Words by Amanda Koellner
“I guess you could say I’m one of the neighbors,” said local author Michael Perry from the Eaux Claires main stage moments before Bon Iver premiered 22, A Million in Justin Vernon’s tranquil hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He continued, “From the moment of inception, this festival has been built on the idea that we will and we must trust the audience. That if we bring together a kaleidoscope and a cocoaphony, you will make your own Alice and Wonderland dive into the center of it, and here, you will find your soul, your vision, your festival.” Perry went on to tell a poetic tale of tromping up the river bank last winter when the barren landscape was less forgiving and the ground we all stood on during a balmy August night was “cemetary slab solid.” “We took some hand-split pine, and we built a little fire. And boy oh boy, I thought, ‘The metaphors just write themselves.’”
Ain’t that the truth. Eaux Claires is a festival built upon metaphors: the river, the forest, the community; even the first words of the program (oh, the program!)–the most beautifully written and designed paper accompaniment to a music festival I’ve ever gotten my hands on–reads, “The metaphor flows only so far. We are very near to cutting it loose. The river will not reverse itself. It will rise, it will recede, but its flow is forever forward. The river does not take the fork, it makes the fork. We do not know better than the river.” All of the above might sound superfluous if you weren’t there, but a weekend in the woods can bring out the Thoreau in anyone.
And why shouldn’t a music festival evoke poetry? Why shouldn’t it describe each act not with a typical biography or merely the time and stage at which they’re set to play, but like this:
Why shouldn’t an organ encased within an architectonic wire sculpture soak up the silence between sets?
Why shouldn’t a winding walk through the forest lead to art installations, secret shows, and other enchanting finds?
I could gush about the beauty and unique nature of this event until those Wisconsin cows come on home, but it’s also worth noting that the brainchild of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner is an impeccably run festival, especially considering it’s only two years old. Lines for food, booze, and the bathrooms stayed reasonable, the sound was largely faultless as far as I heard (save for a few pops during Mavis Staples’ set– “This isn’t how I go!” she joked), shuttles to and from the campsite ran swiftly (and were a total damn blast, especially if you were one of the last to leave the fest each night), and a higher-than-average main stage meant there really wasn’t a bad seat in the tree-lined house for the biggest sets.
Of course it rained for the better part of Friday, of course Erykah Badu’s set was all-too-short, and of course too many people in the back half of the crowd took it upon themselves to chat while James Blake played his slower material (blasphemy), but any hiccups really didn’t matter. That first page of the program also reads, “We expect some discomfort, some flops. Some Wha…? But we also expect that split-second everlasting image, that ever-bursting moment.”
The ever-bursting moment did just that from the start of the festival until Francis and the Lights’ epic finale (more on that later). It bursted as I spotted Matt Berninger, the Dessners, Richard Reed Parry, and Sylvan Esso (who I heard took the stage with Phil Cook despite not being on this year’s bill) all wandering among festival-goers at various times to watch their peers, drink a beer, and simply enjoy themselves, often with their families. It bursted as I, and many others, sobbed throughout Bon Iver’s set as they played songs new and old. It bursted as everyone realized just how nice the people surrounding them were.
The vibe upon leaving this little slice of heaven left me feeling, like Michael Perry, that we’re all one of the neighbors now. We might be neighbors with only a two or three-day residence in Eau Claire each year, but I guarantee the majority of those who went last weekend will be back next year. And the next. And the next. I can’t wait to see what each of these Eaux Claires iterations bring to the forest, the river, and the resulting metaphors, but for now, in no particular order, a few superlatives from the dreamiest weekend a music fan could ask for:
Best Album Premier: Bon Iver
During Michael Perry’s introduction for Justin Vernon & Co., he told an anecdote, presumably about the frontman:
“On the way home, that frozen day, I dropped into visit my neighbor. Even before I knocked, I heard noises in there. He stuck his head out, and I said, “How’s it going?” And he said, “Well, you know.” And I did. And I said, “Well, see you later then.”
