Why I Loved the Eaux Claires Festival
Justin Vernon’s inaugural festival boasted great music, dramatic weather and a collaborative ethos.
Nothing compares to your first: first kiss, first love, first road trip, first concert. This past weekend marked a special first for Eau Claire’s own Justin Vernon, who co-curated and headlined an outdoor music festival in his hometown. It was truly memorable.
The last time I saw Vernon was not at the sold out Volcano Choir concert at Turner Hall back in November. It was a couple years ago when I was bowling with a friend at Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, a hip Uptown establishment that serves one of my favorite brunches in the Twin Cities. Between the kitchen and the lanes there is a small theater that seats less than a hundred people and specializes in strange, offbeat performances. I had just rolled a gutter ball when the audience made its way out of the little theater, Vernon among them. The indie rock star got a few nods from my fellow bowlers but no exuberant flattering, just another humble guy with an open mind on a Saturday night.
I’ve never experienced Bon Iver live, but during the 2012 tour backing their Grammy-winning self-titled sophomore album I streamed their Bonnaroo set. I was alone in the office of my videography job in Minneapolis, projecting the image on the wall, running the audio through my powerful work speakers, and dancing like no one was watching, because no one was. The sun was setting on the woods outside my window. It was a beautiful performance that almost brought me to tears.
Vernon later expressed concerns about the festival touring circuit and Bon Iver went on hiatus. He kept busy running a studio in Eau Claire and working with other projects like Volcano Choir and The Shouting Matches. Upon the announcement of the inaugural Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival fans of Vernon’s most popular group rejoiced. It appears he would not bring Bon Iver back on anyone’s terms but his own. My interest peaked when I learned he was co-curating it with Aaron Dessner of The National, one of my favorite bands, who would headline the first night of the two-day festival.
Since moving back to Milwaukee and becoming immersed in the local music scene I’ve learned how interconnected and incestuous it is. My girlfriend, who is an artist, jokes about making a family tree poster for the 16-member Group of the Altos, which would connect to Vernon in one branch. Indeed, Vernon’s influence and reach looms large over the Midwest. The Eaux Claires lineup reflected this extended family of musicians he has cultivated, despite Altos’ absence. It would be a Minnesota-Wisconsin lovefest with a few select outsiders in the mix. Vernon even sent personalized letters to each performer asking them to embrace the collaborative spirit and step outside their comfort zone.
Our original plan was to be at the campground Thursday night for the impromptu performances, but obligations had us in the city until Friday. We still caught a fantastic concert on Thursday night, as the enigmatic Lady Lamb delighted a small but devoted crowd at Turner Hall. Around 8 o’clock Friday morning we waved goodbye to Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee skyline, hoping our departure was early enough to beat the campground entry lines, which reportedly ran two hours on Thursday night.
We arrived around noon to the Whispering Pines entrance. A sheriff instructed us to drive ahead, take a left and join the long line of cars across the road that snaked down behind the woods. We sat in that line for almost two hours, missing the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s “Forever Love,” a collaboration with The National’s Dessner twins and the centerpiece of the arts component, which opened the festival. We also lost hope of seeing Milwaukee’s own Field Report. In a cruel twist of fate, Field Report’s song “I Am Not Waiting Anymore” played on the mix I made for the drive while we were still in line.
Rain from Thursday night left our original campsite flooded and we were moved to the farthest point in the back of the campground. Considering the sweltering heat this change worked in our favor, as it put us under tree cover in a relatively spacious and secluded area. There was no wait for a shuttle bus and we were dropped off at the festival grounds within minutes.
Anticipation pulsed through the crowd and an arresting collection of colored string hung above our heads at the entrance to Eaux Claires. As soon as we entered I spotted Tom Berninger, director of Mistaken for Strangers, the excellent documentary centered around his relationship with his brother, The National frontman Matt Berninger. Tom was scheduled to screen outtakes later that night at one of the main stages.
There was a huge line at the first water refill station and Sturgill Simpson, the lone country artist, was playing the Flambeaux stage. The two main stages, Flambeaux and Lake Eaux Lune, were set across from each other on separate ends of a large field. Performances were staggered so while one played another set up and sound checked. A yellow festival guide was available at the information table that contained an inspiring welcome message, festival map, and lyrical artist bios. A small assortment of local vendors sold Wisconsin-centric goods including a poster tracing the connections between performers, not unlike the aforementioned Group of the Altos family tree poster idea. No surprise, the official merchandise tent was already out of the limited edition 400 copy festival poster.
