Bon Iver premieres 'Hey, Ma' live, reimagines catalog, at Summerfest debut in Milwaukee

Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
View Comments

Summerfest in Milwaukee is the world's largest music festival.

Bon Iver is the world's most popular Wisconsin band right now.

But these two Wisconsin music institutions had never coalesced until Saturday, when Bon Iver made its Summerfest debut at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater.

And to mark the occasion, the Eau Claire band performed its latest single "Hey, Ma" live for the first time since officially releasing it last month. (The band played a version of the song a year ago at Bonnaroo and a recording of it in London, but until Saturday, there had been no other live presentation.)

Bon Iver performs at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater on June 29, 2019.

It was a stirring, nostalgic performance, led by Vernon's yearning falsetto and complemented Saturday by Vernon family home movies seen in the music video. 

It also was a fitting gesture for a home state crowd. When introducing the band, Vernon made sure to single out the Wisconsin origins of La Crosse native Andrew Fitzpatrick (on keys and guitar) and Lake Geneva native Sean Carey (on drums and keys). Vernon also wore a cutoff Christian Yelich jersey and naturally drew a large ovation singing the lines "You're in Milwaukee off you're feet" during "Holocene."

Bon Iver, alas, didn't play any other songs from an anticipated album expected this year. But the band dramatically reimagined past songs in new ways. 

Set opener "Perth" began with Carey and fellow drummer Matthew McCaughan softly rolling their sticks on cymbals ahead of that familiar, marching snare-drum cadence — but then Vernon threw in a jagged guitar riff, then dropped down to his knees amid a squall of feedback and drum blitzes at the end.

It was a precursor for the deafening sonic squall of "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄," far more visceral than on the "22, A Million" album. But then that was contrasted by lighter renditions of "666 ʇ" and "Heavenly Father," led by bright percussive pops and more rhythmic sway.

The experimental electronic jam intro ahead of "Minnesota, WI," recalled Vernon's work on the first Volcano Choir album with members of Milwaukee avant-garde rock band Collections of Colonies of Bees. And the strong backing vocals from Carey and dizzying, distorted sax swirls from Mike Lewis, brought even greater conviction to one of Bon Iver's more spiritual songs, "____45_____."

But the most dramatic reimagining was "Blood Bank," the title track from Bon Iver's 2009 EP, which was transformed from a modest folk rocker into a staggering arena rock stunner. Up to that point, Vernon occasionally looked a bit uptight, but in the middle of "Blood Bank," he heard something he liked on his headphones, his stern face turning into a sweet smile, his head rolling loosely as he ripped into his guitar and hopped on his feet. 

This was Bon Iver's first time at Summerfest, but it wasn't Vernon's. Midway through the set, he reminisced about the last time he was in the amphitheater, back in 1997, watching James Taylor.

And now (finally), Bon Iver got to play that same stage.

"It's a big memory for us," Vernon said Saturday.

Hopefully, the first of many more to come. 

The openers 

Julien Baker opens for Bon Iver at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater on June 29, 2019.

It’s exceptionally rare to see an artist so anguished and so reserved in the same breath like Julien Baker.

Watching her perform her 45-minute opening set Saturday, you could swear she was screaming as she sang, the way her mouth opened up as fury and anger washed over her face.

But as she sang agonizing confessionals like “Something,” Baker kept pulling back from the mic, her vocals barely louder than a whisper. It was a riveting effect, like watching someone screaming for help who's actually unable to scream.

But Baker was clearly heard by a riveted audience Saturday.

Lord Huron opens for Bon Iver at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater on June 29, 2019.

The opener that followed her, Lord Huron, was the most mainstream act on the American Family Insurance Amphitheater bill Saturday, and the least interesting. But there was still a touch of quirkiness to frontman Ben Schneider, with his penchant to drop an Elvis-inspired "thank you very much" between some songs.

And those songs — especially anthemic, festival-ready folk rockers like "Meet Me In The Woods," from their more forceful, most recent album "Vide Noir" — were presented with a psychedelic edge and a trippy video display to match. 


1. "Perth"

2. "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄"

3. "715 - CR∑∑KS"

4."666 ʇ"

5. "Heavenly Father"

6. "Towers"

7. "Blood Bank"

8. "Beach Baby"

9. "Hey, Ma"

10. "Minnesota, WI"

11. "8 (circle)"

12. "____45_____"

13. "33 "GOD""

14. "Skinny Love"

15. "22 (OVER S∞∞N)" 

16. "Creature Fear"


17. "Holocene"

18. "The Wolves (Act I and II)"

RELATED:Summerfest 2019: Chicago, Third Eye Blind and more of the best and worst from the side stages on Day 4

RELATED:Not sure what to see at Summerfest 2019? Plan your visit with our interactive schedule.

RELATED:14 ways to get into Summerfest 2019 in Milwaukee for free

RELATED:Summerfest 2019: Tickets, shuttles, happy hour deals and more you'll want to know before the festival

Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at

Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on "TAP'd In" with Jordan Lee. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.

View Comments