justin vernon

The Hottest New Music Festival: Eaux Claires
July 23, 2015 9:00 pm

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.

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The Lone Bellow @ Eaux Claires

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.

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The Staves at Eaux Claires

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.

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Doomtree at Eaux Claires

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.

 

Rounding out the rest of the day were performances by the major music players, Spoon and The National.

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.

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Spoon with Har Mar at Eaux Claires

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.

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The National at Eaux Claires

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.”

Other outstanding performances of the afternoon were by S. Carey (supporting vocalist of Bon Iver) and Aero Flynn with a special appearance by Justin Vernon.

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Tallest Man on Earth at Eaux Claires

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.

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Tallest Man on Earth at Eaux Claires

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.

The last couple hours of day two was what we had had come to Wisconsin for; the headlining sets from Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver, who had come off from a 3-year hiatus of touring.

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.

The National at Eaux Claires

The National at Eaux Claires

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.

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Art Installation at Eaux Claires

 

Lia Ices – Finding the Gem
June 10, 2015 3:21 pm

I don’t remember exactly how or when I came across Lia Ices’ song Daphne, but I haven’t forgotten it since.

The second song off her 2011 album Grown Unknown features a surprising and enjoyable blend of instruments and styles. It starts with a string arrangement that somehow reminds me of Tan Dun’s soundtrack to the 2002 martial arts film Hero, and follows this up with a singular acoustic guitar accompanying a light angelic voice, sending shivers down my spine with its nimble switches between chest voice and falsetto.

Around the 2 minute mark, the song descends into something more ambient. Lyrics disappear, vocals are looped and layered, and out of the mix we hear a new, more familiar voice. With intense delight I realize the backing vocals are performed by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon; not a bad pick for a duet partner. The song takes yet another unexpected turn with the inclusion of a slow drum beat and some flashes of an electric guitar. When the ambient voices are once again replaced with lyrics, the song hardly resembles how it sounded at the start. In short, the song is layered and surprising; immediately compelling me to run off to hear the rest of the album. The other songs on the album, however, left a different impression.

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Though Lia Ices’ collaboration with Justin Vernon back in 2011 did attract attention, what really put her on the radar was her song Love Is Won after it was used in the second season of HBO’s hit series Girls. Love Is Won is more characteristic of the album Grown Unknown. It is generally more minimal in tone, less volatile, and the lingering atmosphere hinges mostly on how Lia’s voice is left to reverberate in a minimalist and empty landscape. Though her singing voice is undeniably beautiful, the song doesn’t display the same range and control as Daphne. Love Is Won and most of the other songs on Grown Unknown feel less adventurous, and ultimately, they failed to grab me emotionally. That being said, the album definitely isn’t without merit. There is a unique and slightly eerie quality to it, and the arrangement of different instruments still create some versatility in tone throughout. The album is a pleasant listen, but it didn’t quite lived up to my expectations.

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September 2014 saw the release of Lia’s 3rd studio album, Ices. This was an exciting prospect. What kind of development would it demonstrate? Could it live up to the potential I had heard back in 2011? The overall sound in Ices certainly is different. The tracks are more electronic, and often make use of abnormal sound effects and alterations of Lia’s voice. What has remained is the signature minimal and empty feel to the songs. Even with her new electronic touches, I felt Lia’s songs left a lot of space for her voice to echo around in. Sadly, I couldn’t help but feel emotionally removed from the songs once again. If anything, Lia Ices had moved further away from the sound I was hoping she would deliver.

However, after listening more closely another time after, something changed. When the second song Thousand Eyes came on, I found myself bobbing my head along to it. The songs started to resonate with me as it gained familiarity, and I started relishing in the subtle melodies and arrangements of the songs that hadn’t been audible to me at first. Lia has cited various inspirations for the album, from Pakistani pop to dub, and it is clear that the atmosphere she created was not an accident. Credit must be given to Lia for keeping her songs subtle and her melodies unusual, such as the high melody in the chorus of Higher, or in the strange warping of her voice in Electric Arc.

Lia Ices’ development from Grown Unknown to Ices makes it clear that her musical ambitions are different from what I was hoping for. Perhaps I am just too much of a Bon Iver fan, and should stop demanding a similar sound from everyone who comes close to it. Nevertheless, Daphne’s blend between Justin Vernon’s style with that of Lia Ices is still fantastic to hear, and I wouldn’t mind witnessing another collaboration some time in the future. (Hint!)

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THE STAVES PLAY ROUGH TRADE
May 15, 2015 3:02 pm

After stumbling across The Staves at an acoustic session at Rough Trade East in London two years ago, I was thrilled to hear that they were making their way to Rough Trade right here in New York. Since their debut album “Dead & Born & Grown” released in 2012, they’ve shown great potential touring worldwide with big artists like The Civil Wars and Bon Iver. These three sisters know how to harmonize while their comforting voices put you in a dream-like state.

Emily, Jessica, and Camilla grew up listening to The Beatles, jamming together for years. “We’ve always sung together since we were kids and it was just for fun really. Then we realized that we had something special. Everyone was telling us to do a gig and so it took us a while. It was about 10 years ago when we did our first gig at home in Watford.”

Their newly released album “If I Was” shows progression, and has proven that they consist of many intricate layers. “I feel like we somewhat progressed a little bit in terms of being more direct in this album. We were able to be a bit more up and honest, and it lent itself to stronger arrangements with Justin and the guys we recorded the album with. We were able to try out new sounds and textures that we haven’t used before.”

With many new fans anticipating their harmonic voices for the first time, they strutted on stage, Brooklyn Lagers in hand. As soon as they start singing, their voices send you to a state of euphoria which makes it hard to keep your eyes off of them. It’s astonishing how their rhythm allows you to tap into nostalgia, putting you in a sentimental mood, reminding you of how it felt to just lay out on the grass in the sun.

“We toured with Bon Iver so we spent a while on the road with those guys getting to know Justin and the band. We’ve come up and sung a few times during their show and jammed backstage, so there was a really good musical connection and we’re huge fans of Bon Iver. The guys were really supportive of us and they would watch our set every night. It was just a really nice vibe. Justin invited us out to his studio and he just said ‘If you have any time off between touring, just come out. And if you don’t know what you want to do, something cool will happen because it always does.’ ”

“I think the main inspiration was firstly the people who were there and the dynamics between everyone. But I think being very isolated and forced to switch off from everything in the outside world gives you focus. It creates such a special vibe when you’re making an album. And I think for us, that was the main thing that characterized it. Being in the show and being kind of up against the elements create quite a folk sort of feeling.”

The Staves are busy girls who have been on the road for long periods of time, but they’re adventurous and love to emerge in new experiences. “We all love traveling. Seeing new places and seeing new people. And mostly being able to take songs to so many people across the world. When you stop and think about it, it’s kind of an insane thing and we’re lucky to be able to do it. You’re not in one place long enough to feel like you’re at home. There’s a magic to it that’s almost hard to explain. It’s a bit like a drug.”

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The U.S. seemed to have left a good impression on The Staves, since Jessica says that “people in the US in general are open and friendly, and very welcoming.” When they visit New York City,  they can’t help but to chow down on some pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Deli in the Lower East Side. “It’s a huge tourist spot, but I’m a tourist so I don’t care!”