After surveying the grounds of the main stages we made our way up Pauliana’s Pathway to the St. Coix Village. Once we reached the top of the hill and were out of the woods we spotted Detroit-born, Houston-raised, Minneapolis-based rapper Lizzo, who made a big splash as an opening act on the recent Sleater-Kinney tour. Festivalgoers shouted her name and cheered. She waved back and said, “See ya’ll tonight” before getting into a van and disappearing. Later that night she would reappear at The Dells of the St. Coix stage in a major way.
The Dells was the smallest of the three stages but provided something important the main ones didn’t: cover from the searing sun. Housed under a large white tent, The Dells stage featured some of the rowdiest and weirdest performances of the festival. Duluth-based slowcore rock veterans Low were starting up when we ran into Erin Wolf and Shawn Stephany of Group of the Altos. Low’s syncopated, slow building set simmered as we went to check out the nearby geodesic domes. The absence of airflow inside The Banks of the St. Coix dome made it difficult to appreciate the Found Footage Festival. Also, we wanted to secure a good spot for Doomtree so we ditched the dome and headed back down the hill, passing Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso before detouring to explore the side paths into the woods. When we returned to the main field Sylvan Esso’s other half, Amelia Meath, walked by us on her way up the hill.
I first saw members of Minnesota’s Doomtree hip-hop collective on a small stage at The Rave back in high school. Years later, when I was a college student in Minneapolis in the mid-2000s, those same rappers, P.O.S. and Sims, were guests on my Radio K hip-hop show. Mike Mictlan was a mentor for many of my Southside Minneapolis rapper friends and one of my favorite live performers. I was hired to do videography work for the 2006 B-Girl Be festival of females in hip-hop, where Dessa was a featured performer. At the 2007 Twin Cities Celebration of Hip-Hop I saw the entire collective perform together, but I was also working a camera that night and didn’t fully appreciate it. Their performance Friday at Eaux Claires felt like a long time coming and it delivered on every level.
“God Bless Lazerbeak!” shouted someone behind me in the middle of Doomtree’s set. Amen to that. Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger, the production duo behind the five rappers that make up Doomtree, were as animated as ever, giving each other a chest bump-handshake hybrid at one point. Paper Tiger hit the drum machine in a strumming motion like he was playing a guitar. Watching Dessa and Cecil Otter rap along to P.O.S.’s lyrics was charming. For a collective with such reputable solo careers, it was awesome and emblematic of the festival to see them all rocking together.
Hunger set in after Doomtree and we made our way over to the food vendors. The barbeque joint caught our attention and before paying for our meal a friend from college called me over to a table. We caught up while devouring delicious ribs and Spoon played in the background. My friend had the enhanced Chippewa ticket, which gave you access to unlimited drinks, and he graciously made a trip to that area to get me a free beer. We walked up the hill together to see Allan Kingdom, a young St. Paul-based rapper by way of Winnipeg, Canada.
It was fitting that “Evergreens” by Kingdom was playing as we exited the woods en route to The Dells stage. Before the festival I didn’t know Kingdom, but I immediately become a fan after listening to his latest EP Future Memoirs. I was especially interested to see how his minimal, down-tempo rap would translate live. His answer was an electric, high-energy set. No matter how mellow the recording, Kingdom turned it up a few notches. He disproved Danny Brown’s festival rule of only playing hype songs. The truth is that a crowd will respond enthusiastically if you give them a reason to; you get what you give.
Swedish singer-songwriter The Tallest Man on Earth, who will be playing The Pabst on July 31, was laying down a sweet harmony as we walked by the Flambeaux stage to settle in across the field for The National. The first time I saw the Ohio-raised band was at their first arena show in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre in 2011. Berninger did not like that the floor section in front of the stage was half-empty and went into the seats to invite people to get closer. Security did not appreciate the move but barely anyone returned to their original seats, a small victory. At Eaux Claires the The National’s irritable frontman was thrown off by Michael Perry’s poetic introduction, the folksy deep-voiced festival narrator who turned out to be a local writer and one of Vernon’s “biggest mentors.” After losing his place during their opener “Swallow the Cap,” Berninger stopped the song and instructed the band to start over claiming, “I had poetry in my head.”
