Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires music festival is truly about the music.
Eaux Claires music festival is truly about the music.Because no two artists played the same area simultaneously, everyone’s sound enjoyed the airwaves for all to hear. Eau Claire, Wisconsin encompasses farm country and an old industrial town since-turned into main streets catering to university students with creative cafes and eclectic shops. Eaux Claires—a play on the French aux and perhaps a nod to the French pronounced “good winter” (Bon Iver) – took place on two large fields surrounded by forest and an abutting river during summertime in the upper Midwest.
Andrew and I landed in Minneapolis late morning Friday to take a brief stop at the Smilin’ Moose for lunch, a Paul Bunyan-themed lodge equipped with red plaid flannel seat cushions, and of course, it was a lunch of fried cheese curd and a salad. Cheese curd is cheese at an early stage of the cheese making process where it’s highly salty and is a staple to Wisconsin cuisine served up as fried and melty finger food. It is toothsome but actually cold and unfried is my favorite way to enjoy it: think string cheese but even more flavorful.
The drive from MSP airport to Eau Claire is about an hour and a half by car. We arrive to the festival in the afternoon on its opening day. Some 22,000 people received their wristbands and we grabbed our artist guest past stickers to reach the stages. Heat sweltered as everyone gathered around on the grass with beverages and much-needed water bottles to listen to The Staves. This British sister trio is phenomenal. Their sound is a cool, folk-electro and they have the ability to harmonize angelic tones so perfectly that it can not go without being praised. Between songs, they reminded onlookers to hydrate in the exceptional humidity on this Friday in July.
The handy app for the festival made by Aloompa easily allowed us to track the performances and so onward we went dancing to the tunes of the Blind Boys of Alabama. A group of actually blind men, advanced in years donning gold vests and white blouses, belting gospel-inspired tunes moving the entire crowd off their feet.
The intense heat of the late afternoon didn’t stop anyone from swaying and cheering on for the soulful group. The set concluded with No BS! Brass Band joining them on stage in a full horn ensemble.
The sunlight began to lower and a cool breeze finally rolled in. Our dear friend and brilliant trumpet player (and master of a number of horned instruments) from yMusic joined the stage with The Tallest Man on Earth as we excitedly watched from the sidelines with my oldest, longest-time friend–said trumpet player’s wife. We stomped our feet to the drum beat and swayed to the sounds, the thump of the stage vivid with views onto both the immense crowd which filled this Wisconsin grassland and the notable calm backstage.
I do not have many festivals to compare Eaux Claires to – only first-hand accounts of the tech-going community at SXSW and a festival headlined by The Black Keys on Randall’s Island. Musicians and attendees alike in Eau Claire, WI are here for the music. The atmosphere was unflustered and cool. The artists, all immensely talented. There were no ambulances for an overly MDMA’d contingency or hierarchies of V.I.P.’s. Rather, attendees were polite and joyous. Someone commented that only at a festival in the Midwest are people holding the port-a-potty door for you.
The second day of the festival we started the morning with breakfast at Northwoods Brewpub. With 27 beers on tap, homemade cranberry wild rice bread, and lefse – this spot was a true Norwegian winner. As someone who likes the more-than-occasional fruit and/or vegetable, it’s often an adventure in the middle coast to see what might come around. I requested an off-the-menu side of fruit which came with the fresh strawberries, sliced oranges, and maraschino cherries–I expect from the bar: two-thirds fruit cup, one-third Old Fashioned—hey, it’s an adventure.
two-thirds fruit cup, one-third Old Fashioned—hey, it’s an adventure.
We returned to the Eaux Claires grounds for day two, this time slightly more seasoned on our whereabouts and on the joys of the musicians’ and guests tent where I fell fondly for iced lattes and a touch of mocha made by Off the Leaf, now owned by Mazevo Coffee, a Billings, Montana-based espresso bar which had been festival hopping all year.
The musicians and guests’ tent was set up on a wooden floor platform under a white tent parading variations of pastel American flags and filled with mid-century designed couches from Minneapolis-based shop Concrete Pig, as well as some taxidermy pieces from Eau Claire’s Antique Emporium. The look and feel was fresh, welcoming and nonchalantly chic.
Outside a teepee of sorts, crowds lined up as far as you could see into the woods for the yMusic headphone experience. In a screened-in box inside a tent or teepee the genius ensemble—they really are musical wizards—set up to play with three guest vocal acts in heat that can only be compared to a meditation yurt somewhere in the southwest too mythical to exist
heat that can only be compared to a meditation yurt somewhere in the southwest too mythical to existand yet listeners lost their water weight to the enchanting tunes that could make anyone dream away the hot spell of the netherworld for musical Shangri-La.
Accompanying vocals by The Staves, Sean Carey, and The Tallest Man on Earth had crowds entranced with their headphones, including admiring musicians, some of whom were even moved to tears.
After symphonic delights in the steam yurt, we enjoyed the temperature drop as the evening came once again.
One of my longtime favorite musicians and Minnesota native, Poliça performed several months pregnant on the Lambeaux stage. Her airy voice floats and undulates as would another instrument on stage. She has two drum sets in the background which help build that fetching dance beat.
Saturday’s line-up concluded with Sufjan Stevens and ultimately, the festival closed with the last set by Bon Iver. Sufjan’s rocking hymns drew a devoted crowd singing along to likes of “Come On Feel the Illinoise.” Guest brass and horn players joined the stage off and on as Sufjan led us into the night. At the conclusion of his set, the audience chanted his name for what might have been several minutes.
To prepare for Eaux Claires adventures we had compiled a Spotify playlist aptly title Minnesota Wisconsin and while I didn’t get to a number of artists I would have been thrilled to see live, I definitely recommend checking out the likes of Sylvan Esso and Elliott Moss.
With the moon out, everyone moved away from the Lambeaux stage where things wrapped—named after Green Bay Packers founder and former player, Curly Lambeau—and towards the Lake Eaux Lune stage where Justin Vernon greeted crowds with Bon Iver. More than 35 musical guests joined on stage at one point or another. Michael Perry, the festival’s creative director welcomed the attentive 22,000 listeners. He said it’s important to play by water. Alongside the Chippewa River, he spoke of absolution and baptism and how music next to water is spiritual. It’s soulful.
Drum beats, guitar strings and the alluring vocal cords of Justin Vernon filled the trees. In the refrain of The Wolves (Act I & II), he sang “What Might’ve Been Lost” and people closed their eyes, swaying their bodies and bobbing their chins in time.
Justin told the crowd, “It’s good to be humbled by things. It’s good to be inspired by things.”