I could sit here and write about all of the things that went wrong with this weekend’s Eaux Claires festival but what’s the point? Not only are there already enough people complaining about it but also a festival is a festival and regardless of the flaws, every festival has high points that deserve more attention and words than the bad. So here’s what my photographer and I absolutely loved about the weekend.
The lineup for this year’s Eaux Claire festival was a mystery. No, that’s not an exaggeration. We literally had no clue who was playing or when until we were climbing into a shuttle that went from a hotel to the grounds. Sure, some names had leaked and there was a lot of speculation but nobody knew for sure and that created a super fun atmosphere as a group of us stood outside waiting for the shuttle. The speculation continued and strangers became friends over beers and guesses as to who would be performing. Of course I was holding out hope for a huge name or a huge surprise but I was also just excited to be able to spend the weekend with some friends in the beautiful weather. When the lineup was finally uploaded onto the app that we had all been constantly refreshing just hoping for an update, you could hear the disappointment. There were no huge surprises and the optimism that had been felt while waiting in line for the shuttle turned into silence as we loaded on. Although other people didn’t seem too stoked, there was one bad on the schedule that had me absolutely giddy. The final band to play this indie-rock centric festival was Ho99o9 and they are a band that I just can’t get enough of. People around me may have been disappointed but I was bright eyed and bushy tailed.
The beauty of the grounds of this festival just can’t be put into words. The Eaux Claires festival is held right by the river sandwiched between beautiful lush wooded areas. One of the most striking things about the setting is the fact that you are able to wander around and find random stages and art installations throughout the grounds. Although I’m definitely not an outdoorsy person, being able to wander into the woods and listen to the sounds of various stunning musicians was a treat and experience I will never forget. Was I super stoked about getting eaten alive by bugs? Most certainly not but it definitely added a little something to the experience of a festival in the woods. When I wasn’t acting all outdoorsy by wandering through the woods, I found myself in the lush grass in a break in the trees. With the trees on three sides of us and the river on the last side, the beauty was truly indescribable and, again, something I will never forget.
One of my favorite acts from Friday was Julien Baker. Although I found myself trying to elude the sun by standing a good distance away from the stage in the solace of the shade, Julien’s voice seemed to be the perfect voice for the beautiful setting of this festival. His singer-songwriter songs echoed through the field with a sense of power while keeping a very soft vibe about it. Although not over the top when it came to the energy level, there was something truly captivating about watching her play through a lengthy set while switching between the keys, guitar, and a couple of other instruments. After Julien’s set, it was time for a set that was just called “Friends” on the circular stage that was smack dab in the middle of the field. You could feel the excitement as speculations started flowing through the crowd. Was this when we were going to see a surprise? Unfortunately, no surprise came but I was super impressed by Francis & The Lights’ way of getting the crowd excited and through the afternoon lull with ease. With a tease of a Kanye West track (it seems like every year there’s a rumor that Kanye will show up since he has worked with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver– and the mastermind behind this fest), Francis & The Lights may have been some people’s least favorite of the day (just due to the tease) but I loved every moment of his short set.
Phil Cook was another standout performance for me. Playing on the giant mainstage, Phil’s indie-folk rock sound was beautiful. Being a local boy to the Eau Claire area, it was clear that the audience was there to support one of their many hometown heroes and, although the “Friends” set had been a bit of a letdown, the excitement was back up as many audience members sang along to Phil Cook’s music. All in all, Friday was a bit disappointing but not bad. Although there weren’t any huge names that I was dying to see, it was a fun day spent soaking up the sun in the beauty that is Eau Claire, WI.
I could feel my mood shift when I was driving into town on Saturday (I ended up heading back home Friday night to sleep in my own bed). I was more excited and wasn’t going to let the line-up get me down. I also knew that a Ho99o9 set was in my future so nobody could get me down. I seemed to be one of the few ones that felt this way. As we all loaded onto the shuttle, there was just this tired feeling in the air. People were annoyed, hot, exhausted and it just didn’t seem fun anymore and I could feel myself becoming a bit pessimistic because of the vibe on the bus but that changed as soon as I got off the bus and found myself in the beautiful area of the festival again.
The highlights on Saturday definitely outnumbered the ones on Friday. Chicago based rapper Noname had the crowd going with her genuine and powerful set performed on a smaller side stage. Although I feel like she belonged on the giant behemoth that was the mainstage, being able to see her in a smaller area gave it a very intimate vibe. It was obvious that she was a much anticipated act by how full the area was and that made me super happy. Although Eaux Claires is primarily an indie/folk rock festival, other genres were well represented and well attended. Pussy Riot was another favorite of mine. The Russian feminist protest punk rock band had the entire crowd going at the mainstage within their first song. With their signature skimasks on, Pussy Riot powered through a truly amazing set while dancing the entire time. Definitely one of the odd-balls on the line-up, Pussy Riot seemed to be the one band of the weekend that everyone was left discussing.
There was a sense of beauty that came over the crowd as The National played through a lengthy set at the beautiful round stage towards the end of the night. Clearly the crowd favorite, The National had to do very little to captivate the crowd. As the sun went down, the bright stage lights were turned up. With the whizzing lights and the signature indie-rock sound from The National, their set was one of the more beautiful moments of the weekend. Fan of this band or not, there’s no denying everything that they (like Justin Vernon) have done for this modest town of Eau Claire. They’ve truly put the town on the map and they definitely got the respect they deserved. Closing out Saturday night was the one and only Ho99o9. With their noise punk sound and truly intense and chaotic live show, they were just what I needed to wash out any boredom and bad vibes I had about the weekend.
This weekend wasn’t perfect and if you Google Eaux Claires 2018, I’m sure you will find less than positive reviews and tweets about the weekend. That being said, there’s no denying that what this festival does is beautiful. Not just when it comes to the view and atmosphere but also the diversity in music and the random collaborations that you can only see there. Sometimes, when live gives lemons, you just have to make lemonade. There was a lot of lemonade making this weekend but if you were able to just go with the flow and enjoy the people around you, it ended up being a pretty amazing weekend.