Like Allan Kingdom, The National is another act that transcends their laid-back sound with an energetic live performance. The Dessner twins’ guitars talk to each other and Berninger commands the stage, anchored by the Devendorf brothers on drum and bass. Six songs into their set Berninger announced they had a guest. A woman behind me yelled, “Is it Kanye?” (Wrong headliner lady, that’s Vernon’s territory.) It turned out to be Sufjan Stevens, who lent his sultry backing vocals to four songs throughout the night. Halfway through the show Vernon took the stage in cut-off jeans, to which Berninger simply said, “Hey no shorts.” Vernon got his own guitar solo and sang alone on “Slow Show.” At that point my girl and I were fatigued and found a spot on the grass to sit. The National never slowed down but we needed to rest our legs. When the Dessners played gorgeously dark riffs on “Graceless” I laid back and gazed at the majestic cluster of stars overhead. That level of visibility isn’t possible at Pitchfork or Lollapalooza.
I started following Jacksonville-raised, Minneapolis-based rapper Astronautalis on Instagram a few months back. He regularly posts incredible photography from a trip to China and recently documented his European tour. In the midst of that he began posting creepy images of himself in a suit wearing gold teeth, overlaid with text about “Salvation” and “Sin” that included a phone number with a Northern Wisconsin area code. Though Astronautalis was not officially included in the Eaux Claires program, Charles Bothwell performed as a pseudo-preacher in The Mouth of the St. Coix dome. One of my girl’s friends, who we ran into at Lizzo, claimed she “dragged out an old sin” for Boswell’s confessional booth.
There was more festival left after Lizzo but that’s all we could muster. On the shuttle ride back to Whispering Pines I overheard a phone call in which a young man said, “Everyone from Wisconsin is really nice and friendly and amazed when I tell them we drove all the way from California.” Back at our campsite a fire was blazing and my friend Gavin Werner had just got his guitar out when a festival employee in a golf cart pulled up. “Batten down the hatches, big storm rolling through in thirty minutes” he warned. Mother nature, it turns out, stole the show that first day at Eaux Claires.
Gavin’s guitar went back in its case and we immediately started packing up our things. It was two in the morning. Five minutes later a teenager in a golf cart came by and exclaimed, “Tornado is going to hit, take shelter in your vehicles.” Once inside our cars we tuned into the radio and received a confirmation, followed by an ominous tornado-warning siren.
Anyone familiar with tornados knows that it’s not a good idea to be in your car, let alone in a car under trees, so we decided to make a break for a nearby gas station. I followed Gavin’s SUV but we were stopped by the same teenager in the golf cart who claimed he couldn’t let us pass. My girl suggested we park the car in an open area and go to the camp store. As we ran down the hill towards the store a girl sitting in her car said, “Fuck Emma, right?” She was referring to the titular Emma from Bon Iver’s debut For Emma, Forever Ago, speculating that the storm was the cosmic wrath of Vernon’s most famous ex.
Inside the camp store it was like the climactic scene in Moonrise Kingdom when all the campers and clergy take shelter in the church of New Penzance. The first open spot on the floor was up against a glass refrigerator, which seemed like an obviously bad idea. We found our way under a wood counter, though the metal nails sticking out near the back of our heads were not an ideal alternative. Still, in the event of a tornado, the top of our heads was covered.
Soaked campers trickled into the store until they reached capacity. I could hear strangers meeting and making conversation. An optimistic and slightly drunk employee assured us that no tornado would land. “I don’t have this stupid smiley face for nothing.” And he was right. Almost an hour later the storm had passed. The winds had caused minor damage, it rained into the morning but I was asleep in my tent before 4 a.m.
The next morning a freezing cold shower provided a much-needed shock and cooling to my system, washing off layers of sweat. Unfortunately, Kjartansson’s “Forever Love” set was damaged so much that festival goers would be deprived of an encore performance Saturday afternoon. In good news, snacks were being allowed after lengthy lines at the food booths left many hungry on Friday.
