The inaugural Eaux Claires festival happened this past weekend (July 17-18) in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Close to 22,000 people joined together along the banks of the Chippewa River to enjoy two days of music and art.
Curated by two big name musicians in the indie rock world, Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner, it had success written all over it when they first announced the festival back in February. But, with it being the first year, there were bound to be some hiccups. These were mostly logistical issues, like long lines at the entrance, merch tent, and the mass exodus Saturday night when the festival was over.
Those issues were mere, though, compared to the numerous successes seen elsewhere during the weekend. What set Eaux Claires apart from other music festivals is that it truly was a celebration of music.
Here are some things you missed at the festival:
The people: Being surrounded by people who love music as much as you do is a great feeling. Sounds cliché, but this was definitely felt there. This excitement for music and creativity made for a festival that was entirely for the music fan. These music lovers felt at home with each other and quickly became friends, gallivanting across the grounds to see bands.
With the 22,000 people roaming the grounds, Eaux Claires turned into a little community for a few days. We sweat under the beating sun, stood for hours in crowds, cried during sad songs, and danced during upbeat songs together. Again, sorry for the cliché, but music really does bring people together.
The art installations: Eaux Claires was not just a celebration of music, but also creativity and art. There were multiple art installations throughout the festival grounds. Many people took pictures as they were walking in the entrance of the festival as above them was a rainbow of yarn pieces hanging beneath the trees. Eric Rieger, better known as his street art name HOTTEA, was commissioned by the festival to create this installation.
Another popular art installation was Antic Studios’ “The Big Eaux,” which was basically the Hollywood Sign for the festival. Nestled right along the river path, it was a prime spot for many pictures to be taken with it. But at night, the sign had a video display projected onto each letter that changed periodically.
The artist collaborations/surprise sets: Another key to the feeling of community at the festival was collaboration amongst the people as well as the performers. Practically every single band and artist performance featured someone else in their performance, whether it was a group or a member from another band. The National, Friday’s headlining show at the Lake Eaux Lune stage, featured Justin Vernon and Sufjan Stevens. The two took their turns the next day inviting people to the stage during their headlining slots. Vernon had someone featured in almost every single song in his closing Saturday night set. The No BS! Brass Band joined many different acts throughout the weekend as well from Hiss Golden Messenger Friday afternoon to Sufjan Stevens Saturday night. The UW Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble made a special appearance on Saturday afternoon when they played with S. Carey during his set.
There were also spontaneous, surprise sets happening throughout the day. The festival’s app alerted people of these events so they would not miss anything. The sets were casual and usually happened in a random spot on the grounds.
Phox’s Film Premiere: Baraboo,Wisconsin native band Phox played the festival Saturday. Friday night, the band premiered its film created specially for the festival called “Amor Fati.” In Latin, the phrase can be loosely translated to “love of one’s fate.” The 45-minute film had two parts to it. One, documentary and two, an actual story with a plot. Clips from over the previous years and interviews with members culminated the documentary part of the film, as a story was told on how the band has progressed since its beginnings. Keeping with the theme of Phox’s quirkiness, the plot of a story alongside the documentary told of the band’s journey to the Eaux Claires festival to fill in for the fictitious band, Kevin & The Wuhrms. The band jokingly told the crowd on Saturday that a make up show for Kevin & The Wuhrms would happen in Eau Claire in the next couple months.
Sufjan Stevens’ set: Hearing a recording of one Sufjan Stevens’ albums is greatn and all, but his live performance is a captivating experience. Amidst his celestial melodies and falsettos, Stevens definitely won the weekend for most memorable and hilarious quotes when he mentioned to the crowd, “I don’t usually play these things, I don’t really like crowds and I’m terrified I’ll get Lyme disease or an STD or whatever.” Stevens got the crowd laughing after his slightly more upbeat “Casimir Pulaski Day,” when he apologized and said, “Even my happy, strummy songs are about death. Sorry!” He also compared Eaux Claires to a “48 hour episode of My Little Pony.”
Stevens’ set mostly featured songs off his new record, the somber Carrie & Lowell, with some older tunes sprinkled throughout. The No BS! Brass Band joined his band onstage for “Chicago” to close out the set. Although the songs he sang had much grim emotion, especially songs off of Carrie & Lowell, Stevens still managed to astound the crowd with his unique falsetto voice backed by his band.
Bon Iver’s Saturday night closing set: Everyone who came to Eaux Claires came for Bon Iver. And what a way to close out a festival than with the one who had the idea all along, Justin Vernon, serenading the crowd along the banks of the Chippewa.
Before taking the stage, festival narrator Michael Perry said a few words that sum the two-day event: “We’re pretty much an unbeautiful bunch, man. We are flat-footed clodhoppers who feel inside like maybe we could dance, and we really don’t know any other than to just get at it and have at it. And we know it wouldn’t happen without our neighbors, without those who raised us, with this Chippewa Valley, and without you. If you hold yourself still and silent now, you can feel that river behind you. Runnin’ through the night. Runnin’ 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 have music near a place where two rivers come together. A confluence. For what are we but a confluence – a confluence that lives and breathes, a confluence of dream and song, a confluence of 22,000 beating hearts. And so here we are, cradled by a river in a sanctuary of sound. Craving consecration. Exultation. On bended knee, seeking…benediction.”
And what a benediction it was. The stage went black and the crowd roared as the band opened up with “Heavenly Father” joined by The Staves, who played the previous day on the same stage. Along with The Staves, many others joined the stage with Vernon and his band like yMusic, No BS! Brass Band, Josh Scott, Colin Stetson, Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner. There were new faces next to Vernon for practically every song in the set, except the ones sacred to the band’s name: “Calgary” and “Holocene.”
Between songs, Vernon found it hard to wrap his head around what had happened the last two days and could not put it into words. Towards the end of the set, though, he found those words:
“I just think that if you don’t have friendship, you don’t have anything, and I know that might sound like a Hallmark card or something, but I keep asking myself lately, ‘Is there anything greater than us? Is there anything more powerful or greater than us?’ And I don’t think there is. I think it is just us and I think what we give each other and how we believe in each other, that’s how we can become greater. I saw that happening in full effect this weekend and I’m so humbled and happy to share with my friends from us to you, thank you very very much.”
Instead of normally leaving the stage before an encore per normal performance etiquette, Vernon decided he would stay onstage and continue to play, because, apparently, “usually we use that time to go to the bathroom and I’m good.” He proceeded to ask his band and question the crowd if it was unprofessional to do such a thing, as he made small talk with the crowd trying to tune his guitar quick before gracing everyone with two new songs and closing out the night with “Skinny Love” on his old, beat up guitar.
“This is Bon Iver,” Vernon said and left the stage. The 22,000 were hoping for more, perhaps another encore, but those four words echoed in everyone’s ears as they reluctantly left the grounds parting their separate ways.
Firsts are always great. Your first car. Your first bike. Your first kiss, you name it.
But this first was on a whole different level. It was something historic that has began something amazing right in Wisconsin’s backyard. And with that, the countdown for next year begins. Until then, Eaux Claires!