On paper, last night should have been a terrible night for a show in Milwaukee. It was a Sunday—the last Sunday of a long Thanksgiving weekend—and the Packers had played earlier in the afternoon. (What was that, Tom Brady?) But for the sold-out and highly anticipated Volcano Choir show at Turner Hall, it was a case of perfect timing. It represented Justin Vernon and company’s final stop on their yearlong Repave tour, and, as guitarist Chris Rosenau put it late in the set, a “wrap-up to this portion of us.” It was a triumph: loud and quiet, refined and loose, defiant and penitent, unabashedly emotional. It also featured one whopper of a surprise opener: Sylvan Esso.
Though the show was never billed as having a surprise guest, a curious lack of a second name on the bill—and the abundance of Sylvan Esso merch in the back of the room—tipped off most show-goers long before the lights went down. When they finally did, former Milwaukeean Nick Sanborn and former Mountain Man Amelia Meath took the stage to not-so-surprised screams of delight, and proceeded to dish out choice selections from their critically lauded debut album. Sanborn shared that Sylvan Esso had toured with Volcano Choir on the latter’s first tour, making the night’s last-minute pairing especially poignant. With Sanborn sporting a Jabari Parker Bucks jersey and Meath kicking some stone-cold dance moves, the duo once again proved why they’re one of the best indie bands working today, and why they need to be seen live to be truly appreciated.
But this was Volcano Choir’s show to make or break, and the band did not disappoint. Standing behind a podium/pulpit draped in spindly fabric that matched a looming topographical backdrop, Vernon led his band of past and present Collection Of Colonies Of Bees members through a deeply felt set that included songs from 2009’s oft-difficult Unmap (“Still,” set closer “Youlogy”), every track from 2013’s triumphant Repave (the Charles Bukowski sample during “Alaskans” included), as well as a few unreleased tunes (the knotty and twice-flubbed “Valleyonaire”). All the traits that people find fascinating or irritating about the (former?) Bon Iver frontman were present: inscrutable lyrics, copious amounts of Auto Tune, and a weepy and aloof demeanor. But backed by the post-rock likes of Rosenau and drummer Jon Mueller, Vernon became the unofficial leader of both a consciously pretty and surprisingly angry band. “Acetate” and “Comrade” curdled from calm to boiling in a matter of moments; the gulf between delicate set opener “Tiderays” and the apocalyptic final minutes of “Still” was immense; show-highlight “Byegone” was a nerve-shredding and life-affirming stunner, as expected. (Rosenau: “You were silent for ‘Alaskans.’ We need the opposite for this one.”)
Befitting a final show on a tour, there were plenty of emotional moments. The band repeatedly thanked their families and friends, as well as guitar tech Mark Waldoch and the Pabst/Riverside/Turner Hall group. Vernon took what he claimed was his first-ever onstage crowd snapshot, and the hugs came easy as the night ended. It was a big night for Milwaukee, too, with a pair of nationally celebrated, locally tied bands unexpectedly coming together for what was undoubtedly one of the best shows of the year. It was the kind of thing that doesn’t come around often, yet something that seems to happen here all the time.