When we ran into Amelinda Burich of Group of the Altos and 88Nine Radio Milwaukee on Friday we chatted about saxophone star Colin Stetson. I first saw him perform with Bon Iver on the webcast of the final performance of their 2012 run at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The Michigan-raised, Montreal-based musician has an intricate process by which he records sounds with microphones close to his voice and throat, loops them, then layers saxophone on top. In between his mesmerizing one man performance, during a particularly heavenly breeze, Stetson mused, “You know when you can’t tell if it’s tears or sweat anymore, and you realize it’s been the same emotion, and you just try to hold onto it?”
St. Paul-based songstress Haley Bonar is another artist I was unfamiliar with before the festival, but fell in love with when I explored her music. While Bonar belted out her catchy brand of folk in a pale pink dress we pranced in the open field under the scorching sun. Afterwards we went to the Flambeaux stage for Charles Bradley’s set. In Matt Wild‘s instant classic “Hating Summerfest, Loving Summerfest,” he praised Bradley’s animated stage presence, but we got little of that at Eaux Claires. Maybe it was the heat or that he only had 45 minutes, but Bradley’s set was the first let down and made me wish I’d gone to see yMusic in one of the domes.
In the middle of Bradley’s set my girl turned to me and said, “I have to get my spot for Sylvan Esso.” The Durham-based duo was not scheduled to perform for another three hours, but she was committed to securing a front row position. I wished her luck as she skipped away up the hill. I lounged in the shade during Louisiana-based indie pop band Givers solid set. “We didn’t expect it to be this hot in Wisconsin,” said guitarist Taylor Guarisco. Go figure. On my walk to the bathroom I was lured by Grandma Sparrow’s minions into the Piddletractor Family Zone. Inside there were arts and crafts and 15 minute performances by Grandma Sparrow and friends. Kids were dancing and parading as the whimsical and nonsensical lyrics of the masked man bounced under the tent.
Next up was the ethereal electronic rock of Minneapolis-based group Poliça, who I’d seen a few months back at the Cactus Club. It was a small venue for a band that played the festival circuit after their breakout 2012 debut Give You the Ghost, but the booking was strategic. Poliça was only playing intimate venues and using the tour to rehearse material for the new album they recorded at the end of the run. Cool concept, but it left fans like me longing for the hits. Saturday at Eaux Claires was redemption, as they played all the best songs from their catalogue. Singer Channy Leaneagh was doing adorable baby bump dance moves and implored the crowd to “Make sure you put your garbage in the can.” In order to try to find my girl before Sylvan Esso started I had to leave Poliça before they finished, but after initially walking away I spun around as soon as they dropped “Wandering Star.” I could squeeze in one more song.
On the way up the hill I ran into a college friend who was at The Dells earlier and caught another act who recently played Cactus Club, Tokyo’s noise rock duo Melt-Banana. Their blistering set was an oddity at the festival and my girl later reported a guy had to be pulled out of the mosh pit after cutting his foot on glass. Baraboo-born folk darlings Phox were finishing their set when I got to The Dells. I was unimpressed with their Summerfest performance, but apparently they’re beloved. As soon as Phox stopped I maneuvered through the flow of traffic to reach my girl in the front row, who was surprised to see me.
While most people were at Eaux Claires to see Bon Iver, Sylvan Esso was another one of the main draws of the festival. Their fiery set, which garnered raucous ovations after each song, proved why. Producer Nick Sanborn, who was raised in Middleton but moved to Milwaukee at 18, mentioned that his grandma was in attendance, seeing them play for the first time. He thanked us for “making him look cool,” and jokingly promised to give us each five bucks for our help. The best part of their performance was watching the security guards at the front, weary from the Melt-Banana madness, go from surly to serene by the time Sylvan Esso left the stage.
By the end the security guards were gleefully coordinating efforts to douse the blazing crowd with water. As my girl later wrote on Instagram, “This is what a sweaty, messy gigantic lovefest looks like, a thousand hearts beating as one. The music, the lights, the bodies and the movement, creating a cyclical to and fro exchange of energy in it most primal form.” There was an unmistakable glow at the St. Coix Village after Sylvan Esso and it took a while for us to come down, literally and figuratively.
