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Bon Iver’s Madison show felt small in all the right ways

A man plays an electric guitar and sings into a microphone on stage while a colored light shines on him from the front of the stage.
Brett Krzykowski

When Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon took the stage Saturday night at Breese Stevens Field in Madison, he did what great live performers do best: transport you from where you are to where he wants you to be.

Standout concerts have a way of creating that sense of place. You’re not at a rock club; you’re at the best house party of your life. You’re not at an arena; you’re at the club on Friday night. You’re not at a Grateful Dead show; you’re 17 miles up in the stratosphere riding a purple unicorn named Frances.

The location of Saturday night’s concert was, by definition, a soccer stadium. In the broad light of day — with Breese Stevens’ relatively early curfew, Sid Sriram’s opening set and much of Vernon’s was naturally lit — all the hallmarks were there: the wooden press box overlooking the field, “The Cross Bar” serving food and drinks on the west end, the black rubber pellets of the turf sticking to everyone’s backsides.

After just a few songs, however, Vernon and the squad of talent on stage with him had made it feel more inviting, warmer, smaller. It was like sitting in someone’s living room while they played you a few of their favorites — no small feat considering there was also the tour-worth lighting effects and $17 beers to contend with. All the same, it felt exactly how you’d expect a night with Vernon to feel like: a good hang.

Residents of an apartment building next to Breese Stevens Field gathered on their balconies to watch Saturday's concert.
Brett Krzykowski
Residents of an apartment building next to Breese Stevens Field gathered on their balconies to watch Saturday's concert.

When he walked on stage, the response was as enthusiastic as you’d expect from a home-state crowd. Then, as the opening notes of “iMi” from Bon Iver’s most recent album (i,i) burst from the speakers, everyone — the musicians on stage and the crowd sprawled out on the turf — kind of settled in and got comfortable.

The set itself moved smoothly among Bon Iver’s discography, never hanging on one album for more than three songs. The lighting complimented each one beautifully, mixing LED strips, spotlights and the occasional crowd-blinding floodlight in rhythm, matching the emotional tenor of the track.

That was most evident on “715 - CREEKS” right around the middle of the set. Like the album version, it required nothing more than Vernon’s modulated voice, giving everyone else on stage a chance to take a breather as the spotlight(s) quite literally turned to the man of the hour. It was a moment of stillness in the midst of what was already a fairly chill night, with Vernon seemingly extending the song’s pauses to see how long the crowd’s silently rapt attention would last.

For me, it was the peak of that transformative ability mentioned at the top because, going into the show, Breese Stevens Field already carried a heavy sense of place. I hadn’t been there in almost 30 years and sat just a few rows from where I watched my sister play in the state soccer finals a week or so after our dad died. Saturday was a different kind of family moment: my kid’s first proper concert (thank you, early Madison curfew).

We managed to get down near the stage for “715 - CREEKS.” And like the rest of the crowd, I was grateful to be standing there in near-silence, looking at the joy on the face of the person next to me.

— Brett Krzykowski, web editor

The last time I was at a Bon Iver concert in a festival setting was Eaux Claires 2016, when Vernon premiered 22, A Million with a live set. I remember how special it felt to hear those songs for the first time amid a small sea of fans.

To me, Eaux Claires always felt like an anomaly with its chill vibe. My experience Saturday at Breese Stevens Field circled back to that feeling: a familiar breath of fresh air where you could relax into the magic of the night as it unfolded.

Just like at Eaux Claires seven years ago, the fans present were appreciative, engaged and super polite — for typical festival attendees anyway. Everyone gave each other space, paid attention with minimal chatter, sang along (but not too loudly) and picked up their trash (mostly). Phones were held up, but primarily to sub in for lighters as a way to emphasize emotion on some of the more tender moments.

Bon Iver fans wait in line (patiently and politely) at a merchandise stand prior to Saturday's concert.
Brett Krzykowski
Bon Iver fans wait in line (patiently and politely) at a merchandise stand prior to Saturday's concert.

Opener Sid Sriram shared his phenomenal voice and soulfully sincere pop vibe with an appreciative crowd as he dug into his set with his whole heart, even with the slightly encroaching backline setup — no doubt he would’ve ran the stage if he had the room. I’m excited to see where he takes things next after this perfect ramp-up, energy-wise, to Bon Iver’s much-anticipated set.

I was stoked for this particular show, as it was the first time catching Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner with the band. I’ve been a fan of Wye Oak (and Wasner’s other projects, Flock of Dimes and Dungeonesse) for a while, and Wasner didn’t disappoint. She jumped in early in the set, her voice ringing out clearly to trade harmonies with Vernon, and wove both her vocals and her guitar-work seamlessly into the rest of the set.

All of Vernon’s bandmates — including mainstay Sean “S.” Carey and Madison-based Andrew Fitzpatrick — blended and balanced more often than not with Vernon’s lead. Yet when they did lean in more strongly, it was an easy flow. By the final encore, I left having seen (and heard) a group of musicians grow and change but still maintain the feeling of familiar connection and comfort.

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon performs during Saturday's show at Breese Stevens Field in Madison.
Brett Krzykowski
Bon Iver's Justin Vernon performs during Saturday's show at Breese Stevens Field in Madison.

As a Wisconsinite, I admittedly missed that first notable Bon Iver show at Mad Planet back in 2008 because my friends and I — cozily holed up in a Brewer’s Hill apartment not even a couple miles away from the venue — had an indifferent, weather-influenced attitude about taking the bus on a cold winter night. Not long after, For Emma started circulating more widely, and we were all a little regretful having missed out.

In the years since, I made up for it by catching most Bon Iver shows and etching Vernon’s music into my memory bank, particularly those post-college years of figuring things out and getting involved in the local music scene more heavily. For me, there’s a definitive nostalgia around those initial songs, and hearing “Lump Sum” and “re: Stacks” on Saturday was an insta-transporter to that specific time and place.

Although those early entries took up a very small part of the overall set, it was the foundation that all the other songs piled onto. That’s what keeps Bon Iver fans (especially Wisconsin-based ones) coming back show after show — the connection and comfort in going back to the basics of that first heartstring pull.

No matter who Vernon plays with and no matter how many newer, more produced songs find space in the set, that same feeling will always be there to return to.

— Erin Wolf, 88Nine music director

Set list

  1. Yi
  2. iMi
  3. Lump Sum
  4. 666 ʇ
  5. PDLIF
  6. Heavenly Father
  7. Perth
  8. Wash.
  9. Towers
  10. Jelmore
  11. U (Man Like)
  12. 10 d E A T h b R E a s T
  13. 715 - CREEKS
  14. Hey, Ma
  15. Blood Bank
  16. ____45_____
  17. 33 “GOD”
  18. re: Stacks
  19. Holocene
  20. Naeem
  21. Skinny Love
  22. RABi
88Nine Music Director / On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee