Festival Recap: Eaux Claires

oh clair bannerEau Claire, Wisconsin is a long ways a way from Austin, but not too far away in terms of mindset: here, we call our city the Live Music Capital of the world, and in the Eau Claire is the Music Capital of the North. Nestled in the Chippewa Valley and overlooking the the river, we were treated to three days in the woods with 22,000 of our newly formed friends celebrating music, arts, and the spirit of the river valley. At the center of it all was the man who dreamed up such a festival: Justin Vernon, who, alongside Aaron Dessner, brought all of us together in essentially his backyard to experience something greater.

Read on for our recap of the inaugural Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival and see some pictures from the fest.

**Feature Photo Courtesy of Graham Tolbert

Our weekend began on Thursday as we entered a rainy Cheese State and made our route north to the Chippewa valley. We were directed to the camp grounds and set up our small tent before we ventured over to the center of the grounds to see some of the campground sets that were only available for those who chose to rough it in the woods. As the sun set through the misty evening, everyone seemed to be exceptionally excited; a sort of tangible energy hung in the air while Phil Cook & The Guitarheels played their bluesy country rock tracks. We were all excited and removed from our normal lives. The amount of phone usage already was diminished as everyone simply took in where they were at that moment in time.

The next morning we took advantage of the 24 hour coffee shop on the campgrounds before piling into a school bus waiting to take us a 5 minute drive to the festival grounds.We entered the gates underneath a giant canopy of colored string and made a bee line to catch Ragnar Kjartansson’s Forever Love, a performance art piece that featured the Dessner Twins as well as Gyoa and Kristin Anna Valtysdottir, who sang and played instruments while walking on and off stage for an hour. While I have seen and thoroughly enjoyed Kjartansson’s piece Visitors at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, this piece was slightly difficult to focus on; it was hot and sunny and the repetition that Kjartansson normally employs was hard to really enjoy. Our first band was Hiss Golden Messenger, whose bluesy tunes were perfect for the warm sunny day.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the grounds and seeing lots of excellent bands; The Lone Bellow’s live performance amped up the sound and the addition of The Blind Boys of Alabama to their harmonies to end their set was lovely. The Staves also continued this folksy note into the late afternoon, and remarked at how Eau Claire had become something like a second home to them and this seemed like the notion from a lot of the artists playing in that they’ve been given a hand up into the music community by Vernon or Dessner. A lot of the sets featured a guest appearance by one of the two of these gentleman, truly showing the impact that they’ve had in the growth of others’ music. As the sun began to fall, we danced along to the ever-excellent Austin natives, Spoon, who played some older tracks, but were nevertheless solid.

We settled in for a beautiful set from The Tallest Man on Earth, who was joined by a full band to play songs off his newest album, Dark Bird Is Home, which added an extra level to the already deeply emotional tunes, but Kristian Matsson sounded best when it was just his vocals and guitar echoing from the speakers to a pastel sunset. Everyone’s favorite Sad Dad Rockers The National headlined day one, and I have to say they seemed a bit sloppy, or at least Matt Berninger did. While normally the man stumbles around the stage like a drunken madman, he had a persistent problem remembering the lyrics to the songs, though understandably so. Even with these little mistakes, their set was still great and they played a stunning rendition of “Peggy-O,” brought out Sufjan Stevens and his haunting vocals for a few tracks, Ragnar Kjartansoon to sing a verse of “Sorrow” and had Justin Vernon on guitar and vocals for “Slow Show.”

After surviving an hour-long tornado warning and 60mph winds in the refuge of our car at 2 in the morning, we set out for a sunny day two. Colin Stetson and his masterful horn skills was the first notable set of the day; the man captivates while just playing various horns. Charles Bradley made things nasty and got the crowd going with his soulful shrieks. Givers made us dance in the sun, and Polica kept this dance attitude up, driving us to refill on some traditional Wisconsin Cheese Curds, which were good, but an odd eat when you’re used to eating Tacos and Kimchi Fries at festivals. Refueled we sat to watch a bit of legendary act Indigo Girls playing Swamp Ophelia, and though 20 years has passed since that album came out the vocals still sounded sharp. Sylvan Esso drew a huge crowd to the small tent that they were slated to play, and everyone was entranced by their smooth beats. Sufjan Stevens made a rare appearance outside at a festival, his whispery vocals sounded perfect in the crisp cooling evening air and the accompaniment by the No BS! Brass Band for “Chicago” had the whole crowd joining in song.

Lastly, the whole festival gathered around to see Justin Vernon play as Bon Iver for the first time in three years and he did not disappoint. Bringing out The Staves to help out with the ethereal backing vocals in a mythical Fates-esque tone, but one that sounded excellent. Here was where the weekend came to a close, in the true fashion of the festival. Justin, truly humbled that everyone came out to have a good time, was mostly at a loss for words, and sort of babbled thanks to multiple people, one of which was creative director of the fest, Michael Brown (who also gave me a set list when I was walking out of from seeing The National at The Moody Theater last year, many thanks). Vernon brought out several guests to help him make the sound huge, and proved that he was in fact fibbing when he said that Bon Iver had no plans for the future by playing two new songs, both heavily electronically influenced and sounded more like Volcano Choir tracks, but still good nevertheless. He ended the night, of course, with “Skinny Love” his soulfully high pitched vocals resounding gorgeously and emotionally as the crowd all sang together in chorus to end the night.

My biggest take away from this past weekend was the intimacy of the festival; the location, size, aesthetic and lineup were all geared to make the 22,000 people in attendance feel a little smaller and part of something really special and familial. The Chippewa Valley is beautiful–tall spires of trees surround the sloping hills of lush green grass and the river flows through the heart of it all. The size of the grounds was small: the two main stages faced each other on a mid size field and you could easily see and hear an artist on the opposite stage from the other and no overlapping sets made this a functional layout. The other stages were nestled a five minute walk through the woods away, and along this walk through the shady woods you could branch off and take your own path and enjoy a reprieve from the sun. Within the festival grounds there truly was never a dull moment. Between the ubiquitous art displays, the parades of The NO BS! Brass Band, the beautiful scenery and of course the artists playing sets, Eaux Claires truly was an oasis for the soul. The usual impersonal feeling that drives some people away from festivals was missing here. While we left Wisconsin blurry eyed and sun burnt on Sunday morning, we also departed refreshed and rejuvenated, filled to the brim with fresh air and enough joy to last us to the next festival. Well worth a trip up north.

*Special thanks to the folks up there in Wisconsin for having us out!

I’m no B. Gray, but here are some shots I snapped from the fest. (bgray note: I’m going next year. #scenic)

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