I’d have to say the past weekend at the Eaux Claires music festival in Eau Claire, WI was influential at best. Rivaling with the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, IL, Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner (of The National) co-curated the most tasteful celebration of music I’ve seen thus far. The fans were kind, the music was serene, and the wooded surroundings of Wisconsin were perfect. It was almost as if we were not at a festival but at an intimate concert in Justin Vernon’s own backyard.
There were no over the top celebrity inspired fashions, no obnoxious showcases of intoxication by the fans, just an overall appreciation towards the hardworking artists taking the stage. Although not all artists took the stage in complete confidence, each brilliantly professed their awe of the family they brought to their home territory of the mid-west.
The two-day camping festival was kicked off on Thursday evening by special performances at the main campsites stage. Appearances by Haley Bonar and female lead of Sylvan Esso graced the stage with local bluegrass groups to welcome in guests. The camp grounds were muddy, some sites even flooded, but the campers went on without a care in the world, appreciative of the excellence that was about to come.
Day one was a collection of folk and bluegrass, gracing each stage with an unrenowned presence. The Lone Bellow and Field Report shone through as a shining starts to the day while interacting with the crowd, keeping their positive energy up to kick start through the afternoon.
Of the other shining performances before the “headliners” hit the stage were The Staves, a sister trio from the UK. This talented trio took control of the crowd, wooing each and every one of us with the brooding tracks for their latest album If I Was, produced by none other than Justin Vernon himself. Vernon’s overall influence to the group’s sound could not fall unseen, and we were graced with their presence yet again on Saturday with a guest appearance during the Bon Iver set.
Keeping up the pace of the day was Minneapolis based, Doomtree, one of the only hip-hop groups amongst the weekend’s lineup. The 7-person collective raged across the stage. Each artist with their own individual spotlighted segment, while the remainder of the group echoed in the background. The set kept the all-ages crowd dancing and was definitely one of the best performances of the afternoon. Catching up with lead vocalist, Sims, we asked how their collective group differentiates themselves in the massive music scene. He said, “We do us, be natural, be authentic to ourselves, and tell our story honestly,” and looking back, that statement helped perfectly define the overarching theme of the festival.
Spoon continued on with a repeat performance from previous festivals of the season. Only difference was a guest dance spotlight by Har Mar Superstar of Minnesota.
The winning performance of day one was undoubtedly by The National. Off to a shaky start (presumably due to the inebriation of the lead vocalist), Matt Berninger slurs through the first few lines of “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and tells the band to stop. “We can’t fuck up the first song. Let’s start over,” he yells to the group, and the show continues. As the set progresses each and every song hits you with emotion. The heartfelt words streaming from Berninger’s mouth fade into the starry night and the crowd erupts with excitement. Special guests Sufjan Stevens, and Justin Vernon dance on and off the stage, with little introduction, but a very noticeable presence both physically and vocally. We end the night with Berninger running into the crowd, walking 100 feet in and floating his way back up to the stage to exit after The National’s 15-minute encore.
For the last few moments of Friday night, festivalgoers had two choices. Marijuana Deathsquads and Boys Noize or Frances and the Lights and the premiere of PHOX’s self produced film. Each entirely different, but both a strong representation of what the festival was, an eclectic collection of artists. Watching the PHOX film premiere the audience was introduced to the quirky Wisconsin band, understanding where they came from and how they’ve gotten to where they are today.
Starting out the sets for day two was Elliot Moss, one of the few non-mid western artists of the lineup. The New York native drew a significant crowd for the time slot and wasted no time in sharing his excitement and gratitude for being a part of such a historical moment of the festival.
Progressing into the afternoon we watched as Haley Bonar captivated the crowd with her happy-go-lucky mix of tracks. She as well voiced her opinion of the festival and stated, “it’s our turn to show the United States what the Mid-West is made of.”
Afterwards, PHOX took the afternoon by surprise with an emotional and heartwarming set. Almost a year prior to the Eaux Claires festival, PHOX had finished recording their debut self-titled album at April Base in Eau Claire, WI. Seeing the support of their family and fans before them flustered lead vocalist Monica Martin, in the most flattering of sorts. They continued on in their set, with silent whispers amongst the band mates. They never knew they would get this far, and gracefully thanked the crowd for all the support over the past couple of years.
Playing directly opposite of PHOX was Minneapolis native, Polica. Lead vocalist Channy Leaneagh killed the set in the excessive heat, although being visibly pregnant. It was impressive to say the least, and definitely a performance worth watching.
Following these remarkable performances was North Carolina duo, Sylvan Esso. The dance moves were weird, the sound was impeccable and again, the appreciation of such celebration of music was vocalized. This duo has been one of the most scheduled festival artists of the year, already playing at everything from Coachella to Bonnaroo, and still awaiting performances at 5 additional festivals before the end of 2015; they are about to see it all. And even with that said, it was made clear this festival was unlike any other.
As expected, Sufjan did not, and could not disappoint. He referenced the weekend as a “48 hour episode of My Little Pony” and carried through his set inserting small sarcastic anecdotes. His airy, calming voice hypnotized the crowd. Sending chills with his performances from his latest album Carrie and Lowell and throwbacks from 2005 hit record, Illinois.
As the night finished, Bon Iver closed out with the most stunning of performances, bringing yMusic and The Staves to the stage for some of the weekends’ best collaborations. Among the set, the band debuted two new untitled songs, both being a bit more upbeat and synthed than that of previous Bon Iver sounds, but also both being exactly was Bon Iver fans all over the world were craving. Bon Iver was back from hiatus, and we couldn’t be more excited for the new songs that are yet to come. Closing the festival, Vernon expressed his thanks to all the artists who attended and performed. His words were sincere and he proclaimed that the most important thing to have is friendship, as none of this would have been possible without the support and friendship of the people surrounding him.
Looking at the full picture, the Eaux Claires Festival was a weekend of collaboration. The No BS! Brass Band popped up in multiple sets throughout the weekend, regardless of genre and Justin Vernon himself dropped into multiple sets when least expected. It was truly more than a just collection of performances. In these woods of Wisconsin, we celebrated the talent, and extracted the true artistry behind the music itself. We look forward to watching this festival flourish in the upcoming years.