Rock Roundup

Why Volcano Choir Matters

Justin Vernon’s real band heads up a weird week of music.

By - Nov 24th, 2014 12:12 pm
Volcano Choir

Volcano Choir

Top Show: Volcano Choir, Turner Hall, Sunday, November 30

This show sold out very soon after it was announced, and was all but destined to do so. After all, Volcano Choir is nominally led by Justin Vernon, Bon Iver creative mastermind and one-man argument for Wisconsin’s indie-rock potency.

It also features members (former, current, etc.) of great Milwaukee bands like Pele and Collections of Colonies of Bees. And the show wasn’t booked into the largest venue Volcano Choir could fill. This might have been the band’s deliberate decision to keep the thing intimate.

I can see the point, because Volcano Choir’s first album, Unmap, came out in 2009 and immediately faced unusual scrutiny: the first Bon Iver album, For Emma, Forever Ago, had ended up on myriad best-of lists in 2008, and anyone entranced by it was bound to be curious to hear what Vernon did next.

But Vernon and the rest of Volcano Choir had begun exchanging ideas before he created For Emma, and they recorded Unmap in 2008 without thinking too much about Bon Iver’s side effects.

Nevertheless, the coalescing of Unmap—on which songs often sounded as though they were taking shape right that moment under the musicians’ fingertips—turned out, accidentally or intentionally, to hint at the more elaborate arrangements of 2011’s Bon Iver, the true For Emma follow-up.

When Volcano Choir plays live, as it did in Milwaukee in March 2011, it can come across as different from its Unmap self as Bon Iver was from For Emma. What had been musing, even tentative, can become extroverted. Drummer Jon Muller is especially powerful, and Vernon takes visible pleasure in stepping back and letting the rest of the band ride Mueller’s rhythms.

The band’s second album, last year’s Repave, combines that sense of cohesion with the Unmap method of exchanging ideas. Volcano Choir might always be regarded as one of Justin Vernon’s other, lesser bands, but Vernon, Mueller et al. clearly regard it as an intriguing undertaking worthy of their considerable concentration.


Tuesday, November 25: Haas Kowert Tice at Shank Hall

Perhaps there was a time when the term “progressive bluegrass” made people smirk, but bands like Nickel Creek didn’t so much wipe smirks from faces as it turned said smirks into smiles through bold song choices, sheer force of instrumental will and simple youthfulness.

By gentle contrast, Haas Kowert Tice moves with a kind of Western-swing elegance: fiddler Brittany Haas, bassist Paul Kowert (of Chris Thile’s post-Nickel Creek project, Punch Brothers), and guitarist Jordan Tice locate the backwoods jazz in bluegrass on the trio’s first album, this year’s You Got This.


Friday, November 28: U2 Zoo at Turner Hall Ballroom

Writing about Elvis impersonators, Greil Marcus suggested that part of the reason for the popularity of such impersonators was the audience’s “willingness to settle.” The willingness applies to all kinds of tribute bands, even those who are impersonating other bands and artistes not yet dead or gone.

It can’t hurt U2 Zoo, a Milwaukee band, that the actual U2—the Irish quartet given to grand gestures for more than three decades—hasn’t been at its best for most of the 21st century.  Who wants to see the real thing when a local alternative is available for a bargain price? And Black Friday is the nearly perfect time to settle. For anything.


Friday, November 28: Randy Houser at Rave

The Trace Adkins neo-Nashville hit “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” has three writers. One, Jamey Johnson, has implicitly apologized for his part in the fiasco with songwriting and singing that pay tribute to Jennings, Jones, and Haggard.

Another, Randy Houser, isn’t quite so traditional. Houser has, with three albums since 2008, moved toward a country-pop sound that recalls the halcyon days of Ronnie Milsap and Kenny Rogers more than the current frat-bro party with the likes of Florida Georgia Line. He’s relatively genial and harmless, although in concert he would do well to maximize the honky tonk and minimize the badonkadonk.

The third “Badonkadonk” writer, Dallas Davidson, remains at large.


Friday, November 28: Ace Frehley at Northern Lights Theater, Potawatomi Bingo Casino

Earlier this year, when Kiss was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, all four original members stood together to accept the honor. The two who have always been in the band (Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons) seemed less gracious than the two who left or were pushed from it (Peter Criss and Ace Frehley).

Frehley, who had been the band’s lead guitarist, laid down his hole card later in 2014: Space Invader, his latest solo album, is a reminder of his hard-rock sturdiness and devotion to the “Spaceman” persona he developed inside Kiss. This show is listed as sold out, but soldiers of the Kiss Army might find ways to get in regardless.

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