But before I was in Milwaukee, I was home for Gillian Welch's Thursday night visit to the Capitol Theatre. As always, Gillian was joined by partner Dave Rawlings, for what turned out to be a memorable night of music in Madison. Gill and Dave are an interesting case for me: I've seen and thoroughly enjoyed them twice headlining (and seen Dave more than that, with other musicians), but somehow haven't gotten into their recorded output yet. No matter. Their voices intertwined beautifully on the Capitol stage, and I needn't have known even the handful of songs I recognized to be enthralled. From the boisterous "Six White Horses" to the haunting "Long Black Veil" (performed at the front of the stage without amplification), the crowd hung on every word. The audience was both respectful and enthusiastic, a fact that wasn't lost on the musicians. "We should play Madison more often," Gillian said toward the end of the night. I know Madison agrees.
Up next were Bon Iver and the Rosebuds at the Riverside in Milwaukee, Friday and Saturday nights. These were the first shows of the supporting tour for Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and the first concerts Bon Iver had played at all since October 2009 in the very same theater. My, how they've grown. They're bigger in media stature: since Bon Iver last toured, Justin Vernon has worked on various side projects including a high-profile collaboration with Kanye West. And they're bigger in sheer numbers: the band that took the stage in Milwaukee was a nine-piece. These musicians brought the instrumentally complex songs of Bon Iver, Bon Iver to life in a most powerful way, and gave a shot of adrenaline to older numbers. I was blown away by "Blood Bank," but only after listening to the EP version this morning did I realize how much the new arrangement added to an already great song. Not every old song was embellished, though. An emotional high point of each night was Justin Vernon on stage alone with his guitar, singing "Re: Stacks."
Friday and Saturday's shows were both wonderful, but in a flip of the usual "second night is always better" concert rule, I have to give the edge to Friday. Nothing to do with the performances, but the first-show electricity and revelation of each new song would be hard to top. Wisconsin pride over the home-state heroes was palpable in Milwaukee, made concrete with Mayor Tom Barrett's declaration of Friday July 22nd as Bon Iver Day. Before the band came out that night, Assistant City Attorney Tom Gartner (who happens to be Justin Vernon's godfather) came onstage to read the official proclamation. On Saturday night Justin seemed relaxed, goofing around with the crowd, but on Friday night he had a hard time finding the words to say anything but a version of "thank you" between songs. The feeling was mutual.