During her three hour wait for Sylvan Esso my girl befriended another front row seeker from Alabama, who then left before the end to catch Sufjan Stevens, the penultimate performer of the festival. The Michigan-raised multi-instrumentalist sounded fantastic and was joined by the Dessner brothers and No BS! Brass Band, who Vernon later called “The MVPs of the fest” for their tireless accompaniment and parades through the grounds. We had a spot staked out for Bon Iver and enjoyed the end of Stevens set from afar, but the sound was so crisp it carried all the way out to the Chippewa River.
Not since I saw Broken Social Scene close out the 2014 Field Trip Festival in Toronto, their hometown, has a headliner unified the audience so completely. Perry reemerged to speak before the finale, “We know this wouldn’t have happened without our neighbors, without those who raised us, without the Chippewa Valley, without you. If you hold yourself still, silent now, you can feel that river running behind you, running through the night, running through all time. It’s good to have music near a river. There’s this idea of baptism, of absolution, no matter what you believe. Better yet, it’s good to have music near a place where two rivers come together, a confluence. What are we but a confluence?” Perry was preaching to a crowd of 22,000 or so.
Vernon eschewed the formality of walking off stage before the encore, opting to launch into a couple new songs instead. The crowd erupted with applause and the new material showed Vernon’s evolution to a heavier, more densely layered sound. His set-up included synthesizers, sampler pad, guitars and a laptop. It seems he has adopted traits from some of his music friends, Sanborn of Sylvan Esso being the first that came to mind. The set made a point to highlight the vocal talents of side players, but Vernon’s pipes took center stage. I was hoping they’d be joined by more collaborators for the closer, “Skinny Love,” but 22,000 other enraptured souls sang out.
Since Bon Iver was the centerpiece that closed out the festival, the lines for the shuttle buses were predictably arduous. The wait wasn’t as painful as the sixty-yard, hour and a half, slow shuffle to the one subway entrance on Jean-Drapeau Island that I experienced at the Osheaga Arts and Music Festival in Montreal last summer, but it was a drag. While in line for the shuttle bus I overheard a group of Quebecois kids who traveled a similar distance to the French-Canadian settlers that built up Wisconsin and are responsible for all the French names like “Eau Claire,” “Fond du Lac” and “Flambeaux.” In another twist of fate, Guns N’ Roses song “Patience” was playing on the radio when we finally boarded a bus.
Back at the campground the best performance of the weekend was saved for last. My friend Gavin, who turned 29 that day, pulled out his guitar and played original songs I haven’t heard in almost a decade. Sitting around the fire Saturday night I was transported to summer nights on our patio in college. Towards the end of Bon Iver’s set Vernon offered a bit of wisdom. “If you don’t have friendship, you don’t have anything.”
Eaux Claires was free of towering corporate logos. It was a far cry from Summerfest and the philosophical opposite of Budweiser’s “Whatever, USA” spectacle. No one had to audition to be at Eaux Claires. It wasn’t about being belligerent and acting out. There were no VIP viewing areas. With enough will and know how, anyone could make it to the front. Strangers were trusting each other with their possessions, conversation, space and time.
“We’ve done a lot of these and this is the first one that is actually a celebration of music.” That was the take of Sylvan Esso’s Sanborn, but it could have been any performer. Organizers and attendees were praised across the board. The experience reminded me of the inaugural Arte Para Todos Festival this winter in Milwaukee.
The spirit of Eaux Claires is trusting that we are better together. Few Milwaukee musicians personify this ethos more than the New Age Narcissism hip-hop collective, who headlined Arte, among other festivals this summer, and their absence was felt at Eaux Claires. Hopefully next year Vernon will not rely entirely on the well-established scene in his adopted Twin Cities and also look to the budding hip-hop scene in his home state.
Speaking of hip-hop, there was a burning question in the back of our minds at Eaux Claires. Would one of the most infamous firebrands in the music industry, Kanye West, show up? After all, Vernon features on a number of songs by the Chicago-raised rapper, plus he joined Kanye last month at the Glastonbury Festival in England. As much as I love him, I’m glad Eaux Claires wasn’t hit by a Kanye tornado. We imagined him descending from a helicopter during Bon Iver’s set. No matter the mode of transportation, Kanye’s appearance would have been the headline. Instead, a heartfelt display of goodwill and collaboration won the day.