Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires music festival was truly about the music. Because no two artists played the same area simultaneously, everyone’s sound enjoyed the air waves for all to hear. Eau Claire encompasses farm country and an old industrial town since-turned into main streets catering to university students with creative cafes and eclectic home goods 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.
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, for some 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 to be served up as fried and melty finger food. It is toothsome.
After about an hour and a half’s drive from the airport to Eau Claire, WI we arrived a little after noon when the festival kicked off. 22,000 people received their wrist bands and artist guest past stickers to reach the stages. Heat sweltered as everyone gathered round on grass with beverages and much needed water bottles to listen to The Staves. The British sister trio are 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 hitting the northern Midwest that Friday in July.
The handy app for the festival made by Aloompa easily allowed us to track the performances and so onward we went to dance with the Blind Boys of Alabama. A group of actually blind men, advanced in years and in gold vests with white blouses, belted gospel-inspired tunes moving the entire crowd off their feet.
Blind Boys of Alabama and the No BS! Brass Band
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 cool breezes 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 – his wife. We stomped our feet to the drum beats, and swayed to the sounds, the thump of the stage vivid, with views onto both the immense crowd which filled this central Wisconsin grassland and the quiet and calm behind the stages.
The crowd for The Tallest Man on Earth
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 were there for the music. The atmosphere was calm. The artists were all immensely talented. There were no ambulances for an overly MDMA’d contingency or hierarchies of V.I.P.’s. People were polite and joyous. Someone commented that only at a festival in the Midwest, are people even 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 – likely from the bar. Two thirds fruit cup, 1/3 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 grew obsessed with iced lattes and a touch of mocha made by Off the Leaf – a Billings, Montana based espresso bar which has been festival hopping all year.
The musicians and guests’ tent was set up on a wooden floor with a white tent donning 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.
Headphone party outside the yMusic Tent
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 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 and yet listeners lost their water weight to the enchanting tunes that could make anyone dream away the heat of the netherworld for musical Shangri-La.
yMusic Performing with The Staves
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.
yMusic Performing with Bon Iver’s Sean Carey
After symphonic delights in the steam yurt, we enjoyed the temperature drop into the evening once again.
One of my longtime favorites 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 lineup led up to Sufjan Stevens followed by Bon Iver to close the festival. 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 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 Sylan Esso and Elliott Moss.
With the moon out, everyone turned toward the other side of the field from Lambeaux – named after Green Bay packers field and former player Curly Lambeau – toward the Lake Eaux Lune stage where Justin Vernon greeted the 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 chords 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 and 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.”