There was a little struggle on him, I could see that. Kind of had that look in his eyes like he was caught in a fire of his own kindlin. Like he was trying to sort the smoke and sparks. I remember thinking what that boy needs to do is carry that fire. Carry it down to the river. Bank it up beside the water, feed it to the air. Just let it build, and let it burn. Why wait any longer? 22, A Million.”
I have chills just rewriting it here; those words were soon followed by hearing the robotic, alien, “It might be over soon” that springs out of “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” live, for the first time, five long years after Bon Iver’s last album came out. It was one of those moments that make the heat and the the muddy feet and the swelling crowds of any music festival so. Incredibly. Worth it.
Further proving the festival’s singularity, we also learned we’d been carrying around lyrics to final track “1000000, A Million” in our pockets all day via the program, and that folk artist Sam Amidon had been teaching anyone who cared to listen the lyrics as he and his mobile guitarkestra traversed the grounds. Vernon played the album with upwards of 12 musicians on stage at a time (including the “Sad Sax of Shit”), brought up The [wildly talented] Staves for a beautiful rendition of “Beach Baby,” and performed a drastic rework of “Beth/Rest” with national treasure Bruce Hornsby.
The set could have gone longer. We could have had the most tearful, communal sing-along to “Skinny Love.” James Blake could have come out for rendition of “Fall Creek Boys Choir” that would have been nothing short of epic. None of these things happened, and it didn’t matter in the least. To hear an album live for the first time is a rare, bewitching experience, and I feel the luckiest to have been in the audience.
Best Mother in Music: Mavis Staples
“Is that like, Vince Staples grandma?” This is an actual question I was asked after advising our camping neighbor to trek in from the campgrounds with us to see the legendary Mavis Staples early Saturday afternoon. “No, but she’s basically everyone’s dream music grandma,” I responded. “Mother in Music” was how the beloved fest program described her, and she wore it well, chatting with Bruce Hornsby who sat sidestage, guiding the crowd through a sing-along of The Band’s “The Weight,” and inviting Lucius to join her for her usual cover of The Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” (which The Staples Singers covered in 1984, a year after the original was released).
“We look just alike. We’ve got the same hair,” Mavis joked, referring to herself and Lucius as “triplets”, much to the delight of anyone within earshot. The laughs continued as she called the event “Eclair Festival” (“That’s exactly what I see: a bunch of beautiful, sweet eclairs, covered in whipped cream.”) and dubbed Justin Vernon “Justin Bon Iver,” adding, “I just got to meet him backstage, and I asked him if he’s married. Because I’m available. Y’all remember that now: Mavis is available.” Noted, mama, noted.
Best Unexpected King of Eaux Claires: Bruce Hornsby
I honestly knew next-to-nothing about Bruce Hornsby going into this weekend aside from the fact that “The Way It Is” is a total fucking banger that I’ve been sure to listen to everytime I’m in a car for more than an hour. Hearing it live did not disappoint, and Bruce (or “Bruuuuuuuuce” as the crowd shouted throughout the weekend, à la Springsteen) seemingly had the time of his life delivering.
His musical prowess revealed itself as my friend told me of his work at last year’s Fare Thee Well shows and with The Dead in general, as Mavis Staples discussed their collaborations, as Bruce himself told anecdotes surrounding Levon Helm, and as the weekend sort of started to feel like Hornsbyfest vs. Bon Iverfest. Regarding the jumbled order in which he and the band ripped through their debut album, 1986’s The Way It Is, Hornsby said, “Who gives a sh-, who gives a crap … who gives a rat’s ass” followed by an adorable giggle. He boasted charisma and sheer talent as he joked with the audience, switched between a myriad of instruments, and performed some of the most impressive piano solos I’ve ever seen. Bruuuuuuce!
Best Side Project: LNZNDRF
Consisting of The National’s Bryan and Scott Devendorf and Beirut’s Benjamin Lanz, LNZNDRF (complete with Bennifer-meets-indie-rock name), took the stage to play what they deemed their best show yet with the Dessner twins and additional Eaux Claires friends, resulting in a swelling sound that took this year’s self-titled to new, delightful heights.
