To say we are in the golden age of musical festivals might be a bit of an understatement. ‘Tis the season for massive festivals, the Coachellas and Lollapaloozas of the world. These festivals bring in tens of thousands of people over three or sometimes even four days. Tickets prices rival more than half of many concert-goers rent. These massive festivals boast huge names in music (like a certain rumored new mother of twins) and ginormous corporate sponsorships from Fortune 500 companies like Budweiser, Toyota, Uber and more. Sure -these festivals have their time and place, no doubt. But situated deep in the woods of north-eastern Wisconsin, outside of the sparkling town of Eaux Claire sits the antithesis to the massive, corporate-sponsored festivals of the world – Eaux Claires festival.
Eaux Claires festival is the brainchild of Eau Claire’s king – Justin Vernon, aka frontman of Bon Iver. Vernon and the Eaux Claire festival are undoubtedly a big source of pride for many folks from Eau Claire. Vernon and this festival have put what would otherwise be a rather sleepy college town on the national map. I spent my Eaux Claire weekend with a Cumberland, Wisconsin native (a town even smaller than Eau Claire) and many other locals. There seem to be two types of people in Eau Claire this time of year – those who love Justin Vernon and those who might find him airing on the side of pretentious. Regardless of where you fall on the Justin Vernon-likability scale, you have to appreciate the sheer magnitude of this festival he puts on. Vernon and company brought names such as Chance the Rapper, Wilco and Paul Simon to the literal backwoods of Wisconsin for two days of collaborative music and experiential art.
After parking in town, taking a bus to the outskirts of Eau Claire, before being dropped off in a field for a hike down the festival grounds, we arrived in a massive green field, surrounded by pine trees and the Chippewa River. On the festival grounds were multiple stages, food trucks from surrounding areas, beer tents, art walks, performance art/dance pieces, among the normal festival sites like merch tent and endless rows of port-o-pottys. But again, what I was most amazed by during my two days at Eaux Claires was the size of this festival and the location, and the people who flocked to it from all over the country. Sure there was a cheesy Fireball tent giving out free samples and a Toppers Pizza stand, but the most part, the festival felt free of “big business” sponsorship. This festival, per Vernon’s vision, really does seem to strive to be a place of inclusivity and colloboration. At brunch on Sunday I was chatting with a friend of a friend who was working the festival who told us that Vernon basically gave his artists free reign to perform what they want, when they want, how they want (while still being mindful of scheduling and logistics of course). Jenny Lewis was one pop-up performance not on the lineup.
Aside from buzzy names like Sylvan Esso, Danny Brown and Perfume Genius – the Eaux Claire 2017 lineup featured a slew of lesser known names and side projects – like Tweedy, side project of Wilco frontman, Jeff Tweedy and Big Red Machine, collaborative project of Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner of The National. The festival also featured art walks through the woods, pop up performance art and other treats that you won’t see anywhere else besides Eaux Claires. Though the festival had moments that seemed like something out of Portlandia, like the feather version of word magnets. Yes as in feathers with words on them that could be arranged to make poetry along a fence. Or the mini-house where you could sit uncomfortably around a small table while a man read you poetry. There were no shortage of off-the-wall moments at Eaux Claire. But again, this festival truly felt like the antithesis to so much of what is happening in the music festival industry right now. Vernon and the other creators behind this festival truly strived to create a place to gather inspiration, create, colloboarte, and enjoy one-of-a-kind artistic experiences. And that is just what the two days in the woods of Wisconsin was – an experience like no other.
Jeff Tweedy of Wilco side project. All I could think of was his cameo on Portlandia. Played on stage with his son – Spencer on drum. The perfect soundtrack for the dads & arty bros of Eaux Claires – unabashed, feel good rock and roll. Pairs perfectly with a $7 beer.
Bon Iver Presents John Prine and The American Songbook
Singer/songwriter John Prine backed by Justin Vernon. Billed as Vernon’s tribute to John Prine, what Vernon called “the greatest teacher I’ve ever had.” Also the set where Vernon expressed his hatred of balloons. “These balloons are actually kind of pissing me off.” The crowd got the message and nixed the balloons. Also the set where it started to rain and turned some of the field into massive mud pits. What’s a festival without a little mud and some John Prine tributes. Guests included Jenny Lewis, Spankrock, Mike Lewis and Jeremy Ylvisaker.
A synth-pop dream. Sylvan Esso is North Carolina based duo – one half Amelia Meath (Mountain Man) and Nick Sanborn (MegafNick Sanborn (Megafaun, Made of Oak)aun, Made of Oak). Buzziest band of the weekend. Most people I talked to were “most excited for Sylvan Esso.” Meath’s Mountain Man played a set earlier in the day. Sylvan Esso was the perfect warm up to Chance the Rapper and watching the sunset over the Chippewa River.
Chance The Rapper (with Francis & The Lights)
Chance at his finest. “This festival isn’t like any other,” he said. He was right. Pretty sure the only person who could get white-boy Justin Vernon to dance is Chance the Rapper. Chance and Francis and The Lights did their latest “May I Have This Dance.” Francis and The Lights aka Phil Collins meets Coolio. Set included classics such as Sunday Candy and new hits like I’m The One. Despite the Kayne montage, three Kanye songs back to back and all of the prayers we could muster – no, Kanye did not show up.
Paul Simon with yMusic
The pairing of the legendary songwriter with a classical sextet – with quite a few modern twists – brought a reinterpretation of songs we have heard many times. Drawing the biggest crowd of the festival, it was fascinating to see the impact of his music some of which written before many of the audience’s parents were born on the crowd.
“Is this Prince’s band?” a woman asked me in line for the bathroom. “The Revolution you mean?” I replied. “Yeah! The Revolution,” she said. “No this is Perfume Genius.” Props to Perfume Genius aka Mike Hadreas if he sounded so good a middle age thought he was a part of Prince’s band. Flawless vocals. A contagious energy and freshness. Peter Pan-esque look and magicalness. Perfume Genius might have stolen the weekend for me as most memorable set. And from the massive crowd I don’t think I was alone in that sentiment. He played Slip Away and we all lost our minds.
The whitest crowd I’ve ever seen at a rap show. Didn’t stop Danny Brown from putting on what might have been the best set of the weekend (or tied for first with Perfume Genius). Despite ominous rain clouds and dark clouds, which eventually turned into massive downpour, day two – Danny Brown’s set was 100% a knockout. Had a soaking wet crowd jumping along to song after song. Set included Smokin and Drinkin, Break It [Go], 25 Bucks and of course Really Doe.
All the sets on Saturday got bumped up about an hour due to severe weather. Wilco made the most despite having one of the most difficult set slots of all time – following Paul Simon. With lightning swirling around the field, Wilco played through their set like the kings of music they are. Set included Ashes of American Flags, Art of Almost and basically every other massive hit they’ve ever had.
Worm Art & Other Happenings