rather than farm out the work to someone he had never met, Vernon engineered and mixed the record with Brian Joseph, his longtime live soundman and the first cousin of the Cooks. As kids, they had shared summers on the lakes of northern Wisconsin. On this tour, the drum technician, Eric Lee, is just a friend of friends from Eau Claire who shared DeYarmond Edison's old practice space; Vernon could've picked and afforded most anyone in the world.
The band itself is a motley assemblage of friends Vernon has made over the years, from Reggie Pace, the trombonist he met while collaborating with Megafaun in Durham last year, to the players he calls "my two favorite saxophonists in the whole world," Mike Lewis and Colin Stetson.
Vernon also spent a considerable chunk of 2010 recording and touring with the smooth jazz-soul act Gayngs. That band's debut, Relayted, is a remarkable Miles Davis-like fusion of disparate styles and unexpected ideas; it was admittedly also an excuse for Vernon to put his longtime friend—the auteur and producer Ryan Olson—in the national spotlight and to gather many of his closest pals in one tour bus. Half of DeYarmond Edison, Howard and two current members of Bon Iver were all part of Gayngs.
"It's the most innocent thing you could ever think of," Vernon said of Gayngs, a welcome outlet from the world of Bon Iver. "There's a bunch of people not trying to do anything to make you impressed. They're doing it because it's fun."
Vernon's brother, Nate, remains his tour manager and business partner. Just before Vernon goes onstage in Milwaukee, he finds and hugs him. "Have a good show, brother," the singer tells the manager, his voice fighting against the roar of the eager crowd.
Together, they plan to open a cultural center in downtown Eau Claire to pay tribute to the women's college that once stood in the town. They've already purchased and refurbished an old veterinary clinic in Fall Creek, Wis., a few minutes from where they grew up. It's now a world-class recording studio and living quarters. Bon Iver, Bon Iver was recorded there, and that's where Vernon's new nine-piece band rehearses. But Megafaun, Bowerbirds and dozens of other Eau Claire acts have used the space to record albums with high quality and low overhead. Vernon now lives in a small apartment in Eau Claire, but several friends stay at what's now known as April Base, keeping the place up and modifying it as they see fit.
"I'm cool with being part of something bigger than me," Vernon says of the ranch. "That's what that house feels like as an opportunity."
Shortly after leaving the casino just a few hours before dawn, Vernon logged onto his Twitter account—not the band's official, marketing-based social media handle, but his personal sobriquet, @blobtower, named for an attraction at the Wisconsin summer camp he attended.
"All good qualities must be sown and cultivated," he said, quoting the Dalai Lama. "We can't expect to change overnight from an ordinary person into one with high realizations."
Earlier that night, Bon Iver ended their set just as the new album ends. They played "Calgary," an unpredictable surge of phosphorescence about trying to keep love together despite the odds. Backstage, Nate Vernon rushed through the wings, singing along, doing his best to mimic the falsetto his older brother has made famous.
When the song ended, Pace slipped on his bulky black shades. To his right, C.J. "Cam" Camerieri stepped behind a Korg M1, the same synthesizer that was so crucial to Bruce Hornsby's late-'80s hits. Lewis grabbed his saxophone and stood beside Stetson, his fellow reed player; they nodded along in sync, waiting for their parts. Vernon stepped to center stage and started singing, his vocals manipulated so as to reflect the same era of pop as the keyboards. Just before song's end, he took a guitar solo, strings squealing above the violin and horns. Voith leaned over and asked me why no one had mentioned that the song's major touchstone might just be the sex scene in the 1986 film Top Gun. That's less of a joke than it may seem.
As with the soft rock of Gayngs, Vernon has actually taken some flack for "Beth/ Rest." Some have called it ironic, while others have said it's just not cool enough for indie rock, that the soothing sounds of Hornsby don't belong to kids who cut their teeth on Pavement. But Vernon is an unabashed Hornsby fan ("Man, there's not enough Hornsby in my scene," he recently told Jimmy Fallon) and has been, he thinks, since he was a sophomore in high school. That much was was evident from his time in Raleigh leading DeYarmond Edison. This is a guy who talks about crying openly to the Indigo Girls and Joan Baez, minutes after mentioning his collaboration with Kanye West.
"I literally just don't give a shit," he says about those responses to "Beth/ Rest." "I have cried when I've been working on that song. It's legitimate. I know what that means, where that comes from and why you cry for music. It isn't for ironic reasons."
After all, it's a reflection of two decades of loving music and wanting to make music. So, really, from here on out, all bets are off.
Correction (July 27, 2011): Two photos were miscredited.