Best Reason to Be a Crowd Weaver: James Blake
I quite literally threw a wad of money (I picked it up and apologized profusely) at the bartender handing over my white wine when I heard the first notes of “Life Round Here” as James Blake kicked off his gorgeous rain-soaked set, which largely consisted songs from this year’s incredible The Colour in Anything (with a Moses Sumney guest appearance, Feist cover, and some Overgrown cuts in there, too). Given my excitement, I couldn’t stomach anyone chatting over sparser songs like, “Love Me In Whatever Way” in the back half of the crowd and became one of the “Excuse me” *touch strangers back*, “Excuse me” *touch strangers back*, “Excuse me” *touch strangers back* people until I found myself among my fellow devotees. Worth it. Blake boasted of how he and his two bandmates were playing entirely sans computers, and once you made it past the sound barrier of those acting like they were at a bar and not a god damn James Blake concert, it was utterly breathtaking.
Best Lady Hang: Jenny Lewis with The Staves and Lucius
Playing smack-dab in the middle of a day marked by peak feminine energy (Mavis, Lucius, Erykah Badu, the Victoria Legrand-fronted Beach House, etc.), Jenny Lewis–taking a break from Nice As Fuck–served up her usual set of badassery via solo songs, Rilo Kiley Cuts, and more from her sprawling career. The highlight came when she invited out both The Staves, who seemed to show up at nearly every set, much to everyone’s delight, and Lucius (also omnipresent that Saturday) for a lovely rendition of “Voyager.”
Best Stage Placement: Beach House
I never thought I’d chant Beach House’s name in the form of the classic “Give me a B!” “B!” “Give me an E!” “E!”, etc. format, but that’s exactly what the hungry audience did from beneath The Dells as we waited for the band’s 10:25 p.m. set to begin. The cheer set the tone for what would end up being the most rock ‘n’ roll show of the weekend, especially if you found yourself under the actual tent, which only aided in the stage’s incredible acoustics and fully trapped the sound of our applause and cheers, making the crowd sound like it was at a Zeppelin arena show circa ‘73, not a Beach House show in rural Wisconsin. Nathaniel Rateliff simultaneously played the larger Flambeaux stage, presenting one of the few true scheduling conflicts of the weekend but perfectly dividing up the two crowds for a surreal experience either way.
Best Adult Band Camp: Day of the Dead
Even for Grateful Dead dummies like myself, watching The National, Jenny Lewis, Phosphorescent, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson, Phil Cook, Moses Sumney, The Staves, Bruce Hornsby, Richard Reed Parry, and more play music together was a total treat. “This is like band camp for adults,” Bryce Dessner said before thanking his twin brother Aaron and Vernon for organizing the fest. Watching all of the musicians hug at the end was like watching the stage during the rolling credits of Saturday Night Live, and the pride they felt for having carried out the feat of not only creating a mammoth tribute album but playing a decent portion of it live was palpable.
Best Finale: Francis and the Light
I spend a lot of time at music festivals talking about the probability of Chance the Rapper making an appearance, and my track record is pretty good considering I call Chicago home and attend a lot of these suckers. I wouldn’t shut up about this one once I realized how geographically close Somerset is to Eau Claire, as Chance headlined the former Friday–only about an hour away. In retrospect, perhaps Francis’ program poetry offered up a bit of a hint as well:
Even before Chance showed up for Coloring Book cut “Summer Friends” and Justin Vernon joined the party on the choreographed, warm-and-fuzzy track “Friends,” the less-ubiquitous Francis Farewell Starlite proved his ability to completely and totally own a stage, frantically moving about in a wildly entertaining theatrical manner that recalls both Chance himself and some sort of cool Cosmo Kramer (I’m telling you–frantic).
But considering he wasn’t on the lineup, it was the [somewhat] unexpectedness of Chance’s presence that stole the show. The excitement was exacerbated when he stayed onstage for “Friends”–a song that felt like it was written and recorded solely for this perfect fest-closing moment–even partaking in the choreography from the music video. The set ran well over its scheduled time and gave the crowd exactly what it hoped for, and in a saturated festival market, these are the moments that matter.
ALL PHOTOS BELOW BY AMANDA KOELLNER